Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Freedom's Orator

Freedom's Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s (2009) is the title of a book by New York University professor Richard Cohen (b. 1955). I have not read Cohen’s large tome (more than 540 pp.), but I am interested in its subject.
Mario Savio (1942-96), was the brilliant leader of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement, the largest and most disruptive student rebellion in American history. He risked his life to register black voters in Mississippi in the Freedom Summer of 1964 and did more than anyone to bring daring forms of non-violent protest from the civil rights movement to the struggle for free speech and academic freedom on American campuses.
Savio is most famous for his passionate speeches, especially his “put your bodies upon the gears” address given in front of Sproul Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, on December 2, 1964. That day after giving his speech in front of 4,000 people, he and 800 others were arrested.
In his 12/2/64 speech, Savio said, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine [of corporate society] becomes so odious . . . that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.
On 12/2/97, less than 13 months after Savio’s death, the steps in front of Sproul Hall were named the Mario Savio Steps. A Memorial Lecture Fund was also set up to honor Savio after his death. The first lecture was given by Howard Zinn in 1997, and other speakers include Cornel West (2001), Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (2008), and Elizabeth Warren (2010).
Robert Reich, 11/15/11
This year the Mario Savio lecture was given by Robert Reich, the Berkeley public policy professor who was Secretary of Labor (1993-97) under President Clinton. Reich (b. 1946) gave the lecture entitled “Class Warfare in America,” which can be heard at this link.
Reich, declaring that “the days of apathy are over,” linked the activities and interests of Savio in the 1960s to the Occupy Wall Street movement going on now. He praised the Occupy Cal protesters for their “moral outrage,” and said democracy depends upon “the ability of people to join together and make their voices heard.”
Not long before the 11/15/11 assembly on and around the Mario Savio Steps, Rachel Maddow had an 18-minute segment on her program comparing the OWS movement to the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s. She included clips of Savio’s speech as well as an interview with Reich. If you haven’t seen that segment, it is well worth watching (available at various websites including here).
Right-wing radio hosts and even potential Republican presidential candidates continue to badmouth the OWS movement. A Fox News host recently referred to the OWS protesters as “domestic terrorists.”
Peaceful protests and “speaking the truth to power,” though, are terrifying only to the powerful and those who seek to maintain the status quo for their own benefit. Just as the country needed to hear the message of “freedom’s orator” in the 1960s it needs now to listen attentively to the pleas of the protesters in the OWS movement.


  1. The first response to today's posting is from local Thinking Friend Tom Lankford, who wrote (and I post this with his permission):

    "The Occupy Wall Street crowd is focused on the wrong thing. Who would want a share of a shrinking pie: Their focus should be on politicians to change the corporate tax code so it incents companies to build in the U.S. and hire Americans.

    "We also need to return to sound principles, like requiring that people be able to afford a house before buying one; Clinton and Bush and career politicians of both parties led us away from those principles in the name of re-election.

    "I hope you're ready for a depression. We should probably occupy the scriptures a little more because it going to be a rough desert journey of learning the hard way all over again."

  2. Leroy, thanks so much for the link to Rachel's piece on 11/15/11.

    Regarding focusing on the wrong thing and getting ready for a (long) depression, I believe the "Limits to Growth" folks of the 1970's warned us about this, but maybe for the wrong reasons. It has turned out that we haven't run out of oil or gas yet, but with Climate Change menacing and the "Arab Spring" and the Fukushima crisis and a breakdown of the "Social Contract" with Wall Street shenanigans and OWS, we have a lot of things to focus on at the same time.

    My current coping strategy is to focus on community building and resiliency building. If we can just all get along while we adapt to this brave new world, that will be an evolutionary miracle. We are all in this together, all 100% of us.

    Voices like Mario Savio which may be shrill and sound divisive actually extend the conversation and remind the elites that no one can be left out. If a "solution" doesn't work for everyone, it is a problem, not a solution.

    Example: if bringing back jobs to the USA appears to be a solution for us, will that help or hurt other countries?

    This from the Guardian (

    "The number of young people not in education, employment or training has risen to a record high of 1.16m, official figures show.

    "Almost one in five 16- to 24-year-olds in England were "Neet" between July and September this year, according to statistics published by the Department for Education. The figure has risen by 137,000 compared with the same period last year.

    "The figures also show that just over 21% of 18- to 24-year-olds are not in education, work or training.

    "Official figures published last week show there were 1.02 million unemployed 16- to 24-year-olds in the UK between July and September this year, also a record."

  3. Phil, thanks much for your significant comments. I was not familiar with the NEET term, but since reading your comments I have found that it is now used in Japan as well as in the U.K.

    The increase of the number of NEETs is certainly a huge societal problem.

  4. This graphic illustration is a less than serious musing about the possiblity of finding common ground between OWS and the Tea Party. Perhaps if such common ground does exist, it is possible for the 99% to also agree with it.

  5. I was in the 9th grade in 1964, and reading about Mario Savio reminds me of all those years of trying to figure out what that first bunch of Baby Boomers (and those just before) were doing. Even in Presidents, we jumped from 40s Clinton and Bush to 60s Obama. Boomers from the 50s are sort of a lost generation. Here I am, just now getting up to speed on Mario Savio by listening to Rachel Maddow!

    It is tricky to see at once both the excesses and the necessity in the "sex, drugs and rock-and-roll" of the 60s, just as it is in seeing both sides of OWS is today. However, the war in Vietnam helped drive me out of architecture and into philosophy in college, so I will give it a try.

    The great institutions of society almost always have powerful arguments in their favor, otherwise it is unlikely they would have become great institutions. For all that, they frequently overreach and stagnate, opening themselves up for powerful challenges. These challenges sometimes come from very right-brained non-linear sources in society. For that reason, they can look very obnoxious and even disgusting from the outside. However, that is just a superficial characteristic, even if it dominates some of those who live it. Sex, drugs and rock-and-roll took down a number of people in the 60s, but that is only part of the story. Inside that veneer was a powerful force for justice, authenticity, and even joy. All the mayors lining up their police forces against OWS are really missing the big picture, and courting disaster in the process.

    OWS is not the same as the 60s, even though it has much in common. For one thing, it is much more focused on poverty, and the issues around it, and less on the war, although Iraq and Afghanistan have no doubt played a part. It is interesting to see how it parallels similar movements around the world, such as the Arab Spring. Politicians would do well to study it, rather than either praising or damning it. As Darth Vader once observed, "The Force is strong in this one!"