When I was a student at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s, I was witness to many political demonstrations, including a series in the fall of 1964 called the “Free Speech Movement.” These demonstrations by students and nonstudents were fomented by politically radical part-time students, who promoted a lie that the university’s administration was working to curtail the exercise of free speech at Cal. Many on-campus “rallies” were organized during the fall of 1964 to promote this lie and to paint the university as a political ogre that needed to be overthrown — or, in the words of one organizer, by having students throw themselves “upon the gears and wheels” of the university.
That fall’s series of demonstrations culminated in December 1964, when about 800 students and nonstudents occupied the university’s administration building, Sproul Hall, for an all-night “sit-in”, to protest what the movement’s leaders felt were inadequate concessions given to the movement by university administration. During the early hours of the following morning, those 800 young people were arrested, and most were eventually tried and convicted of minor offenses.
This past year, as I first watched President Donald Trump spread the “Big Lie” that his loss in the 2020 election was somehow “rigged,” and that the election was “stolen” from him, and as I later watched in horror as Trump urged his minions to attack our nation’s Capital Building, and as I thereafter listened as he repeatedly insisted that he won the election, and still later, referred to those who had attacked the U.S. Capitol as “martyrs,” I felt I was witnessing a kind of reenactment of Cal-Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement of 1964.
There were significant similarities and differences between the Free Speech Movement of 1964 and Trump’s attempted coup of 2021. Both were based on a “Big Lie,” which was then promoted by rallies and defended by organizers and sycophants, and finally acted upon by an attack upon a significant building representing the “oppressor.” This was then followed by hallowed reference to those participating in the “attack” as “martyrs.”
There were also differences between the two events, and these were significant: In 1964, the occupation of Sproul Hall was a peaceful affair, conducted by ultra-liberal, mild-mannered college-aged men and women, whereas in 2021, the attack on our nation’s Capitol was a violent riot, conducted by Trump’s angry minions, who were primarily ultra-conservative, middle-aged white men.
The memory of both these two events will probably occupy different niches in our national consciousness. Today, Cal-Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, despite its minor faults and fantasies, has been co-opted into a memorial to free expression, and is now remembered by Cal-Berkeley as an honored part of the 1960s, together with the civil rights movement and anti-war demonstrations. As for Donald Trump and the 600 traitors who participated in the abortive Jan. 6 coup attempt, I suspect they will all have a place in our national memory — alongside the memories of Benedict Arnold, John Wilkes Booth, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and Lee Harvey Oswald.
— Stephan Paliwoda
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