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The university commodified the Free Speech Movement

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OCTOBER 10, 2014

The struggle for free speech continues today. I am a graduate student at UC Berkeley and a member of the Cal Progressive Coalition, a group of student, worker and community voices who are organizing around the FSM anniversary to amplify our contemporary work towards a just university.

Our collaboration is exemplified by the successful direct action undertaken by members with CPC and Students for Engaged and Active Learning affiliation Oct. 1, steps away from Sproul Hall at the home of Capital Projects — the real estate arm of the university responsible for managing the commercial development of the historic Gill Tract, a community land initiative and site of the Occupy the Farm movement. As signs from the day illustrate, students are “silenced by capital projects” because of the ways Capital Projects and the university at large unilaterally privatizes public resources like this land for commercial — and not academic or community — development. Adding insult to injury, the lead tenant of the proposed development is Sprouts Farmers Market, a known union-busting, greenwashing, big-box grocery store.

Through the sit-in, members were able to win a meeting with Chancellor Dirks and several important documents about the development, both of which were promised in May and then denied. I am both excited by this action and sobered by the fact that this is what it took to get a meeting with administrators whose role is to serve students and affiliated community of a public university.

This action also highlighted the lack of transparency in the university’s financial decisions and how the administration does not fulfill its promises. The ever-present and voyeuristic police during Wednesday’s march and sit-in were a constant reminder of the tools the university uses to intimidate and silence students and the community, something many on campus have experienced, including Berkeley labor unions during their strikes.

Activism at UC Berkeley has not morphed into only volunteering and service learning, niche issues or international policy studies, as some coverage of the FSM indicates. UC Berkeley activism also questions the systems that produce inequity in the first place. Activism here is indeed pinning down and naming systematic injustices on and around our campus — like the oligarchy of the regents and relationships with corporate entities like British Petroleum, emblematic of privatization or the arming of campus police with increased tactical weaponry, representing militarization.

Service learning can be a beautiful thing, but one can engage in both service and protest at the same time, which is a value our group embodies. UC Berkeley is still unfortunately an institution that systematically marginalizes, whether through the history of the Gill Tract, tuition and fee hikes, intimidating workers or police violence.

I’d like to take a moment to again offer up two words: privatization and militarization. Through investigating the root causes of our struggles in CPC meetings, we have unpacked that at the center of many of our issues is the privatization and corporate takeover of our “public” university and the increasing extraction of wealth from students who are not given a voice in where our money is invested. Additionally, at every level of the system, the university is also militarizing in defense of these corporate interests and the status quo. UC President Napolitano is a figurehead who has deported millions of students, family members and community members in her role as the head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The increasing debt and threat of violence when engaging in protest that students live with are two sides of the same system of silencing that the Free Speech Movement resisted 50 years ago. We stand in solidarity with those veterans.

The reality is that the university has not so much “embraced” this movement but archived it, sanitized it and commodified it. If this sounds unfamiliar, I encourage readers to get to know this powerful history and reach out to those on campus who are living out the reality of being silenced and targeted.

Massive student activism and violence against student activism did not stop with the FSM but carried through the Third World Liberation Front and fight for ethnic studies and through the police brutality against fee hike protesters and Occupy encampments at UC Berkeley only a few years ago. Free speech is not an abstract value; it is tied to a struggle to improve material conditions and rendered meaningless if no one is listening and no one is held accountable.

Members of the Cal Progressive Coalition come from many perspectives, but our overarching goal as a coalition is not to merely counter the university’s FSM perspective. This would limit us to reactionary politics. Rather, we seek to use the FSM anniversary as an opportunity to amplify the struggles to directly change the material conditions of our constituents.

As a member of the coalition, I look forward to envisioning what our university can be with current and yet-to-be-embraced collaborators.

Contact Margaret Mary Downey at 


OCTOBER 10, 2014