In thinking about the midterm elections, it is hard to not reflect on the UC Berkeley community’s political activism in response to the current presidential administration, and how such moments compare to the rich history of free speech on campus.
The Free Speech Movement has been tied to UC Berkeley since the days of the Civil Rights Movement, anti-Vietnam War protests and the sexual revolution. Today, the legacy of the movement is still strong, but it has taken on new dimensions that have resulted in some unfortunate consequences. At the same time, however, the campus community is still working hard to address urgent issues of today. The Free Speech Movement is a huge part of UC Berkeley’s DNA, but it does not constitute the university’s entire identity.
The protests of today
The volatile political activity on campus is a clear indication that UC Berkeley is a hotbed for political protest. In recent years, the occurrence of anger-fueled protests has spiked in response to events such as visits from controversial speakers, including Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro. Since the November 2016 election of President Trump, more extreme protest groups have been galvanized. In this political moment, free speech has simultaneously been weaponized and protest culture has often been sensationalized.
It is true that much activism on campus is driven by students engaged in major issues or by campus employees who have every right to exercise their voice, as members of AFSCME Local 3299 did during their last strike. But the unchecked digital media of today spotlights the more extreme behavior of activist groups who are not a part of the school’s community, thus cultivating a distorted image of students’ real expressions of activism.
The composition of protest participants has also changed since the Free Speech Movement: A significant amount of protest activity today comes from outside parties. Much of the more extreme displays of protest come from groups who are not connected to the university at all.
UC Berkeley is caught in a crossfire where provocative spokespeople who are not affiliated with the school draw upon the legacy of free speech and use the campus as a stage for inflammatory rhetoric to stoke public reactions; just consider the fallout that followed Milo Yiannopoulos’ presence on campus. These types of provocateurs are not exercising free speech; they are intentionally using hate speech not to inspire change, but to incite outrage for the sake of fame and media attention. We are in the midst of an exploitation — free speech is being abused, and the consequence is a distorted understanding of UC Berkeley’s identity and the school’s many efforts to engage in activism.
Over the last two years, a kinetic bloom of activist movements — both structured and spontaneous — has unfurled on campus. With the provocative rhetoric that so often reverberates throughout Upper Sproul Plaza and ends up on the front page of the newspaper, it is easy to focus on this one aspect of UC Berkeley’s identity. Unfortunately, these hostile new dimensions of campus free speech seem to be distracting from the real work being done by students and faculty.
Activism beyond the scope of the Free Speech Movement
While the political parade marches on, many other organized efforts on campus have departed from traditional forms of protest in an effort to address urgent issues of today. While the campus’s culture of vibrant political activism has fallen under harsh scrutiny because of the recent circus of controversial affairs, other critical work on campus continues to flourish.
UC Berkeley is not just a place of waxing-poetic protests. It is a place of multidimensional activism. In addition to the legacy of the Free Speech Movement, which we proudly preserve, students and professors come together to tackle through research the major issues that face society. Across science, engineering and business, the students at UC Berkeley form a cohort of people with their eyes set on making a difference.
Furthermore, organized student groups work with the university, as opposed to protesting against it, in an effort to bring about change, thus precipitating necessary progress on campus. The Black Student Union, or BSU, for example, went beyond acts of protest by combining marches on campus with perseverance and advocating a clear agenda. BSU presented its objectives to then-chancellor Nicholas Dirks and accomplished the establishment of the Fannie Lou Hamer Resource Center. This type of activism is important to acknowledge alongside the forms of protest that UC Berkeley is often associated with.
A look at our current moment
Today, free speech still has a commanding presence on campus. But there is an ever-growing discrepancy between the stereotype that was created and then crystalized in the 1960s and the reality that exists today. Some liberals have romanticized the image of hippies adorned in flower crowns and flashing peace signs, while some conservatives have demonized UC Berkeley’s protesting ways.
But in reality, both of these groups have it wrong. They aren’t paying attention to the entire truth, or they are being distracted by an erroneous one. Today, many people only consider that out-of-date perception and neglect to consider the multitude of ways UC Berkeley students and campus community members really engage in activism. We are not the exact political animal of the 1960s –– we are an evolved form of that activist. The antiquated view of UC Berkeley as pure counterculture is simply not representative of the school today; nor is the recently developing perception of UC Berkeley as anti-free speech.
While we at UC Berkeley proudly carry a legacy of embracing counterculture and exercising free speech to galvanize movements, campus activity utilizes a variety of mediums to generate progress. Distorted representations that focus on the new hostile dimensions of protest activity, coupled with anachronistic stereotypes of 1960s free speech culture, are distracting from the activism happening at UC Berkeley today. It is this type of work that is principally responsible for much of the progress generated on campus and that continues to make UC Berkeley what is it today.