When activists approach an administrator to make a change on campus, they are often asked, “Who else is already doing this?” Yes, UC Berkeley, a school at the cutting edge of all things liberal, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement (as we are so frequently reminded by the administration) is concerned with not being first. Although we brand ourselves as an activist campus, we cannot be. An activist campus needs to be bold and ahead of its time, not trapped in the past rehashing the “victories” of the 1960s. Protests have long been the way for Americans to create change, and they play a unique role in American politics. Put simply, protests are useful because they are the only way to break through the path of most resistance, which is where breakthroughs matter most.
Activism often incites resistance from those in power who wish to maintain the status quo. The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley highlights one of the most pivotal moments in activism on campus. In the ‘60s, protests on UC Berkeley’s campus involved protecting and asserting political opinions on the Vietnam War and discriminatory laws in the United States. Activists pursued the path of most resistance until change took place. Today, they are used as one of UC Berkeley’s key marketing ploys. Socialist rhetoric from Mario Savio adorns the walls of the Free Speech Movement Café, the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union and school brochures.
The campus has co-opted this movement into its identity in order to take credit for speaking out and being the first to do so. However, the campus itself was the adversary students fought against at the time of these movements. This co-opting of political activism as part of the establishment is not unique to UC Berkeley. Martin Luther King Jr.’s image of an all-American hero retrospectively, in many ways, also serves the purpose of aligning the very machine that activists rage against with the activists of the past. This is made more clear in light of those radicals who have intentionally not been co-opted, such as Malcolm X. King’s legacy was invited into the establishment because it can alleviate the establishment of guilt. However, Malcolm X’s rhetoric never allowed the establishment to hide in the cracks of concessions because he was far more radical and unforgiving.
The concessions that activists and protesters make put up barriers for future progress because they allow the establishment to make lofty PR claims that lure the polis into a false sense of security. When activists make concessions for the sake of small incremental changes, it inadvertently results in a future change that makes matters more difficult. Hegemonic systems obscure history by claiming that political issues no longer exist. For example, it becomes hard to point to and fight the prison-industrial complex, which replaced Jim Crow, which replaced slavery, because the institutions can claim that the job is done.
It appears that this same maintenance of hegemonic norms can be seen at a local scale on the UC Berkeley campus within the basic needs community. To qualify for CalFresh, the government meal assistance program, you must be guaranteed less than half of your meals for the week. However, the basic meal plan that is included in campus housing costs includes exactly 12 meals. This, then, disqualifies food-insecure students from receiving the CalFresh groceries they would otherwise be entitled to and further entrenches the problem by covering it up.
Protests are essential because they show an unwillingness to back down or to make concessions behind closed doors, which are detrimental to future activism. They help spread awareness of issues that could otherwise be co-opted by the campus into its own branding later on. UC Berkeley boasts a large number of successful protests. Petitions helped increase awareness about the telescope being built on Mauna Kea. Protests drove the tech company with ties to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to cancel its information session. Through creating tangible and immediate change, from keeping Palantir off campus to raising awareness for the endangered indigenous land, protests fight back against the conventional norms of problem-solving.
“This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but with a whimper,” wrote T.S. Eliot. It’s our fight that will keep progress going. We cannot wait for others to carry the torch, and we cannot rely on our legacy of activism to carry us gently down the river. Instead, we shall tread upstream, directly against the current, along a path of most resistance toward the future we know is possible. We will tread toward equity, inclusivity and the unfulfilled dreams of those who preceded us because they were told to make concessions on their ideals.