The year was 1964 in Berkeley, California. Sproul Hall was packed with student protesters as the Free Speech Movement raged on.
Thousands upon thousands of students would flock to the steps of Sproul Hall as they did every day. As students crossed the threshold of campus, they would be handed that day’s leaflet outlining current positions and ideas of students.
Rallies hosted speaker after speaker. Later, the executive and steering committees of the Free Speech Movement would debate until 1 a.m. before sending the next day’s leaflet to David Goines, the movement’s printer.
At the center of this was Mario Savio, a campus student who led the student protests and movement that culminated with campus students winning the right to political free speech. Savio passed away in 1996 and is survived by his wife and son, as well as the friends and students who have lived with his messages.
Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse, attended UC Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement and came to Berkeley from Santa Barbara on a whim. Waters claimed to be very naive and unaware of the full extent of the movement occurring on campus upon arriving. Still, the ideas and actions by students during the movement changed her life, she added.
Savio, according to Waters, was a dynamic speaker who was mesmerizing as he spoke, not just about the cause of the movement, but a way of life. She recalled being captivated by Savio and the messages he was sharing with students. Waters said Savio was speaking about ideas of taking care of the world and shared values of community and diversity.
“It felt like you were part of a lot of right-minded people,” Waters said. “I felt like Mario’s message was so positive. It was for free speech, it wasn’t against something; it was trying to really reach everybody.”
For Waters, Savio’s focus was on promoting a way of life that supported doing what one loves. According to her, Savio’s emphasis on education for learning’s sake diverted from much of the traditional “staying in your lane” focus of specific majors.
Savio’s ideas of pursuing education from a joy of learning ultimately led Waters to study abroad in France. She said she had never left the United States before and was inspired in part because she knew Savio was Sicilian.
“Mario really gave me the idea that we should do what we love,” Waters said. “His passion for his education was primary for him. He wanted to take the courses that inspired him and so I wanted to run a restaurant that inspired me.”
Waters remained friends with many of the people she met on campus during the movement, including Goines and film producer Tom Luddy. Waters remembered visiting Goines in the Santa Rita jail after he was arrested.
One of Waters’ favorite parts of the Free Speech Movement was the radical sense of connection and trust that students promoted, she said. The camaraderie of the movement with its emphasis on care for those involved, and the respect students had for each other, has had a lasting impact on her life, Waters added.
“We just all became friends and that was very visible and caring, and I’ve always loved the way the Free Speech Movement really influenced so many people who opened businesses, or wanted to live in Berkeley,” Waters said.
Waters was not the only person close to Goines or Savio whose college experience was shaped by the Free Speech Movement. For Tom Weller, a participant in the Free Speech Movement and Goines’ roommate and co-worker, the movement was all-encompassing. He became more involved after Goines was suspended for his work as the printer for the movement.
The Free Speech Movement was orchestrated on an unprecedented scale, Weller said. In many ways it was a distraction for Weller, who said he was not the most dedicated student and found his work as part of the movement more interesting. Weller added that his main motivation when attending college was avoiding the draft and soon after he became involved in the movement he dropped out, committing full time.
“It was the most intense, amazing thing imaginable,” Weller said. “If the racial and anti-war movements of the ’60s were our generation’s equivalent of World War II, then the Free Speech Movement was the Normandy invasion.”
The movement was enthralling, according to Weller, as he found everything surrounding the Free Speech Movement and counterculture fascinating. This was a rare moment in which the campus was more or less under student control, according to Weller.
In his own experience, Weller said one of the highlights of the movement was when he got arrested in Sproul Hall. It was a coordinated arrest, Weller explained, when hundreds of people were protesting with the intent of getting arrested.
“The main driver of it was the civil rights movement of course,” Weller said. “The civil rights movement was raging and there were demonstrations and sit-ins and nonviolent protests and people getting arrested and that was already in place. You can have folks going around and giving you lessons on nonviolent resistance because they were experts on it.”
Weller, whose closest friend in the movement was Goines, described his friend as a “loose cannon” who was very devoted to activism. According to Weller, Goines was arrested 14 times, and was very proud of it. Weller said that Goines stayed an activist for many years after the movement, following in the footsteps of other Free Speech Movement leaders, including Savio, who went back to school and later graduated with their degrees.
Beyond those involved during the Free Speech Movement, Savio is remembered by his son Daniel Savio. Daniel was born 16 years after the movement, but most of his parents’ friends were people they met during the movement.
Daniel said his activism now mainly comes through theater as he works with the SF Mime Troupe, which produces socialist plays and shows. But Daniel said he remembers much of his father’s original intentions around free speech and social ideals.
“There are plenty of people who abuse the concept of free speech to mean they can say whatever they want without consequences, and I don’t think that was ever what it was intended to mean,” Daniel said. “They just want to be able to crap on oppressed groups without getting any pushback, and they’re getting pushback, so that’s neither an expansion nor a retraction of free speech.”
Compared to the 1960s, Daniel said many of today’s issues are very similar, only differing in that current issues are a bit more specific. In many ways, Daniel said current activism is not very far from the 1960s.
Despite his father not being as involved in activism when Daniel was younger, Daniel said he remembers going to a protest with his family. It was a protest against the delivery of arms to Nicaragua and the injury of a protester, Daniel said. He was about 10 years old at the time, but he said he remembers feeling like they were doing the right thing by protesting.
“The main lesson is don’t give up,” Daniel said. “You can in fact have an effect but that takes organization, it takes work, it’s not a certain thing and it’s not necessarily going to have all of the effect that you want in the timeframe that they ought to happen. But that doesn’t mean it is not worth the effort and that you can have an effect.”