Magazine article Tikkun

Remembering Mario Savio

Magazine article Tikkun

Remembering Mario Savio

Article excerpt

Remembering Mario Savio

Although I was a member of the Executive Committee of the Free Speech Movement in 1964, I wasn't sure about going into Berkeley's Sproul Hall to risk arrest until Mario Savio gave his now-famous speech telling us that there comes a time when the ruling power becomes so oppressive that we have to throw ourselves on the gears and wheels of the machine. He exhorted us to take a risk and stand up for our beliefs, to give witness against oppression. Mario taught us that it was not enough to have moral consciousness in our heads and hearts and living-room conversations--we had to put our bodies on the line. He changed my life. And as the following selection of reminiscences from his FSM compatriots attests, Mario changed the lives of everyone else who was fortunate enough to know him.

--Michael Lerner

Mark Shechner was a graduate student in English at the University of California, Berkeley, in the fall of 1964. Currently he is professor of English at SUNY, Buffalo.

First we lost Jerry Garcia, and now Mario Savio is gone too, at the age of fifty-three, and I'm sitting here on the floor of my study, a graying man surrounded by boxes of yellowing Berkeley memorabilia, wondering what to think about all this. The first item to catch my eye is the Berkeley Daily Gazette of December 7, 1964, with its ninety-point banner in flaming red: "Rebels Yell `No' to UC Peace Plan," and its panoramic photo of some 18,000 members of the U.C. Berkeley community gathered at the Greek Theater to hear President Clark Kerr's offer of "peace." A measly offer it was, all law and order, no concessions. Buried in column three is the account of Mario Savio's mounting the podium to address the crowd and being wrestled to the ground by police. Here is a stack of old Daily Californians and there issues of the scurrilous Berkeley Barb, the anarchist tabloid with its apocalyptic politics, electroshock humor, and acid-trip artwork. And here is the photo book, The Trouble in Berkeley, with its totemic pictures of that insane fall semester when the world turned upside down: Mario in his sheepskin coat, looking younger than his twenty-one years, addressing the crowd in Sproul Plaza; Mario atop the trapped police car where Jack Weinberg, arrested for handing out political literature, sat on for thirty-six hours; folksinger Joan Baez priming the crowd with "We Shall Overcome"; columns of students streaming into that building on December 2 to place their bodies "upon the gears and upon the wheels" of the university, as Mario had exhorted them to do. Wasn't anyone going to class?

I was one of those who put his body upon the gears and the wheels of the University of California on December 2, 1964, following Mario Savio and Joan Baez into Sproul Hall in protest against the university's refusal to allow students to organize politically on university property. Many more entered than the 773 who were arrested, but some had exams to take or papers to hand in and left before the arrests. I'm not prepared to say that I'd have followed Mario anywhere, but I don't think that many of us would taken those weeks off from classes and risked blowing finals, grades, and even careers had he not been there to ignite the fire in us. Mario was the most charismatic public speaker I ever heard in person, and it was charisma based on the two things that could move a crowd like that in the 1960s: ethical energy and intelligence.

Mario was among the many young Americans who had left their homes and colleges to register voters in Mississippi the previous summer, when three of their number, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Mitchell Goodman, were murdered. They had learned to live with fear, and fear became the rock on which they founded their moral stamina, their tactical savvy, their commitment, and their analysis. They had seen first-hand how entrenched power perpetuates injustice and came home prepared to wage war against it.

That fall, the Republican Convention that nominated Barry Goldwater was held in San Francisco's Cow Palace. …

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