Powerful Protests Counterbalance Powerful Positions: Student Demonstrations Are Tethered to a Rich Campus History

The freedom to speak, to stand up for what we believe in, is an integral part of UC Berkeley. This usually manifests itself in the form of protests, a unique and well-known aspect of our campus. And lately, news of them has been popping up everywhere. The 2016 presidential election affected the student body deeply, as it has been one of the most controversial and emotionally charged in our nation’s history. The results of the election were, of course, the highest point of emotional fever. And, to top it off, the recently proposed tuition hikes for the university and the sexual assault policies of universities across the country have left many students feeling powerless.


As young people, and mere individuals, the intensity of our feelings often feel worthless in the face of an overwhelming powerful figure. Without any social ranking of power, how can we achieve our goals? What we see as right? At UC Berkeley, the answer is often this: to speak out.

This culture of campus, encouraging the expression of young people in any realm, didn’t just appear out of thin air. Like all things, it is rooted in a rich history. Many of the loud and passionate voices we hear today, and have heard so frequently in these past couple months, parallel the voices of the 1960s Free Speech Movement, a defining period of our university’s history (and one of my favorite things to talk about as a tour guide).


Like today, the 1960s were also a time of fierce political and social expression and demand for progression. The Civil Rights movement motivated hundreds of UC Berkeley students and surrounding community members to demonstrate in favor of racial equality. Concurrently, the war was being fought in Vietnam, and students felt called to stand up for their beliefs. The edge of what we now know (and love) as Sproul Plaza was the site of some of these protests.


The Dean of Students, in response, prohibited student activity involving outside political affairs on university grounds. Students felt this defied their constitutional right to free speech. Instead of accepting these new policies, folding up their tables, and evicting the space they had so often used for passing out flyers and demonstration, students rallied together in defiance. Hundreds of students participated in days-long sit-ins and rallies, offering themselves up for suspension alongside fellow students in solidarity.

From this gargantuan movement rose several student leaders, including one of the best orators of our time, Mario Savio. One of his most speeches includes:

“There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

Savio not only himself believed in his power to create change as a mere student, but he fostered this passion and belief in others. Faced with such a united front of students, the Dean reversed the decision and allowed political speech on Sproul Plaza. And we have practiced that right ever since.

To us as students, protests aren’t meaningless or dramatic. They’re a way to put our views into the world in the hopes that it gives others the courage to join. This power unites us and inspires us to create real change. It is our way to contribute to what we see as the betterment of the school, to find power with our peers and within ourselves. Protests are rooted in a strong history that you can still feel in the buzz and vibration of our student body, over fifty years later

Author: Alice Kane

Hi-ya! I'm Alice, a third-year undergraduate student studying both English and Conservation and Resource Studies here at the University of California. I grew up in the bay area and always dreamed of coming Cal - and here I am! Studying two completely different fields of study can be challenging, but it's an unbelievably rewarding experience. I get to learn about the world from some of the most brilliant professors, from both a scientific and artistic perspective! In the times I'm not studying, you can find me writing, reading, and/or eating at the Free Speech Movement Cafe or on memorial glade, spending time with good friends, at a national park, or petting dogs on Sproul! Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you around campus sometime soon. Go Bears!