Hal Draper


Berkeley: The New Student Revolt


12. Second Sit-in and the Greeks

A student named Jamie Burton pushed his way into the hubbub around the car. “I’ve been upstairs talking to Dean Williams ... As long as there is trouble down here, we can’t talk in good faith,” he expostulated.

Mario Savio replied, “Here’s a compromise for the dean: release the guy, don’t bother the people on the tables, and we’ll quietly disperse till the end of negotiations.”

After an interchange, Burton shrilled in indignant exasperation: “You’re a bunch of fools. Look, you’re asking too much!”

This student was the very first of a long line of personages of all degrees of eminence who were going to say the same thing. In this case, the immediate response to Burton’s agonized cry was a mass chant: “Let him go! Let him go! ...”

Savio started to speak to the crowd, now quickly swelling by hundreds as the noon hour struck and classrooms poured out. The better to be seen, he hoisted himself on top of the car, taking his shoes off; the policemen made no objection. From this position, he suggested a sit-in at Sproul Hall.

The president of the ASUC, Charles Powell, newly arrived, asked for the “floor” (i.e. the car top), took off his shoes, and climbed up. “If you let me speak for you, I’ll ask the deans that this boy here be allowed to go free ...” Students roared back, “What about the other eight?” Powell replied, “This one is the immediate problem; all right?” There were shouts of “No.” Weinberg leaned out of the car window and cried “I’m not the immediate problem; we’re all together.” Powell tacked: “I’ll ask at the same time about the other eight. Meanwhile I ask you that you give the [ASUC] Senate a week’s time ...” (There was that note again; Go home: let us leaders settle it for you ...)

Savio announced that he would go immediately with Powell to see the deans, and introduced me as the next speaker. I had arrived some minutes after 12, just before Powell spoke, and had barely learned what had happened. There were perhaps a couple of hundred actually sitting down, but by this time the crowd seemed to extend as far as the eye could see in every direction around the car, a few thousand in number. On one side, the broad steps of Sproul Hall acted as a convenient grandstand for a thousand or so, and Savio and Powell had instinctively faced in this direction.

It was a tense situation, but what was more vivid at the time was a peculiar fact: this was my first speech in stockinged feet. Or from the top of a police car. There was no loudspeaker, but the immense crowd was amazingly quiet and orderly, except for weak heckling that soon died away. By the time I had spoken for fifteen minutes about the basic issues in “mounting social and political action” that had led to the suspensions and this protest, my voice was breaking.

A succession of speakers followed, for hours, many of them club representatives who related their attempts at negotiation with the administration.

After Savio returned and reported on his fruitless conversation with the administration – who were standing pat on the formula “Not negotiable!” – sentiment turned toward the sit-in proposal that had been thrown out earlier. Toward 3 o’clock, about 200 students went in, leaving enough sitters behind to keep the car immobilized.

Meanwhile, some faculty members had been trying to mediate the dispute, even though administration spokesmen kept telling them as well as the students that the issues were “not negotiable.” (The tale about seeking “reasonable discussion” had not yet been invented.)

Several professors undertook to convince the students to give up the Sproul sit-in as an earnest of good will, to make it easier for them to mediate with Kerr. Under this pressure, most of the sit-inners left the building temporarily as a unilateral concession. But Kerr could not be contacted, even by the faculty members.

When the guards started locking the doors of the building about 6:30, the students rushed back in, and there was a short scuffle with the police. By about 8, almost all pulled out again but they quickly found that this brought no change of attitude on the part of the administration (except, perhaps, to convince it that the students could be bullied by a hard line).

Faculty members were taken aback by the realization that Kerr and Strong were following a course of tough intransigence. A student proposal that the police-car blockade would be ended if the administration turned the eight suspensions into citations before the Faculty Committee on Student Conduct (as the Heyman Committee later decided should have been done anyway) evoked no interest from the authorities. The vigil around the police car went on in the darkness; the speeches went on, more desultory; the roof of the car became one large dent, and eventually speakers stopped taking off their shoes. The prospect seemed a quiet night, when, around 11 in the evening, the plaza was invaded by a phalanx of fraternity boys who had been mobilized out of the Greek-letter houses.

Estimates of the “Greek” contingent run from 100 to 200 (I think it was nearer 100), but this was more than enough if the aim was to touch off a riot in order to involve the police. Arriving from the Bancroft side, the “Greeks” made for the main body of the sitters, but the intervening standees linked arms, swayed a bit, and held. Late as it was, there were still thousands in the plaza, and what was visible at this point was that the mass were decisively with the demonstrators even though not sitting down themselves.

Their first rush turned back, the frat boys began to express their opinions by hurling lighted cigarettes and eggs at the sitters, an amusement which they continued sporadically for the next couple of hours. Their main body then took up a station on the Sproul steps “grandstand” and tried to drown out speakers by systematic noise-making – the noises being demands for observance of law and order. When the demonstrators asked them to listen to and reply to the “free speech” case against the regulations, they raucously chanted, “We Want Our Own Police Car!”

Finally, one of the invaders did mount the police car and speak, making a respectable defense of Law and Order as an absolute, only to be shouted down by his own “Greek chorus” almost as rudely as were the demonstrators. Meanwhile the latter, tightly repressing any tendency to reply in kind to the provocations, were successfully frustrating the invaders’ intentions. An uglier note began to creep into the “Greek” insults.

By this time, however, a sort of rescue mission had arrived. An ASUC vice-president took the rostrum with a direct appeal to the frat boys to leave, in the name of the law and order they were invoking. A dean did likewise, and even this symbol of Law and Order was jeered, as was also the information that the police themselves (Law and Order incarnate) would prefer that they go home.

It was not until Father James Fisher of Newman House made a solemn appeal to them that the mood changed. When the immediate hush was broken by a raucous jeer from one of the Greeks, the crowd grasped the situation as if of one mind. The thousands of demonstrators maintained an absolute pin-drop silence without a word of instruction, and the now isolated shouts by a few frat yell-leaders began to make even their own troops squirm. It was not long before the whole platoon slunk away.

The official report later made by Chancellor Strong described these fraternity hooligans as “student counter-action in maintaining law and order on the campus.”

The student blockaders settled down. It was a mild night.


Last updated on 27.8.2006