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'Bodies upon the gears': The 50th anniversary of 417 words to inspire today's #Ferguson movement

Why student activist Mario Savio's short speech -- delivered 50 years ago today -- remains so powerful in 2014

When you think about the sheer volume of speeches that are delivered on any given day -- from state legislatures to Rotary Clubs to dingy school auditoriums -- the thing that really stands out is how few of them are worth remembering. That's not anyone's fault -- just a commentary on how rare are those moments when a passionate and articulate orator speaks truth and somehow capture the hopes and aspirations not just of the folks within the sound of his or her voice, but animates a movement, a generation, a society.

Early in my career as a journalist, in the 1980s, I spent considerable time covering two of America's most stirring public speakers -- the Rev. Jesse Jackson and then-New York Mario Cuomo, but in hindsight the poetry of their words was mostly lost in the political crosswinds. (Cuomo, for example, delivered the mesmerizing "shining city on a hill" speech in 1984,.and yet his great legacy as a governor was the tragic policy of mass incarceration.) But there are two American speakers whose words, at least for me, reverberate decades after they were delivered.

One, of course, was Dr. Martin Luther King -- there is not a day that goes by when do not worry that "the arc of the moral universe" is not bending toward justice quickly enough, when I remember that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," or I applaud the days that our fellow citizens are judged for the content of their character, and mourn the moments they are still judged by the color of their skin. The other, though, was a man that I'd guess most young Americans have never heard of. He was a young philosopher and dreamer, an accidental leader who somehow became the soul of a movement.

His name was Mario Savio.

And he left us with 417 words of remarkable sustained passion. They were uttered exactly 50 years ago today -- December 2, 1964, at the zenith of the protest known as the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, a demonstration that kicked off an era of youth activism that -- at least until now -- has been unrivaled in U.S. history.

The quick backstory is this: In the fall of 1964 -- in a time when both the maturation of the post-World War II Baby Boom and migration to the Sunbelt meant that the University of California's main campus in Berkeley was bursting at its seams -- students there were chafing at restrictions on campus activism that dated from the 1950s and the paranoid heyday of McCarthyism. In particular, students were banned from setting up tables and distributing political flyers at a main location that university administrators discovered was officially part of the Berkeley campus.

The battle over free speech was not an abstract philosophical one -- it was directly linked to the struggle to win voting rights for African-Americans in the Deep South. Several of the young activists at the heart of the Free Speech movement had just returned from 1964's Mississippi Freedom Summer, where they'd faced violence, intimidation and the brutal death of three colleagues while trying to register black voters. After that, a bunch of buttoned-down college administrators didn't frighten the protest leaders at all, and they won much of the student body to their cause.

Savio was one of the veterans of Freedom Summer. A 22-year-old graduate student in physics, the native New Yorker had hardly been raised as a revolutionary. Quite the opposite, he was a child of America's post-war affluence, raised as a devout Catholic. But the real world that Savio encountered -- as a missionary in Mexico, in the racist backwaters of Mississippi, and now on the Berkeley campus -- offended the Christian ideals he'd been raised on. He was radicalized. In October, when town police came onto campus to break up a protest and arrested fellow movement leader Jack Weinstein, thousands of students blocked the cop car from leaving, giving impassioned speeches from the roof of the cruiser.

Fifty years ago today, the university moved to suspend Savio and other leaders of the Free Speech Movement, and activists responded with a sit-in at the main administration building. Before they entered, Savio addressed the troops, and suddenly, in mid-speech, he erupted with a fury that seemed almost otherworldly:

Now, there are at least two ways in which sit-ins and civil disobedience and whatever -- least two major ways in which it can occur. One, when a law exists, is promulgated, which is totally unacceptable to people and they violate it again and again and again till it's rescinded, appealed. Alright, but there's another way. There's another way. Sometimes, the form of the law is such as to render impossible its effective violation -- as a method to have it repealed. Sometimes, the grievances of people are more -- extend more -- to more than just the law, extend to a whole mode of arbitrary power, a whole mode of arbitrary exercise of arbitrary power.

And that's what we have here. We have an autocracy which -- which runs this university. It's managed. We were told the following: If President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the Regents in his telephone conversation, why didn't he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received -- from a well-meaning liberal -- was the following: He said, "Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his Board of Directors?" That's the answer.

Well I ask you to consider -- if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the Board of Directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I tell you something -- the faculty are a bunch of employees and we're the raw material! But we're a bunch of raw materials that don't mean to be --  have any process upon us. Don't mean to be made into any product! Don't mean -- Don't mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We're human beings! 

And that -- that brings me to the second mode of civil disobedience. There's 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!!

Over the next few days, the protesters withstood mass arrests and everything else that the university threw at them, and they won. Over the next decade, the students used their hard-won freedoms to protest the war in Vietnam and other social injustices, and their spirit spread to other campuses and other communities. (if you want to know more, and you have Netflix, check out an outstanding documentary called Berkeley in the Sixties.) But that is hardly the end of the story. Now, to re-live Savio's 417-word outburst is to witness a manifesto for confronting the problems of today, 2014.

For those who are still grappling with why -- in a society torn apart by economic inequality and the lingering stain of discrimination -- it took the fatal shooting of an unremarkable 18-year-old, in a town called Ferguson that most people had never even heard of, to inspire a mass movement, Mario Savio's 50-year-old speech is suddenly like the Rosetta Stone. Think about it. The people -- and we all know them -- who are out there arguing that the killer of young Mike Brown, Ferguson ex-police officer Darren Wilson, was cleared by a just legal process are ignoring the way that District Attorney Robert McCulloch and the Missouri establishment manipulated the codified process of a grand jury to guarantee a grossly unjust result.

This, in other words, was EXACTLY the scenario that Savio was describing when he said "the grievances of people are more -- extend more -- to more than just the law, extend to a whole mode of arbitrary power, a whole mode of arbitrary exercise of arbitrary power." Today, in Missouri, that arbitrary power is being used to threaten and intimidate anyone who dissents. But now they are backed by an ad hoc army of high-tech military gear that makes the modest police car that was dispatched to the Berkeley campus in 1964 look like the Flintstonemobile.

Let's be honest. The sad truth is that while Mario Savio and his compatriots did heroic work to slow down and occasionally, yes, stop the operation of the machine in the 1960s and 1970s, over the last forty years the industrial designers have worked not to abandon the apparatus but to perfect it. And they've used the technology that was perfected ed just a few Joe Montana lobs away in Silicon Valley to make the machine even more odious. The 21st Century university -- with its close ties to big business and ideological donors, and its too-frequent intolerance of free speech -- makes the assembly-line campus of Savio's day look like an ancient saw mill. The gears of the machine are lubricated by a government that is every bit invasive as it was then, but which can now open your electronic mail in a matter of nanoseconds. The wheels of the machines roll beneath the armored personnel carriers doled out to local police departments like Halloween candy. And the exercise of arbitrary power cooked up a "war on drugs" to incarcerate epic numbers of young black men.

It's a modern America that Mario Savio did not live to see. Harassed and spied upon for years by the FBI and even the CIA long after he'd stepped away from day-to-day activism, Savio died of a heart attack in 1996. If he'd survived, I have to believe he'd be heartened by the surprising events of just the last few days. From Oakland to Boston to Washington, D.C., young protesters are literally throwing themselves upon the wheels of modern life, shutting down freeways to force motorists, the media and everyone else confront the reality of today's injustice. Savio's "second mode of civil disobedience" is going viral, with the "hands up, don't shoot" gesture rattling the playing fields of the NFL and the hallowed halls of Congress. Even the ever-grinding gears of runaway consumerism were slowed down for a time on Black Friday -- not just in search of justice for Michael Brown, but because of pent-up rage against "the machine."

On December 2, 2014, I am awestruck at the lasting power of just a few hundred words. It should be no surprise that the tragedy of a young Michael Brown, not just killed but abandoned face down on the Ferguson asphalt for four-and-a-half hours, stirred the same kind of passion for reform. Today's cry that "Black Lives Matter" is an echo of a young graduate student who saw his cohorts treated like pieces of meat, who was finally compelled to shout out: "We're human beings!"