|Journeying the Sixties: A Counterculture Tarot|
ACE OF WANDS
“We feel that we, as human beings first and students second, must take our stand on every vital issue which faces the nation, and in particular the vital issues of discrimination, of segregation, of poverty, of unemployment; the vital issue of people who aren’t getting the decent breaks that they as individuals deserve…”
--Activist Jack Weinberg as he was arrested while speaking at UC-Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, setting off the Free Speech Movement October 1, 1964.
Wands inflame inspiration, the inner fire of ordinary life. As the first card, the Ace is fire in its purest form, an immediate response to a stimulus. Energy erupts in a sudden realization of possibilities that leads quickly to action. There is no hesitation. That comes later. The Ace was in play during the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in 1964, the seminal campus uprising that challenged the authority of a school administration to limit political speech on campus and that spread direct action to colleges and universities across the country. The FSM paved the way for the Counterculture’s demonstrations and confrontations that over the next decade engaged tens of thousands of students in organized protests against repressive government authority, war, and racism.
The FSM’s first revolt was anything but organized. In true Ace of Wands fashion it struck seemingly out of nowhere. On a warm October morning a small confrontation at the University of California between a police officer and an activist quickly became a resistance involving thousands.
What happened at Berkeley began prosaically. As UC opened the 1964 academic year, the administration announced it would “strictly enforce” a campus ban on political advocacy and fundraising by student organizations. Student activists sought to overturn the ban and two weeks into the semester a former student, Jack Weinberg, purposely set up a table for CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality), a civil rights organization that sponsored Freedom Rides in the South to protest segregation. A campus police officer approached Weinberg and when he refused to leave, Weinberg was arrested and placed in a police car.
Within moments an inspired student shouted “Sit down!” A handful of others surrounded the police car, calling for more to join them. Quickly hundreds of students were sitting together. Within an hour some 3,000 filled a circle extending out from the car, attended by two now-flummoxed campus cops. A microphone was set on the car roof and FSM leader Mario Savio climbed up to address the crowd. “We were going to hold a rally,” Savio said. “We didn’t know how to get the people. But now we’ve got them, thanks to the University…” In a dialogue with the students, Savio (and other speakers) developed a plan to present to the university chancellor their demands for free speech.
For the next 36 hours Savio and FSM supporters marched back and forth between the police car and the administration building, seeking negotiations with UC Chancellor Edward Strong. Confrontation blended with comedy as demonstrators entered Sproul Hall and deans escaped like Max Sennett clowns out their first floor windows. A police officer tried to walk through the sitting crowd, but was tripped as he tried to push students aside. While on the ground his shoes were untied and removed. At three a.m. the next morning, activists scrambled to keep a critical mass of students around the car. All the time Weinberg sat inside, wondering if the roof would hold under the weight of another speaker.
At first Strong refused to negotiate. But the Ace of Wands had unleashed a perfect storm and after nearly two days of alarming (and amusing) national coverage, the Chancellor relented, foiled by a clever exercise of civil disobedience. Two months of futile talks ended in a December 3 sit-in at the administration building with the consequent arrest of nearly 800 students (the largest mass arrest of students in history). A month later the university tried to press charges against FSM leaders, sparking a strike that closed the university. Strong was replaced by another chancellor who relented and allowed student groups a “free discussion” area and the right to set up tables and solicit support. The Free Speech Movement’s quick victory helped shape the future of student activism. The civil rights strategy of non-violent resistance would now be applied to a wide spectrum of developing social and political conflicts. Wands win. But Wands would not win them all.