Steven E.F. Brown
November 8, 2011
San Francisco Business Times

The Occupy Wall Street movement is not part of a class war, said former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who speaks next week on the subject of “class warfare” at the University of California, Berkeley.

Reich will be giving the 15th annual Mario Savio Memorial Lecture on Nov. 15 in Pauley Ballroom in the university’s student union. Tickets — the event is free — will be available that day at 6:30 p.m., 90 minutes before the speech.

The lecture honors the memory of Mario Savio, famous spokesman for U.C. Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement in 1964.

Reich, who worked in the administrations of Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, was labor secretary from 1993 to 1997 under President Bill Clinton. He’s a professor at Cal’s Goldman School of Public Policy and he used to teach at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.

Not a class war, but already a success

Despite the popular division protesters make between “the 99 percent” of ordinary folks and “the 1 percent” super rich, Reich, who says he may mention the Occupy protests in his talk, told the Business Times “I don’t think it’s a class war, nor should it be seen that way.”

When asked to explain, Reich, with the keen capitalist sense of how sales work, replied (no doubt with a twinkle in his eye), “I’ll explain in my lecture!”

Nevertheless, Reich did admit that there are some class issues involved.

“The biggest thing movements like this do is change the national conversation,” he said. “To this extent, the Occupier movement is already a success. The issue of ever more concentrated wealth, income, and political power at the top is now an almost daily feature story.”

The timing of Reich’s talk is apt, given the recent drama, particularly in Oakland, of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which attracted plenty of salt-of-the-earth people, many of whom brought their young children, but which descended after darkness into demagoguery and destruction.

Is Savio’s machine still running?

Though critics have pointed to the lack of a unifying cause or goal among people camped in front of Oakland’s City Hall and in other cities, many of them would likely agree with Savio’s famous words about “the machine” of society from the Free Speech protests: “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.”

Though the university fought hard against the first Free Speech protests, arresting hundreds of people that year, everyone knows how the story turned out. Today, not only is there a Mario Savio Memorial Lecture, but there’s also a Free Speech Movement Café in Cal’s Moffitt Library, although most of the students there are tapping away on laptops doing their problem sets rather than fomenting unrest or getting ready to throw their bodies on the gears and levers of the machine.

Richard Walker, a Geography professor at Cal who has been studying the Occupy protests, said the Free Speech Movement isn’t a good comparison, however, as it was pretty tightly focused around a limited goal.

“The Occupy movement is trying to deal with the malaise in American society and dysfunction in American politics, a rather bigger agenda. It is, of necessity, made up of a more motley crew of unhappy people, from the foreclosed to the homeless to students with little future,” said Walker.

Anti-Apartheid angst

When I was an undergraduate in the early 1980s at Cal, the campus was also periodically convulsed by big protests and riots over U.S. companies investing in Apartheid South Africa. Looking back, those protests, which sometimes got so big that the university brought in helicopters and hundreds of police from surrounding cities, were a bit like the Occupy demonstrations today. They weren’t just about South Africa — they were against nuclear weapons, Ronald Reagan, U.S. involvement in Central America and lots of other things.

For many of the students involved then, occupying buildings and fighting cops and stripping your sleeves to show the scars later was just part of being a Berkeley student. That’s just what everyone was doing. Fighting the Man was part of the Berkeley experience.

I remember wondering then, as I crossed the idyllic U.C. Berkeley campus, stepping over smashed concrete trash containers and broken glass, how that destruction helped anyone in Soweto.

Today I wonder the same thing — how does painting “KILL COPS” on Oakland buildings help reduce Oakland’s unemployment rate?

Coming someday, an Occupy Oakland Café?

Though the Occupy protests have been knocked by critics for being a hodgepodge of groups with many complaints (e.g. folks protesting about circumcision in front of Wells Fargo offices in San Francisco, or people demanding the elimination of prisons at the Oakland camp), the movement Savio came to personify also benefits from that analytical backwards view of history, which has found patterns and principles in what started as chaos and a spontaneous mob protesting Jack Weinberg’s arrest in Sproul Plaza.

“Most movements begin this way,” said Reich. “And most become more organized eventually, or stop being movements and become cultural phenomena.”

Only time will tell whether today’s Occupy protests, which many participants do see as a battle front in a class war, will become more focused and result in significant changes, or whether they will trickle out. Will there someday be an “Occupy Oakland Café” at Broadway and Telegraph?

Maybe if it’s a co-op.


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