Rebels with a cause

Haleigh McGill

Haleigh McGill
Haleigh McGill

We have all heard the phrase “rebel without a cause,” and many of us immediately picture the James Dean stereotype: the troubled soul hidden underneath bad habits and a leather jacket. The far-reaching cultural acceptance of this image and its ties to the idea of rebellion lead many of us to label those who misbehave as the “rebels,” and so we start to form generally negative associations to the act of rebelling itself.

But there are those who embody the term “rebel” by acting out inappropriately, engaging in destructive behavior or simply wearing it as a fashion statement, and then there are those who are rebels because they stand up, they speak out and they push for a positive change.

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During the fall semester of 1964, students of the University of California at Berkeley sparked the Free Speech Movement that would inspire international headlines as well as inspire many other students to speak up and get involved. It began with the administrative oppression of student political groups and activities on the Berkeley campus, which, in the eyes of the oppressors, ideally would have resulted in the students taking down their tables, putting away their signs and boxing up their political opinions and ideas. I can imagine that it’s easy, for those in positions of authority, to say “that’s just the way things are,” or “that’s just the way we do things” when confronted with a student, an employee or a colleague who wants to do things differently. However, I think it is even easier for us, the bold and eager college students, to engage in purposeful rebellion when neither one of those two answers is enough.

Instead of backing down out of fear or respect, the students at Berkeley decided to rise up together. They set up tables for their political organizations in front of the administration building and led rallies and marches on campus. The students who were involved put themselves at great risk to back each other up. Bettina Aptheker was a student a Berkeley during the rebellion, and her personal statement is recorded within the Free Speech Movement Archives.

Students on the Berkeley campus protest during the Free Speech Movement. (Photo credit: Calisphere)
Students on the Berkeley campus protest during the Free Speech Movement. (Photo credit: Calisphere)

According to Aptheker, “Hundreds of [students] surrounded a police car on campus … and refused to allow the police to arrest Jack Weinberg, a graduate student in mathematics who was ‘manning’ a table for the Congress of Racial Equality on the campus’s central Sproul Hall Plaza. We held the car for 32 hours with Jack inside and 950 police massed just outside the campus’s main entrance waiting for orders to commence an assault to break us up.”

Robert Cohen, author of “The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s”, also has a statement recorded in the archives that sums up the ultimate consequences of the student rebellion against the school’s administration.

“When negotiations failed, mass protest erupted and a semester-long struggle for free speech ensued, which after a non-violent police car blockade, a march on the Regents meeting, a mass sit-in and mass arrest at the administration building and a student/TA strike, triumphed as Berkeley’s faculty in its Academic Senate voted by a 7-1 margin on December 8th, 1964 to back the Free Speech Movement’s demand to end all campus restrictions on the content of political speech.”

The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley is a perfect example of purposeful, impactful rebellion. Yes, the students misbehaved. They broke the rules, they acted out. But their rebellious ways inspired ground-breaking change and they liberated themselves from unfair administrative control. It’s all about intention, and their intentions were admirable. That was 50 years ago, but we have more in common with those students than we realize. College is the time to start figuring out exactly what you stand for, and what you are willing to take a stand against. One of the most important lessons that these collegiate glory days will teach you is how to be fearless in your own rebellion and to stand your ground, whether you are standing among hundreds or all on your own.

Collegian Columnist Haleigh McGill can be reached by email at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter at @HaleighMcGill