Many of the young people reading this will probably be aware of the student protests that have been happening on campuses particularly across the United States. They will also probably be aware of the more infamous examples of these protests turning violent, most notably seen in the UC Berkley Protests of self-proclaimed conservative “free speech activist” and “professional provocateur”, Milo Yiannopolous.
What many of you may not be aware of, are the student protests that occurred on many of these very same campuses in the 1960s, not too long after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
The 1960s marked the rise of counter-culture predominantly among left-wing students, with anti-war, anti-racism and feminism being among the foremost positions protested for. On first impressions, there are obvious parallels to draw between these protests and today’s. I mean, we’re talking same age-group, same-campuses, same political leaning, and (if we trust the word of the protesters), many of the same political positions.
Then vs Now
Although there are some similarities, the general consensus is that the social division was far greater in the 60s than it is today. This is reflected in an article published last year by the Washington Post, that highlights some of the responses to a question on Reddit, asking redditors who lived through the 60s to compare those protests to today’s. One of the main trends in the responses that the author identifies, was just how open and mainstream racism was in the 60s. It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t until 1964 that the Civil Rights Act was passed, dismantling the legal segregation of blacks and whites in schools. This is an important point to recognise. That is, that today’s racial and sex issues really pale in comparison to what was experienced in the 60s and prior. To suggest otherwise, would be to dismiss the positive impact that these protests and legislation had on American society, and the rest of the world.
But there are some further differences that need to be highlighted. I mentioned earlier the recent protests on UC Berkley Campus. However, the campus’s most famous protest still to this day, was the 60s Freedom of Speech Movement, led by Mario Savio.
Savio became somewhat of an activist icon when he was arrested and sentenced to 120 days in jail for protesting the university’s ban on political activity on campus. Savio was one of 800 students that were arrested for protesting with many being beaten and assaulted by university police. It was during this protest, that Savio, a passionate rhetoric, delivered his most famous speech on “The Operation of the Machine”.
In the end, Savio and his kin won out as the university lifted its ban on political activity on its campus.
What Would Mario Think?
The Berkley protest of Milo Yiannopolous earlier this year prompted, Robert Cohn, the author of Mario Savio’s biography to write a piece for ‘The Nation’, addressing the question of what Savio would have thought of all this controversy. Despite Savio’s and Milo’s vast political differences, in no uncertain terms Cohn made it clear that “Mario Savio supported the right of speakers from all political perspectives to speak on campus”. Rather than ban them, he would prefer to debate them.
And this is the crux of the difference between the “new left” of university students in the 60s versus those of today.
“In the 60s, activists like Savio fought for an open marketplace of ideas, where every student should have a voice and a platform to be heard. In 2017, students are using this voice to protest for the dismantlement of this very ideal” – Me