Trying to delineate the happenings in Berkeley during the 1960s in under two hours is a daunting task and this film does so rather impressively. By interleaving documentary footage with interviews (some twenty years later) of several of the more aggressive activists as they look back and try to describe and interpret what happened makes for absorbing history. All the interviewees are thoughtful and well spoken and have stayed engaged over the years. It is curious that Mario Savio, the most well-known of the activists, was not interviewed.
Much credit for the quality of the final product must ultimately go to the editors. The events are logically developed and we can see how certain events lead, almost inevitably, to others.
Most people tend to identify the political activism in the 60s with the Vietnam protests, but this film broadens the perspective significantly. Things began rather innocently with a student protest at a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in San Francisco in 1960, the main issue being HUAC's indifference to civil liberties. The official reaction to the protest was extreme: fire hoses were turned on the protesters, people were dragged down the city hall stairs, and many arrests were made. The lesson is that extreme acts beget extreme reactions and the next day thousands of protesters showed up - they were labeled communist dupes. The direct result of these protests was pressure on the University to control the actions of its students and this resulted in the University's closing down a long-established area outside the campus gates where activists of all persuasions gathered daily. This led to the Free Speech Movement (FSM), which led to sit-ins and much controversy, to the point where the University was on the verge of being paralyzed. At one of the sit-ins a chancellor of the University announced that the students had grossly impaired the University from doing its job; this announcement was greeted with applause. This is an example of how this film shows the way one thing leads to another; it gets at root causes.
When the Berkeley Faculty voted seven-to-one in favor of the students in the FSM then, after several more iterations, victory was conceded to the students.
We see the seeds of the civil rights movement with documentary footage of Martin Luther King. One of King's clips is of a speech where he says, "When we look at modern man we have to face the fact that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of spirit which stands in glaring contrast to his scientific and technological abundance. We've learned to fly the allied birds, we've learned to swim the seas like fish, and yet we haven't learned to walk the earth as brothers and sisters." How could a young person not be moved by that? Or anyone, as far as that goes. Barack Obama may be an eloquent orator, but he does not compare to King.
One of the most interesting interviewees was John Searle, a philosophy professor at the University. He made some of the most insightful comments. While it appeared to many that the FSM was, as one of Searle's colleagues put it, a civil-rights panty raid, Searle commented that beneath it all was a real underlying seriousness and that there was a tremendous sense of community. However, Searle also noted that the movement attracted the greatest collection of kooks and nuts ever seen and he held media hype partly responsible for that.
Some of the successes led to excesses. An example was the People's Park episode. A group took over vacant land owned by the University and made improvements to it, and then claimed it for public use. When the University moved in and bulldozed the park and fenced it off, some were indignant. But any sane person would have known that this kind of land confiscation was not going to fly. But there was a crazy, unrealistic spirit of revolution abroad at the time. I remember talking with people at the time who, in all seriousness, prefaced comments with, "When the revolution comes."
There are some fun elements. When Allen Ginsberg was asked what he made of things he responded with a Buddhist chant, and upon entering the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco a tour bus driver announced that they were entering the only foreign city within the country.
In the latter part of the decade the focus turned to Vietnam, which is what the decade is most remember for. What happened in Berkeley did not stay in Berkeley, since massive protests occurred throughout the country and they played a part in bringing the war to an end. When President Johnson was thinking of escalating the war J. Edgar Hoover told him that he could not guarantee the security of the country if he did that. If there were a draft in the United States today, we would not be in Iraq.
As things were getting a little crazy toward the end of the decade, John Searle summed the counterculture up quite eloquently, "There was no vision, no articulate philosophy, no conception of social organization and social change, what there were were a series of emotional outbursts, a series of passions, a series of desperately important issues, but you can't beat something with nothing and if you're gonna fight that kind of long cultural battle you're really bound to lose if you don't have a coherent, articulate, well-worked notion of what you're trying to do, and that they did not have."
No matter how they played it out, you have to credit the young people of the sixties with being right on free speech, on civil rights, on the women's movement, and on Vietnam. Understanding what happened in the 60s is essential to understanding where we are in the United States today and this film contributes to that understanding.