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Free Speech Movement: The Savio Salvo


Mario Savio fired the first free speech salvo straight over the heads of America from a verbal cannon on a Berkeley, California campus on December 2, 1964.

Youbetcha…that was the Savio salvo heard ’round the world, which landed Savio squarely in the center of the Free Speech Movement. That one particular speech galvanized a generation in much the same way as the howling Ginsberg or the road weary Kerouac did in the era of the Beat Generation, but few know about this prophetic proselytizer who charged onto the front lines of the battle for free speech with an arsenal of verbal grenades. Along with Mario in the trenches, though on different battlefronts facing off with the “enemy” were the likes of Lenny Bruce, who proclaimed to one and all that “to” is a preposition, and “come” is a verb.

Mario Savio hit the spotlight, center stage in an era where America found itself beginning to shed its conservative Fab Fifties paranoia of the Red Scare, and the Baby Boomers were coming of age. The old paranoias were being transferred from the parents’ fear of the “Reds,” to the children’s fear of their own Red, White and Blue. Bob Dylan was blowing folk music magic dust in the wind, and Lenny Bruce was a schtick-up artist playing bawdy rimshot tits-and-ass shows in burlesque houses from the Sunset Strip to North Beach in San Francisco. Mort Sahl was urbane, and fired with a single shot to hit his sociological target, while Lenny Bruce used a shotgun blast of profanity to test the limits of endurance…and in the end…Sahl was mortified!

Retro back step to 1958 when student activists organized SLATE, a campus political party, to promote the right of student groups to support off-campus issues. In the fall of 1964, student activists who had traveled with the Freedom Riders and worked to register African American voters in Mississippi in the Freedom Summer project set up information tables on campus and were soliciting donations for civil rights causes. According to existing rules on campus at the time, fundraising for political parties was limited exclusively to the Democratic and Republican school clubs. The yin and yang of the continuing failure of the American two-party system to function for the people, of the people and by the people of the land of the Red, White and Screwed. This was further proof of that ongoing malfunction.

There was also the residual air of Red Scare Big Brotherism, as a mandatory loyalty oath was required of the campus faculty, which had led to dismissals and ongoing controversy over academic freedom. (Loyalty to the government to me is treason; loyalty to the “people” is democracy!) In September of 1964, Dean Katherine Towle announced that existing university regulations prohibiting advocacy of political causes or candidates, outside political speakers, recruitment of members, and fundraising by student organizations at the intersection of Bancroft and Telegraph Avenues would be strictly enforced. This particular piece of real estate was until then thought to be city property, not campus property.


Berkeley & The Free Speech Movement

The Free Speech Movement (FSM) was a direct result of all these new restrictive, and somewhat fascist, impositions and exploded into a student protest which took place during the 1964–1965 on the Berkeley campus under an informal leadership of a body of activist students. In protests unprecedented at the time, students insisted that the university administration lift the ban of on campus political activities and acknowledge the students’ right to free speech and academic freedom. The runaway free speech train was on a non-stop collision course and there was no turning back at this juncture.


Stepping into the spotlight was “true believer” – Mario Savio.

Mario was the blue collar son of a Sicilian steel worker, born in New York in 1942. Within 22 years his voice would not only lead a generational movement, but his would be the voice that opened the floodgates on an entire body electric called “the Free Speech Movement,” letting loose the wild verbal mustangs as they broke out of the corral of formality in Berkeley in 1964. His podium could be everything from the steps of Sproul Hall on campus to the roof of a police car. It was an age ripe to rip from its face the phantoms mask that disguised the “odious operation of the machine!” He was raised a devout Catholic with all its cathedrals and holy catheters.

Mario was involved in the early Civil Rights movement and eventually ended up at Berkeley. Although his activism was activated in the Deep South during the era of the fight for Civil Rights, his super nova protest exploded on Berkeley’s campus in October 1964 when former student Jack Weinberg was manning a table for the Congress on Racial Equality, or CORE. The university cops put Weinberg in a cop car when someone from the surrounding crowd yelled out, “Sit down,” and Savio along with others began a 32 hour sit in–that’s when he hopped atop a cop car and worked the crowd into a frenzy with his speech. But it was December of that year that launched the first real Savio Salvo heard round the world.

That volley was the “Bodies upon the gears” speech, addressed to 4,000 assembled on campus, which led to the arrest of Mario and 800 others where Mario proclaimed:

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. 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. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

The Free Speech Movement was now in full-tilt boogie. Eventually in 1965 Mario quit the FSM as he was disappointed with the growing gap between the leadership of the FSM and the students themselves.


Summoning Savio: Hooverian Melodrama & the FBI

America, democracy, free speech for all, yeah Right, no Left.  Yeah, Left it’s a reality alright, for all except those who truly have a voice and can make a loud and clear impact and stir the emotions and jumpstart activism. This country does not mind one iota if you are a mental deficiency and can’t speak in whole sentences, like most newspaper readers and journalists, but…if you have a voice, a real voice that screams from deep within the well that is you, well, well, if that is you, the FBI is not far behind you waiting for you to bend over before they pounce and gang rape your rights. Forget about soap on a rope in the jailhouse shower, you’re fair game and tasty meat.

Savio was “summoned” to the FBI Berkeley office after he quit FSM in 1965. They claimed they had threatening letters that were directed to Mario, but in true Hooverian melodrama refused to speak while Mario’s attorney was present. Mario instead criticized the FBI for failure to make arrests and take action in the deep-fried South where human rights were being violated everyday. The meeting ended faster than early ejaculation.

Mario was a highly passionate and educated individual who held a variety of jobs, not all requiring the brain of a rocket scientist. Marriage was in the cards for Mario as well, in 1965 when he married a free speech movement activista and they both bid adieu to America.  Doffing their sombreros to the ghost of Woody Guthrie, off they went to Jolly Old England. Mario, it seems, had won a scholarship to Oxford. While in England, the Savios had a son, Stefan, but things were starting to fall apart for Mario as emotional problems began to surface from the bottom of his pysche’s ocean floor and exact a toll on him.

By 1966 the Savio’s en masse moved back to the Left Coast and the Peoples Republic of Berkeley. By 1968, Mario got all mainstream politically and decided to run for State Senator from Alameda County on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket, but he lost to one of those pesky wimpy liberal Democrats that always screw the skew for die hard activists by diluting the message and catering to the centrists. It’s the political equivalent of watering a guy’s drink down in a bar and charging him full price.

The Free Speech Movement had long-lasting effects, sort of a radical Left-Westie hangover after boys’ night out on the Berkeley campus, and left its indelible marks as a pivotal moment for the Civil Liberties movement in America. It was seen as the beginning of the student activism that existed on the campus in the 1960s, and continues to a much lesser degree today..much lesser today, non-existent! Everything that goes up, however, must come down, or, for every action, there is a reaction. The reaction this time was a substantial voter backlash against the players involved in the Free Speech Movement.

Ronald Reagan (yep, that one) won an unexpected victory in the fall of 1966 and was elected Governor. To the Left, that was akin to snapping a wet towel against some naked jock’s ass in the locker room. Ray-Guns first order of the day was to direct the UC Board of Regents to dismiss UC President Clark Kerr because of the perception that he had been too soft on the protesters. The FBI had kept a secret file on Kerr. Hell, they probably have one on you, too. If so, be proud! (Besides, I don’t trust many people who haven’t spent time in jail.)

In 1980, Mario Savio decided to return to the ivy-vined towers of tweed, wool and academia at the university at San Francisco State, and four years later he received a summa cum laude (Lawdy, Lawdy, Miss Clawdy!) degree in physics. He snagged his masters in 1989, and then moved to Sonoma County where he taught mathematics, philosophy and logic at Sonoma State University.

“Paranoia strikes deep,” as the song goes, and sometimes, or most times in this so-called democracy of ours it is a justifiable fear that creates a wall of resistance to this “land is not your land, this land is my land”America. The purple mountains’ majesty is stripped and found not to be so majestic at all but rather loathsome. In the case of Mario Savio, it was eventually revealed as the twentieth century was coming to a close that Savio had been trailed, tailed, spied and lied about by the FBI. This ghost shadowing began the moment he climbed on to the police car that harbored Jack Weinberg on that Berkeley campus in 1964. It was at this point that the wing-tipped depraved departmental mental minions of J. Edgar Hoover were salivating over Savio in an effort to bring in an orchestrated movement of anti-Savio salvation to the nation. If only Mario were homosexual, he would have been better off. Hoover would have overlooked his politics, in fact, would probably have invited him to bed in the Rotunda, or at least engaged in a rousing round of odious machine masturbation of Savio’s speeches.

Mario was followed for more than a decade because he had emerged as the nation’s most prominent student leader. There was no evidence that he was a threat or that he had any connection with the Communist Party, but the FBI decided he merited their attention because they thought he could inspire students to rebel. Dammit America, someone has to lead and this country hasn’t had any leadership from the White House in years, and yes, that includes the “mighty” Great White Hope, Barack Obama, who has decided to let Bill Clinton run the country in his absence.


A Legacy of Activism

Mario Savio was on an unauthorized list of people to be detained without judicial warrant in event of a national emergency. They designated him as a “Key Activist” whose political activities should be “disrupted” and “neutralized” under the Bureau’s illegal counterintelligence program. The investigation finally ended at the beginning of 1975, and at that point an investigation into the FBI’s abuse of power began. Savio’s ex-wife, Suzanne Goldberg, said that the “FBI’s investigation of her and Savio was a waste of money and an invasion of privacy.”

Mario’s time card was about to be punched. He had a history of a weak heart and after a life of high-octane visibility, it began to wear him down. He was admitted to the hospital in Sebastopol, California on November 2, 1996, where he slipped into a coma three days later, and died the following day on Nov. 6th, after being removed from life support.

The voice of a generation was silenced, and the odious machine still grinds away to this day, but not without some modification thanks to Mario Savio, Lenny Bruce and other advocates of Free Speech in America. Remember to celebrate true democracy. It’s all right, and legal to burn the American flag…and what better way to celebrate a legacy.

The Savio legacy lives on on the campus at Berkeley. The Sproul steps, which were the proletarian pulpit of student activism in the Sixties are referred to as the Mario Savio Steps, and grab a latte laddies and lassies, because The Free Speech Movement Cafe is open and the walls are covered with murals depicting the times, feeling and mood of the revolutionary Sixties and the Berkeley Campus, ground zero for Free Speech and the battleground where the first Savio salvo was fired in a free speech shot heard around the world. They also serve soup and sandwiches and most of the foods are organic, but what else would you expect?


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