You are here

The FSM Café: History, Memory, and the Political Legacy of Coffee

In the fall of 1964, students at the University of California's flagship campus rose in protest and began what is now famously known as the Free Speech Movement (FSM).
Tomás Sandoval, Jr. and Jason Ferreira

Issue #49, April 2000

In the fall of 1964, students at the University of California's flagship campus rose in protest and began what is now famously known as the Free Speech Movement (FSM). Specifically, these Berkeley students protested in response to the university administration's attempt to limit their political advocacy on the campus. In time, the students succeeded in amending the speech policies of the Berkeley campus while contributing to the more general radicalizing of campus politics both at their home campus as well as nationwide. In that respect, the FSM is remembered as a glowing success of student empowerment.

Contrary to its title, however, more than free speech lay at the source of the FSM. Part of a more general movement which increasingly recognized the ubiquitous limits of liberalism -- rampant and violent societal racism, a lack of government response to inequality, and the emerging contradictions of the United States' involvement in Vietnam -- the FSM represents a radical step in the critique of the so-called "system." Perhaps the most prominent leader of the movement, Mario Savio, reflected this developing ideology in a speech titled "An End to History." Recently returned from Mississippi where he participated in the Freedom Summer political programs of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Savio demonstrated an acute social commentary which linked the racially oppressive government to the politically repressive university in their shared reliance on a "depersonalized, unresponsive bureaucracy." Asserting that this bureaucracy believed that history had ended -- that "no events can occur now that the Second World War is over which can change American society substantially" -- he attacked its unwillingness to change and recognize that improvements were still to be made in society as well as in the university.

At the time, the Berkeley campus and the University of California system as a whole were undergoing substantial changes. Campuses expanded as a flood of baby boomers began pursuing higher education while the State Government began pursuing a new relationship to its educational components. The resulting policy -- contained within the Master Plan of Higher Education -- created a multi-tiered system sometimes called the "multiversity." Heralded by UC President Clark Kerr, a former industrial relations professor, the Plan defined distinct roles for the Community Colleges, the State College system, and the UC as it sought to increase the synergy enjoyed by higher education and private industry. To students like Savio, it reflected the "conception that the university is part and parcel of this particular stage in the history of American society; it stands to serve the need of American industry; it is a factory that turns out a certain product needed by industry or government." In this conception, speech (or students) that ran contradictory to the status quo disrupted that relationship and threatened the very production of the UC machine.

In the more than three decades since the beginning of the FSM its political and historical legacies have been summoned numerous times in support of one or another causes. Whether ranging from the Third World Strike of the late sixties to the more current movements surrounding the repeal of affirmative action policies, the implicit belief in these movements is that students have not only the right but sometimes the responsibility to play a role in the bettering of their society. Concurrently, the university, frequently representing the societal status quo, serves as one incarnation of the opposition to that betterment. Simply put, the FSM altered the relationship between utopian student movements and the university because it recognized the ways in which the university system played a part in the maintaining and reproduction of the proverbial "system." Whether calling the university to task for their production of research which serves the military-industrial complex or for their policies which reproduce and maintain a racially segregated society, the students of the FSM also represent a movement against the static, corporate university system. On this front, perhaps, a meaningful success eluded the FSM.

Moving forward to the dawn of a new century/millennium, a revealing turn of events demonstrates the point. On February 3, 2000 the very same institution that a young Savio compared to an "odious machine" marked the history of the FSM by dedicating the "Free Speech Movement Café." At the dedication ceremony -- attended by various university personnel, a large contingent of FSM alumni, and a small group of students -- Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl, a historian, delivered his remarks placing the FSM critique within the American paradigm. He said that "contrary to popular belief, the students desperately -- and with great fervor -- aspired to embrace American values. They believed that the nation's finest hour had not yet arrived. And the prism of their views was marked by a distinctly American constitutional idealism." Berdahl continued as he "argued for the need to understand the movement, to not place it in a sealed box of misunderstanding and miss out on the values and the lessons it could still teach three decades later."

But what are those lessons? Entering the café, one is instantly surrounded with the images of students protesting on the walls. An electric message strip runs the repeated phrase "Welcome to the Free Speech Movement Café" over and again as if a newswire in Times Square. Just beneath that, an excerpt from Savio's famous speech imploring students to "throw your body upon the gears and cogs of the machine" is printed on the wall, superimposed over the faces of the protesting masses. On the opposite wall, a collection of art that is supposed to represent some aspects of the era hangs behind glass. And in the realm of the present, in the seats and on the tables that fill the space, the modern masses of students sit and sip their coffee, chat on their cell phones, sneak in a quick study break, and visit with friends.

mario savio on the steps of sproul hall Of course, this café has little to do with the actual history of the movement. The FSM directed little effort, either directly or indirectly, at the growing need for more coffee. The café attempts to remember the past by institutionalizing it on the Berkeley campus, by creating a physical space that can serve as an acknowledgement of "the impact and the values of the movement and its participants." The result of a generous donation from a Berkeley alumnus, the café is only one expenditure of a funding source that will enable the library to maintain their archives of the FSM and make them available to a wider audience. Both are noble goals that help to serve the preservation of history. The café, however, is less in step with the legacy of the FSM.

While Berdahl's remarks placing the FSM within the context of American idealism are true, the movement (as demonstrated in its sustained critique of the equally "American" values of jingoism, racism, corp-oratism, and the like) also tried to problematize much of that idealism. By calling the university system to task for its role in the furthering of societal evils, the FSM also tried to change that very system. Yet the course of the university proved far more powerful than the student voice as the recently adopted motto of "UC Means Business" attests. The concept of the multiversity is alive and strong today, and for that matter is a paradigm that is rarely questioned. Today, the UC seeks to enhance the relationship its research has to the private sector, even so far as encouraging academic departments to forge new partnership with corporate America on a direct grant-funding basis. As for the critique that the university is engendering the forces of societal inequality, one could argue that the repealing of affirmative action and the recent strike for Ethnic Studies reveal that change is still needed. For that matter, the continued fight against the university's labor abuses with their Graduate Student Instructors and their habitual support of the use of sweatshop labor stand as symbols worthy of Savio's scathing critiques.

The point is that history can mean many things. Rather than a set of facts and events that exist within the past, history is a living, breathing organism that is shaped by the present as much as our memory of the past. There will be no perfect recreation of the past in the present, but as a society -- or a university -- we must still make attempts. The Free Speech Movement Café can mean many things, too. To the Chancellor and the gathered alumni it meant the preservation of the past. To others, the commercialized form and substance of that particular preservation stands as a glaring contradiction to the meanings of the past. Perhaps the real issue lies a bit deeper that competing interpretations of a café. To whom does the movement belong?

While few would argue that the FSM alumni do not have some stake in the memory of their efforts, this movement in particular is also "owned" by the masses of students who continue the fight for a better university. To many of them, what makes the institutionalization of the FSM in this café so disturbing is that it took place while the same Chancellor ordered the arrest of students carrying the banner of activism in the name of social justice and equality, and as the university faced continued pressure to divest from sweatshop labor, maintained relations with the expanding prison-industrial complex, and failed to rectify the decline of students of color enrolled at the university. Perhaps the lesson is that just as the lack of the visible oppression of blacks with hoses and dogs doesn't mean that there isn't racism in Mississippi, so too the establishment of a Free Speech Movement Café doesn't mean that students' voices are considered in the shaping of the university system.

The disagreement is more than interpretive. History is not an esoteric exercise but part of the living debates of the present. As such, it can be a tool used for both good and evil. When something like the FSM can be used to sell a cup of coffee and make customers think that the goals of the movement were institutionalized in the system as much as the café is, then this type of commemoration can be dangerous. It is tantamount to a historical packaging of the Sixties to make it safe and sanitary. At times, it borders on a scary revisionism. For example, one of glass-encased art pieces is a poster from the Third World Strikes of 1969. A direct outgrowth of the culture of radicalism that the FSM engendered, the TWLF also fought for a utopian goal of a better university. Advocating for a new Third World College along with curriculum reforms, the goals of the movement never materialized. In a caption underneath the artwork, a brief statement misrepresents the TWLF as a movement for affirmative action. Instead of seeing affirmative action and the Ethnic Studies Department as a compromising, if not an outright co-optation of the movement's goals -- the reader is left to believe that it, too, achieved its goals. In that way, the establishment of the café stands as a vibrant example of Savio's critique that the university's has reached the end of history.

To stay true to the legacy of the FSM we have to do more than drink coffee. We -- the students, the professors, the staff, the community of people who stand for a just society and university -- need to take back history. As Savio said, "the university is the place where people begin seriously to question the conditions of their existence and raise the issue of whether they can be committed to the society they have been born into." That process of questioning, as much as the movement itself, are both connected to a body of principles, a set of values to which the university will never adhere to unless they are pressured. They are the values of justice, equality, and tolerance. They stand in opposition to the modern university of corporate standardization and mass production. And it has nothing to do with a latté. If the FSM is to be remembered then let it be remembered for this. And if it is to be immortalized, then let it be in the hearts of the men and women who "have shown that they will die rather than be standardized, replaceable, and irrelevant."

Tomás Sandoval, Jr. is a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in UC Berkeley's History Department who has been actively involved in university politics at the campus and systemwide levels. Jason Ferreira is an eighth-year Ph.D. candidate in UC Berkeley's Ethnic Studies Department and a Bay Area activist who was proudly arrested by campus police in the Third World/Ethnic Studies protest last year. Both like coffee.

Copyright © 2000 by Tomás Sandoval, Jr. and Jason Ferreira. All rights reserved.