Some 800 student demonstrators were arrested on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley on this date in 1964.
Many activist-minded Berkeley students had spent their summer running voter registration drives in the South. When they returned for the fall semester, they set up information tables on campus to collect donations and share information about the Civil Rights Movement, in the hope that more students would volunteer. The school’s administrators shut the tables down, enforcing the university’s strict ban on political speech and fundraising. When campus police arrested a grad student named Jack Weinberg on October 1 for refusing to show his identification, onlookers started an unplanned sit-in around the police car, and trapped it there for 32 hours. People took turns climbing on the hood of the police car to give speeches; Mario Savio, one of the leaders of what came to be the Free Speech Movement, thoughtfully removed his shoes first, to avoid damaging the car.
For the next several weeks, the protestors clashed with administration. On December 2, as many as 1,500 students occupied the main administration building, Sproul Hall, in a last-ditch effort to convince administrators to lift the ban on political speech and activism. They were peaceful. Joan Baez sang protest songs to keep their spirits up. Grad students even taught some spontaneous classes on a wide variety of subjects. Savio told his fellow students: “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.” Not long after two a.m., on the orders of the governor, police cordoned off the building and began arresting the protestors. Journalists on the scene reported seeing them drag some protestors down the stone steps by their feet, the students’ heads banging on every step.
But by the spring semester, university leadership had almost fully reversed its stance on political speech, and causes from the far right to the far left benefited from the loosened restrictions. Today, Sproul Plaza hosts informational tables that span the entire political spectrum, and anyone may rent the steps of Sproul Hall — now called the Mario Savio Steps — for a speech or a rally.