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Inside Sproul Hall

By Joel L. Pimsleur


Editorial note: Joel Pimsleur was a young reporter (28) for the S.F. Chronicle, assigned to cover the FSM sit-in on December 2. In this letter the next day -- to the Chronicle's veteran jazz columnist Ralph Gleason, the most public voice of sympathy for the FSM -- Pimsleur expressed his shock and outrage at the arrest procedures and the muzzling of the press. Unspoken here, but evident, is his frustration with his own muzzling, with the journalistic conventions and editing that prevented him from reporting all that he observed. (Compare the Chronicle's coverage for December 3-6.) Pimsleur's letter was widely circulated by xerox among students, and was used by some to help explain things to their parents. It was published only in an Eastern college paper, and later as an appendix in a pamphlet by a small radical group.


Ralph --

This is as much personal catharsis for me -- purging Thursday's nightmare by putting it on paper -- as it may be an assist to you. But there are certain things that should not go unspoken.

At the risk of moralizing, if any good comes from all this (and I'm still naive enough to think it will), at least one lesson has emerged that must not be missed:

You can crush the idealists, but you cannot crush their idea....

You cannot hit it; you cannot step on it; you cannot kick it; you cannot beat it with a billyclub; you cannot twist its arms; you cannot drag it down the stairs; you cannot hide it behind a screen; you cannot bury it in the basement; you cannot put it in jail; and you cannot silence it.

Ultimately if the idea is good, it will survive its enemies --- for it is more powerful than its advocates. It endows existence with purpose. It will endure, and -- in the end -- prevail.

I won't soon forget the scene of that army of police, massing silently in the night, and a photographer peering out the press room window and remarking with a thin smile: "It seems to me I read all about this somewhere before. In a book called Mein Kampf."

The question might well be asked, why do you need 600 cops to cope with 700 passively resisting kids? This was no prison riot; yet from the police response, you would have thought they were handling convicts, not students.

More important than their number, however, was their attitude. Make no mistake, Ralph, the police weren't simply doing their duty. If they'd merely been the machines, the automatons, the privates in the army of the politicians, they'd have been much better.

But many of them were enjoying their work. They were getting their revenge for the embarrassment of the 33-hour seige of Oct. 1-2 ( the incident of the trapped police car). And the air of vindictiveness was unmistakable.

Without indulging in parlor psychology, it was obvious that for many policemen (and this is something that must somehow be precluded in the future) this was a safe way to work out their own frustrated resentment of students and intellectuals.

There was much hilarity in the ranks, as the students were dragged the gauntlet down the long corridors to the stairwell. Very few of them struggled or resisted in any way save going limp, but they were deliberately hauled down the stairs on their backs and tailbones, their arms and wrists twisted -- all to the immense amusement of the Oakland police. And lest anyone think I exaggerate, listen to the cops themselves:

One three-way conversation overheard among the Oakland crew went like this:

"They shouldn'a let those beatniks and kooks in here ( the University) in the first place."

"Yea, they're just a bunch of jerks -- we oughtta show 'em."

"Don't worry, wait till we get 'em on the stairs."

Or, while a pair of cops dragged a student down two flights of stairs, a third, surveying the scene from a landing, remarked:

"Hey, don't drag 'em down so fast -- they ride on their heels. Take 'em down a little slower -- they bounce more that way."

Or, outside Sproul, near a parked Santa Rita-bound bus, one of the Alameda Sheriffs Dept. men to another:

"We should do like they do in them foreign countries, beat 'em senseless first, then throw 'em in the bus."

Whatever may emerge from all this, those are indignities that no settlement can erase.

Then there were the contrasting images, and one wondered who were the more violent -- the law breakers or the law enforcers?

The students shielding their public address system with their bodies against a phalanx of helmeted police who'd been told to "kick their way through" to clear a path.

The cops charging up the curving stairs to the second floor, shoving the kids down the steps, some tumbling head first others feet first, stepping on a few with their boots, billyclubbing a couple out of the way, and getting the big speaker -- but missing a smaller one. And as the police retreated, the kids began singing!

"Oh Freedom, Oh Freedom
And before I'll be a slave,
I'll be buried in my grave
And I'll fight for my right
To be free..."

The indomitable spirit of the students was repeatedly revealed by the small incident:

The students using one of the basement's "survival drums" (remnants of the campus' abandoned civil defense program) -- still stocked with year-old water and graham crackers -- as a podium from which to conduct a lecture on Civil Disobedience.

At 4:00 a.m., one of the FSM steering committee leaders waving his hand around the packed, stuffy second floor and observing: "Here lies the body politic."

 

Some random reactions:

Since when does the press meekly submit to its own suppression ? Where were the outraged editorials? Where were the complaints about press censorship, amid all the howls for law and order?

Why were newspapermen barred from watching the bookings? Since when do the cops get the right to plaster papers over windows so reporters can't see what's going on? There's a nice little irony -- newspapers used as a device to keep newspapermen from getting the truth.

Why was an N.B.C. television cameraman blocked at the stairwells and prevented from taking pictures freely -- although he stood there for 15 minutes pleading with the police: "But we're on your side; we want to tell your story; we want to prove to the public that the police aren't brutal..."

Why was a C.B.S. campus stringer prevented by the police from getting to the phone -- although the line was being held open for him? And why was the press barred from the basement? So far as I know, I'm the only reporter who managed to get down there, and I have a hunch why --

Because it was the first time that the basement of a building on a college campus in America was turned into an interrogation cell, where students became political prisoners herded into a detention pen -- awaiting deportation to a prison farm.

(While cops milled around outside the cage -- I use that word deliberately -- teasing the students.)

That's what went on during my sojourn in the Sproul Hall basement -- before the Alameda D.A.'s office invited me upstairs, where the officially approved versions of the news can be reported without ever having to leave whatever "public information office" happens to be handy.

And where was the "administration" all this time? So far as I know, Kerr and Strong never saw a damn thing that went on inside that building -- although they sanctioned it. Since when does an Administration turn over total control of the nerve center of a university to the police -- who not only did not permit free access to the press, but barred the faculty (including members of the Faculty Committee on Student Conduct) from free movement on their own campus!

The total abdication of responsibility, by an administration which has insisted on its prerogatives, cannot be overlooked.

By noon, Thursday, pandemonium prevailed on the campus. An angry crowd jammed the plaza, filled the steps of Sproul Hall and was pressing towards the barricaded doors, and I'm certain that we were 30 seconds short of a riot. The sight of the armed cops was infuriating the students, many of whom were nearly hysterical. The tension was indescribable, and all that was needed was a single provocation...

When a dozen highway patrolmen emerged from Sproul -- bent on moving the public address system forward to clear the top step -- a roar of protest went up from the crowd.

Instead of moving back, it surged forward, and only the supreme efforts of two professors (Minsky of the Economics Dept. and Wildavsky of the Political Science Dept. ), who struggled through the crowd and on their own managed to convince the officer in charge to pull his men back out of sight -- because their appearance was inflaming the crowd -- managed to restore a modicum of calm.

Not a single representative of the administration was present to perform, much less assist in, this negotiation.

 

Some basic questions left unanswered:

Why do we revile our own rebels (unless they've been dead for at least 150 years) while revering everybody else's? How is it that the Free French, the Greek partisans, the Irish insurgents, the Hungarian and the Cuban freedom fighters are guaranteed our sympathies -- though they too were certainly "anarchists"?

Was not theirs also a fundamental challenge to the forces of law and order? (Though their grievances were obviously greater, were their goals fundamentally any different? Is the demand for absolute free speech ever illegitimate?

Even if you granted that free speech was not the issue on this campus, is the demand for the right to partake in full and unfettered political and social action -- which is an issue -- too much to ask in a Democracy?

The FSM requested "too much," "demanded the moon," "wouldn't compromise," "wanted everything," the authorities have said repeatedly -- and the public overwhelmingly agrees. But can there be too much free speech in a free society? Or should the question be quite the opposite: Do you dare compromise with it?

"You cannot shout 'fire!' in a crowd," they argue, or talk unchecked in a classroom. But so far as I know, such "rights" have never been demanded; the most radical of the students have never considered these to be "rights," so they are not now and never have been at issue.

"Law and order must be preserved," contend the authorities ( Mulford, Brown, Knowland, McAteer, the newspapers, the Administration, etc., etc.). But are law and order really civilization's ultimate virtues -- or are freedom and justice?

Indeed, law and order are maintained with brilliant efficiency in totalitarian states. Order is only a virtue if it preserves just laws; and laws are only just if they are made by the governed, not the governors.

(This is not to suggest carte blanche for the students to establish their own dictatorship; but it does demand at least a continuing dialogue among students, faculty and administration -- and it totally rejects the concept of government by arbitrary fiat, the regulations changing every other week to fit the moment's expediency. And it does suggest a very basic question: Who represents the heart and core of any university -- the faculty and students, or the administration?)

There is a final point. The old "Red-inspired," "left wing dupes" explanation has already been offered by a number of state legislators, and it is likely that the charge will continue to be aired with increasing frequency. It might therefore be worth asking ourselves why we are willing to keep giving the Communists so much credit. Since when is free speech a Communist idea, or the right to mount political and social action a Communist concept? I thought precisely the opposite.

Joel Pimsleur


This letter was published in the Columbia Daily Spectator; and as an appendix to the News & Letters pamphlet "The Free Speech Movement and the Negro Revolution", July 1965.

Copyright 1965, 1998 by Joel Pimsleur. Reproduced by permission. This work may not be reproduced in any medium which is sold, subject to access fee, or supported by advertising, without explicit prior consent by the author.

 

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