The Killing of a Counterculture
the growth of the institution & political apathy
Berkeley has long been the embodiment of ‘hippiedom’ (as the rest of the world would call it) or as native Berkeley citizens would more likely recall their lifestyle: living in accordance with the land, rejecting politics unaligned with their morals, and having a great time while they’re doing it. With the rise of the new left in the “60s”, there was an explosion of a newly defined culture. As Stuart Hall words it, culture was no longer a capitalist pyramid of commodity, but the way to imbue meaning in the world. Berkeleyans latched on to this conception of culture, solidifying meaning through active practice. This is the requisite of a true counterculture: it treads on space previously untouched, gives life to creative forms with no precedent, and in the case of the 60s, contests the norms of institutional hegemony. Contrary to the conception that political activism was all rooted in student life, it’s key to note that the Berkeley population was — and remains to this day — much more than that of the university. Jerry Rubin perhaps illustrates this best in his novel Do it!,
“The Free Speech Movement invited young kids to come to Berkeley for the action. So thousands of refugees from New York and the Midwest flocked to live on the streets of Berkeley.
It was an easy life. The weather was warm and the seasons hardly changed, so you didn’t need to buy winter clothing. You could always get by selling dope. Or you could hawk the Barb on the weekend and make enough money for the rest of the week. There were always guilty professors to panhandle. And some people started handicraft industries — sold jewelry, candles, and other things they made — right on the Avenue.
Nobody starved in the streets of Berkeley.”
Berkeley’s explosion of culture from within and without is self-evident through a brief survey of photographs. The earnest passion behind Berkeley’s culture in the long sixties is apparent in it’s people:
in its portrayal in iconic films:
and in the art/diys:
Art here didn’t conform to a known aesthetic, nor was inspiration gleaned from a photo someone viewed on the internet. Artistic movements were organic, expressive, and, through their lack of conformity to a standardized ideal, uniquely powerful.
Interests and practice were unified as people in Berkeley became the embodiment of the ideals they fought for. This is evident in photographic artifacts of the Vietnam Day Committee, a coalition of political groups, student groups and labour organizations, whose Berkeley house was a refuge for anyone with anti-war sentiment.
Notably, there could be no activism in Berkeley without the precedent set by the outstanding organization of the Black Panther Party and the culture of dissent exemplified by SNCC. Berkeley activists were particularly inspired by the BPP, learning from them in action as they joined forces for protest at the Sheraton Palace demonstration in San Francisco with the aim to expand job opportunities of African Americans within the hotel.
But Berkeley activism was countered by the growth of a bureaucratic big brother. Within the larger town of hippies and yippies, the University of California, Berkeley as a public institution was concerned that its students were embodying their battle against the war and were growing symbols of resistance. This is apparent in Clark Kerr’s mass model of education to breed out any critical inquiry developed enough that it might lead to defiant behavior. In goes the erudite student, out comes a cog in corporate machinery.
But it wasn’t just then UC President Kerr that students waged their battle against. Ernst Lawrence, of Berkeley’s two Lawrence related name science labs and creator of the cyclotron, oversaw the creation of UC Berkeley’s The Radiation Laboratory ,or The Rad Lab, and was a key member of the Manhattan Project. In 1942, Lawrence and Robert Oppenheimer brought a group of Berkeley academics together to study the feasibility and design of the atomic bomb. The Rad Lab exist to this day, but it has since been renamed to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
No, not the exploratorium-esque Lawrence Hall of Science with the whale & mini planetarium that 7 year olds, Cal tourists and your grandparents adore (although as a side note, the irony that Bay Area old wealth family monopolies came up here without me trying made me smirk). The Lawrence Hall of Science is one building. The Lawrence Berkeley National Lab is the 90+ that surround it. But don’t you love that the intentional ambiguity there tricked many a Cal undergrad into thinking that there wasn’t a DOE lab in their backyards?
By the creation of the first atomic bomb, UC Berkeley controlled the American nuclear weapons research program in its entirety. The Golden State’s highest form of public education was creating weapons to destroy the whole world. In 1964, university administration banned all labeled “nonstudents” from campus, and made all on campus political activity illegal, thus sparking the Free Speech Movement.
So with every image of Berkeley radicalism with characters like this:
there exist ones like this:
because of this:
The Governor of California then President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, was adamant to shut down everything that the Berkeley Free Speech Movement stood for. (déjà vu, anyone?)
The institution UC Berkeley shut down all insurgent behavior.
There is endless history that could be included in a survey of the factors that created the world’s conception of Berkeley and its mythology, and I’ve missed out on a lot. But I want to contrast this robust history of culture and rebellion with the atmosphere seen on campus in 2017. Reagan’s goal to pacify students has been a flying success. Walking around campus, students do, depressingly, look like the grey blobs emerging from Sather Gate in the 1960 TIME cover. Either with spirits low or entirely caffeinated (or drugged, honestly) out, most rush to and from the library eager to complete their web assignments before the time deadline. The institution’s — and its corporate sponsors) — advertising is seen in full effect on its walking billboards: student athletes model full Nike outfits as they zip past on their Cal vespas, and general paraphernalia is likely found on 1 in every 5 students.
One of the most personally disheartening aspects of the growing institution is the students who go to the university UC Berkeley without living in the city of Berkeley, California. They go to class on campus, workout at the RSF but never wander beyond the 3 blocks of Telegraph Ave that are an obligatory sight on their way back home. They don’t shop at the Mecca that is Berkeley Bowl, spend time appreciating the beautiful quirky people near the Downtown Berkeley Bart, view performances at the Berkeley Repertory theatre, explore the labyrinths hidden throughout the hills, check out Bulwinkle’s embellishments in Emeryville and otherwise don’t explore the little pieces of quirkiness that as a whole, make city of Berkeley the explosion of the avant-garde that it is. And it’s honestly not the fact that they haven’t accomplished the entirety of this pretentious list, because neither have I. It is the fact that said students do not even have the basic desire to explore spaces outside of their college-kid comfort zone, or interact with groups or individuals whose views differ completely from their own. (As a personal caveat though, I do want to acknowledge my privilege here in having the extra dollar or two of *~daddy’s money to afford paying for the gas and ticket prices that come with the general exploring and attending of different events around the Bay).
This of course marks a critical distinction that I want to make between the two spheres of Berkeley: Berkeley as a town and Berkeley as a university. As a town, Berkeley continues to thrive at the unique crosshairs of liberal thought and concern. Odd bits of wisdom from the preachers on Sproul Hall and the screams of Hare Krishna from the occupants of Telegraph Ave still ring through the streets. Just peruse Tom Dalzell’s website quirkyberkeley.com to see the material items that begin to depict Berkeley’s thriving residual culture.
This largely stems from the town’s deep academic history. Berkeley is, proudly, home to one of the best universities in the world, as can be instantly attested by a brief look through the classes available to students at Cal, and the forefront research being conducted by faculty and students throughout the Bay area. The “academic” mindset of intellectual curiosity and critical thought permeates the town. But the university still looms as the watchful eye of a government institution, regardless of its own administration recently imploding in scandal and lack of appropriate action in dealing with civil unrest, and it is the UC Berkeley student body that I feel can no longer accurately represent everything that Berkeley stands for.
Like every college campus, it is beginning to become an established norm that students spend more time looking at their phones and computer screens than they spend time with their friends or exploring the outdoors. Political, dare I say “countercultural” ideas are validated through likes on a Facebook page or a university-wide meme page.
During finals week, it seems the only thing that brings students together is our mutual suffering, as we make jokes about our fragile mental health, poor diets, lack of sleep and other aspects of their life that with every post, normalize our lack of priority on healthcare that has become a prerequisite to proving to ourselves and others how much we studied for our exams.
One of the untold underbellies of the prestige of a world-class university, and chiefly our supposed embodiment of ideals of the Free Speech Movement, is that it attracts figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter to campus just to make a scene on national news media, and critically, this mass arousal works. The country keys in to see what’s happening in Berkeley, and how students will respond. But in the age where students are bombarded with news headlines, emails and online assignment notifications, these kinds of showy displays of politics have merely pushed us into political apathy instead of rousing us into action. We don’t care to fight back to the crazies on the right that we lack any respect for. In keeping up with what the university demands of us, we have so much on our plate that we just want to put up the hood of our sweatshirts and get back to work.
No one is jumping in front of trains like John Seltz, living in the trees , building housing structures and sculptures out of recycled materials on the dock of the bay. In a lecture to the Trump Teach In, Michael Sahlins and Laura Nader noted that students in the 60s embodied their movement. They wore a certain style of clothes, talked a certain way and did the same drugs. They were a living embodiment of counterculture. Nader recalled that Sproul plaza was full of students fighting for political policies: specific issues that they wholeheartedly fought for. This contrasts with current campus politics, where tabling on Sproul plaza is largely divided by identity groups: the Taiwanese American Student Association face opposite to the Chicano Architecture Student Association (for example), and students separate via identity groups rather than rallying around specific issues.
Berkeley kids still care about what they are doing, and this argument obviously assumes sweeping generalizations in which many students do not fall. There is still profound happiness, appreciation for academia, the arts, nature, science, ingenuity and joy to be found at Cal. Dig beyond the surface of any student to find our driving passion. It’s in there, no matter how deep or obscure it may appear. Walk past Memorial Glade on any afternoon, and you’ll see students lounging, eating lunch, in hammocks, playing hacky sack or frolicking in the warm sunlight and purely enjoying other’s company. (Alternatively, check out the glade in the afternoon of April 20th).
But my general sentiment is that students these days are worked so hard, and are so attached to our devices that we are more interested in improving our resumes than engaging in the true ideals we care about. We devote our existence to landing an interview at some Silicon Valley tech corporation rather than fighting against the moral injustices we see in the oligarchy under our serial tweeter in chief. The public university largely runs the dynamics of student life, as students slave at their work to validate the astronomical prices they are paying for tuition. Fashion, supposedly a display of individuality, is reduced down to kids being hip by conforming to wear the same tan Arizona Birkenstocks and socks as their friends. (Or the same ‘Hawaiian’ button up..…).
The commodification of culture at Cal expands to the inherent irony that this post is precisely for my class on California Countercultures. While I’ve loved every moment of this course that has provided a tantalizing exposure to Bay Area history, and was taught by wonderfully critical faculty, it is inherently problematic and cringy that it is being taught by the very institution that killed the counterculture. Berkeley kids now need a class to know what counterculture is? Although I acknowledge here that in no way are faculty equivalent to the UC administration. If that was mildly the case, we all would’ve checked out long ago.
To conclude this minimal survey of Berkeley history and rambling of my thoughts about campus, Berkeley as a town remains one of the coolest intersections of a complex history and ‘keeping up with modern times’ that I’ve ever seen. Berkeley as a university is truly one of a kind, and students like myself are fulfilled via academic fields and theories we previously didn’t know existed. But the growth of the institution comes with a lot of bureaucratic bullshit, as students are expected to worship the institution rather than the experiences and learning that it provides. Students largely don’t care to cultivate their own individual welfare, be it artistic expression, fashion, or the like, instead waiting for the many student groups, fraternal organizations or social groups on campus to do it for us instead. Our insular nature creates an ever expanding divide between UC students and the people of Berkeley.
Luckily, the true Berkeleyans are holding the town down. The coolest kids on the block are its long citizens, the now 80+ year olds who lived through Berkeley in the 60s to 80s. It is the artists playing at Freight and Salvage, the family shop owners, the artists at Berkeley Potter’s Guild, the volunteers at Berkeley Free Clinic and that woman at Berkeley Bowl with the assemblage top hat that are maintaining the town’s culture. The institution, its corporate monoculture and capitalism have bred Berkeley’s history out of its students. If I was Allen Ginsberg, I’d say that it’s “time for us to put our queer shoulder to the wheel” and fight get it back. But I’m not.