Row 1: SNCC, 2: Black Panther Party, 3: Free Speech and New Left at UC Berkeley, 4: Chicano and Women’s Liberation Movements, 5: Current state

Conditions of Change

Taking time to examine the context of social change and what it means for us, especially millennials, in the age of technology and information.

There comes 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 all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all
-Mario Savio, 1964

Context, noun. The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.

I challenge you to think about the meaning of context and then describe the context of your last meal.

What did you describe as the “context?”

I just ate a burrito from a local taqueria in Berkeley. To fully understand this you would need to know why I was there, why the restaurant was there, and why I went to that restaurant. Things I could include in my explanation are the history of Mexico and California to explain the influences of Mexican culture within the state, my personal history as a SoCal native to explain why I chose a Mexican restaurant, information on our high achieving society that landed me in Berkeley to attend a high ranking university in hopes of gaining wealth later in life, the history of the restaurant owners to explain why they opened this restaurant and why here, and the history of Berkeley itself to explain how the intersections of these events was possible in the first place.

Too much information? Possibly. But where do we draw the line for what are “terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed?” My assumption is that we draw the line wherever it best suits our needs, but this is subjective. We see this flaw in the media when contextual lines are twisted and blurred to make a story that people want to hear. We also see this flaw in classrooms when “appropriate” becomes a self-serving tool.

Determining Context

We cannot understand where we are without knowing where we’ve been; we need to know the context. The social movements from the New Left and onward cannot be evaluated properly without discussing the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded in Greensboro, North Carolina. Its members, mostly students of color, aimed to create broad social change through use of propaganda and peaceful demonstrations such as sit-ins and marches. SNCC’s propaganda utilized bold lettering and relatable images so that their message was clear and created an emotional reaction within the viewer. Very similar styles were used by Oakland’s own Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The ideologies held by the Panthers were more radical than those held by SNCC, but the art they produced was effective in communicating their message. Perhaps SNCC’s greatest legacy to the New Left was their grassroots method of organizing. They exhibited their efficacy in 1964 when they joined forces with other civil rights groups to direct The Freedom Summer in Mississippi.

SLATE, a political party established at UC Berkeley in 1958, aimed to increase student action towards external issues and was greatly influenced by the stirrings of the Civil Right Movement. Beyond their political agenda, they worked to teach students how to think and organize independently, much like the grassroots operations of SNCC. Mario Savio, a member of SLATE, attended the Freedom Summer in 1964. What he saw influenced him to contribute to the growing Free Speech Movement on campus at UC Berkeley. His involvement culminated in his speech in front of Sproul Hall, a quintessential moment the Movement.

The New Left continued to flourish on UC Berkeley’s campus, and beyond, throughout the 1970s as the Anti-war Movement, Chicano Movement, and Women’s Liberation Movement among others continued. During this time, Wurster Hall had been completely taken over by student groups and turned into a poster-making factory producing mostly anti-war propaganda along with other disobedient artwork. You can see the influence of the Civil Rights Movement and the psychedelic nature of the growing counterculture movement in their artwork and environmentally friendly practices. It’s a fact that we often draw from and reappropriate the actions of others.

Mario Savio speaking from the top of the police car. Photograph by Steven Marcus.

Now

We can’t know where we are going without knowing where we are; again, we need to know the context.

Times have changed. We have new technologies, complicated politics, a split nation, an increasing gap between the rich and the poor, a decrease in need for unskilled labor, increases of college tuition, and the list goes on. I can say one thing for sure, the New Left is dead for two reasons: prices and technology.

A ‘sensible’ student would never put themselves in a situation that would jeopardize the education that they’re paying a quarter of a million dollars for. But as millennials, we would gladly post a video of other people rioting or being beat up or arrested. We’d then count how many views our video got and compare that to our friends’. I have seen first hand students posting/ranting on Facebook about how they “couldn’t believe what they saw” and how “this is what’s wrong with America” (believe me, I’ve heard it from both sides) but the live videos they posted the night before proved they did absolutely nothing but stand an ample distance away and film whatever they disapproved of. Now we have the ability to hide behind computer screens and we are likely to do it because the costs are literally too high to do otherwise.

Today on campus there are no spaces dedicated towards social action to the same extent as Wurster Hall was in the 70s. Today, space must be used “efficiently,” and that means more classrooms, more labs, and more offices. It representative of both our high achieving culture and our political apathy as a nation. We no longer have the drive to produce social change like we used to on college campuses.

Where do we go from here?

So where are we going?! I’m not really sure but I can bet that technology is the force that will take us there. E-news, e-mails, blogs, status updates, photos, live videos, you name it, are all methods by which social movements organize and disperse their message in today’s world. While technology is becoming the platform by which the world operates, we still incorporate many of the tactics utilized by those of the Civil Right Movements and New Left during the Long Sixties.

We are at a critical point in history as these two forces combine and we have the potential to revive the fervor for social justice that has dwindled in our country. And we can succeed, but we must understand the context of social change in order to make one.