My first revolutionary was Mario Savio. I was fifteen, it was 1977, and we met in a book that was lying around the house I grew up in in Houston.
[I met all my revolutionaries in books, which might hint that I’ve never been arrested.] [Never.]
Mario was dark and handsome and a leader of Berkeley’s FSM, or Free Speech Movement. A bright son of Italian immigrants, his first arrest was at a 1964 protest against the San Francisco Hotel Association, which only hired blacks for menial jobs. He spent that summer in the south registering black voters and returned to learn that his university was banning political speech on campus. It seems hard to believe now—or maybe not. (Though I’m not one to believe that trigger warnings are another kind of ban, they did come to mind.)
Anyway. On one December afternoon in 1964, Savio found himself in the middle of a protest about this speech ban, the ouster of a few students, and the disbanding of a few groups. So, after considerately imploring his listeners not to harass the union workers then painting the administration building and not joining their strike, he jumped on to a car and made a speech, a speech printed in that book in my mother’s house in 1977, a speech now featured on AP history tests. Today I found his words spliced into a Linkin Park song called “Wretches and Kings,” and some Bernie-or-busters are enjoying the video of the speech that’s here on YouTube, with a Marxist analogy that all can understand, claiming Berkeley’s board were the factory managers, its faculty were the employees, and the students were the raw materials being processed. Savio knew that no student wants to turn into a product, and he said so beautifully from the top of a car:
There is 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. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
How can a sixteen year old gal not love a guy like that? I love him still. This semester, I assigned Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” as a text in a freshman comp class and saw what I’d never quite realized. You’ll see it for yourself:
If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go...perchance it will wear smooth - certainly the machine will wear out... If it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.
I guess Savio had been flipping through his Thoreau that semester.
Mario Savio ended up as a university “lecturer”—basically an adjunct, like me, and died at 53 in 1996.