Mario Savio’s 1964 Berkeley ‘Gears’ Speech and the 2009 Remembrance and Reaffirmation

December 2, 1964 Mario delivers his famous ‘Gears’ speech at Sproul Hall UC Berkley. The video shows the last 1:26 of a short 3-4 minute opening salvo by Savio. He then introduces Joan Baez at the podium and shortly thereafter, leads his fellow students in a peaceful sit-in of a building or two on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, California, USA.

Transcript from the very end of speech:

“We have an autocracy which runs this university. It’s managed. We asked the following: if President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the Regents in his telephone conversation, why didn’t he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received — from a well-meaning liberal — was the following: He said, “Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?” That’s the answer! Now, I ask you to consider: if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I’ll tell you something: the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw material[s] that don’t mean to have any process upon us, don’t mean to be made into any product, don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!”

[Wild applause.]

“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!”

[Prolonged applause.]

“Now, no more talking. We’re going to march in singing “We Shall Overcome.” Slowly; there are a lot of us. Up here to the left — I didn’t mean the pun.”

One of the great moments from the Berkley/San Francisco scene.  Mario was old school, the son of a New York Sicilian steel worker who had the mettle to make rousing and heartfelt speeches like this. Mario is speechifying at a Berkley Free Speech Movement rally on the steps of Sproul Hall on the UC Berkely campus.

He introduces Joan Baez before he gives up the mike.  Saint Joan was there every step of the way along the road to civil rights. She was MLK’s white angel. She stopped the cops from letting loose the water cannons but she was arrested quite a few times. Saint Joan the Archangel of Bohemia.

Mario was a bit of a saint too. He became the de facto leader of the FSM after he jumped atop a police car to speak in defense of a fellow student who was being arrested for passing out CORE literature on campus. CORE, or The Congress of Racial Equality had a very radical agenda. They were a congregation of people who wanted racial equality.

Mario took his shoes off before he climbed up on the police car. He was afraid that the heels of his shoes would dent the roof. Mario wanted to be a priest all his life and he almost went to divinity school. My guess is that he felt more of an affinity for the divinity of man than anything else.

He graduated from Manhattan and Queens College and moved with his family to Los Angeles. He enrolled in Berkeley and had already been arrested for civil disobedience in support of civil rights in San Francisco when he joined the Freedom Summer projects in Mississippi. He helped register black people to vote and taught at a Freedom school for black children.  When he returned to Berkeley he found that all political activity and fund raising had been banned. So he carpe diemed it and jumped on the police car and peacefully staged a 32 hour sit in right thar.

But Mario’s ‘Gears’ speech is his shining moment. A brilliant paré, he uses the shallow metaphor that Dean Kerr thought would shut the students up and turns it into one of the greatest turns of phrase and poetic undoing of dry cold propaganda in the history of western civ.

Here is the dean’s cognitive dissonance which I guess was just a smarmy way for him to shush the pesky students questioning his authority.

“Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?”

Dr Kerr.

Dr Kerr issued this statement of ridiculousness that addressed the students objection to their free speech being inhibited, to their voices being silenced,  because the regents, the bored mis-directors don’t want their corporate donors, or the conservative parents to stop giving them money. The fact is though, that they would get more money from the left if people from the right, or corporations backed out. But it is not just about money, it is also about control.

Well Mario, being the good catholic Sicilian was incredulous that the dean would just ‘blow them off’, using the parlance of the day, and the words he spit back were some of the most inspired in the annals of Beserkley or anywhere else in the universe of saying what needed to be said.

If Dr Kerr’s words were a direct hit to the midsection of the rights and freedoms of students at Berkley, then Mario’s were a thousand beautiful ninja stars of light into the hearts and minds of those in attendance and radiating exponentially on. Inspired and delivered with the emotional intensity of a young warrior poet he thrust back:

“That’s the answer! Now, I ask you to consider: if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I’ll tell you something: the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw material[s] that don’t mean to have any process upon us, don’t mean to be made into any product, don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!”

“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!”

 

Well, not only did Super Mario rebut Kerr’s reptilian-brained metaphor, he showed Mr Kerr and the world what an insult his metaphor was to the intelligence and depth of the Free Speech Movement and the Berkley students. Mr Kerr’s reply was a patronizing and small-minded response to the students desire to express their support for the Civil Rights Movement.

Not only did Mario show that the students that Kerr dismissed were a bright and determined bunch but he delivered a powerful metaphor that still resonates today. The University need not be run like a firm, a factory, or a corporation where profit was the highest motive and free speech and constitutional rights were subjugated to a corporate like board of directors.

And Mario’s eloquence was a poetic display of the power of protest, of civil disobedience. They were going to lay down on the gears, lay down in the street to show that they were exercising their constitutional rights. They demanded debate. It was a metaphor for walk-outs and sit-ins and peaceful run-ins with the law. Mario, with his religious upbringing came up with this metaphor and it’s sacrificial imagery.

Mario was saying that his generation was willing to lay upon the machine to stop it. They would find out if those in charge were willing to sacrifice our children to the needs of the machine. Was the machine that odious? Were those in charge that cruel and calculating? I think we have been shown the answer. The metaphor of man vs machine cut to the heart of the matter.

A few years later Pink Floyd announced ominously, “Welcome to the Machine”. I am sure that was inspired by Mario somehow.  Playing at the psychedelic juke joints with the Yippie and Beat scene in high gear at the high end of the free love scene, Pink Floyd were stalwarts on the Haight in the late sixties, creating space travel and ascension  music and vibrating the place to a higher consciousness. Floyd warned us about the danger of the machines, and money and becoming ‘Comfortably Numb’.

What about now? Are we somehow enslaved by machines? Is their some hope on the horizon? Will the people finally rise up once and for all and demand that their rights be respected. For some, many, it is a matter of life and death. Even for some of our neighbors or friends, people we know and see in the bad part of town, or in a bad place in their life. Illness, poverty, depression. The death by thousand cuts.

Here is the video from the Remembrance and Reaffirmation December 09.

Is their a possibility of a resurgence in free love and a willingness for collective peace and justice even if we feel uncomfortable some times? Is it worth having to go to town hall meetings once a month to not have a fascist government run by corporations? Tough call I guess for most, but when it comes down to it, that is all it would take. Town by town referendums. Go door to door. Take a year, take two. If it were the actual will of the people it would get done.

But I guess that is crazy. People are resilient. They can bear the burden of capitalism, they will trudge on like good soldiers. Besides, we are waiting for the miracle, the miracle to come.

These videos and the millions of other works of ecstatic life art will be a testament to our collective struggle for the democratic ideal of  “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” It is a flame that cannot be extinguished.

And these cats in Berkley, in 2009, young and old are keeping the torch lit. Paying tribute to these giants that too many of us smugly stand on with our entitlements and our digitized and plasticized disposable culture.

Saint Mario stood like a giant and spoke. He became a heroic figure to those who dare mythologize this world. Remember the Titans.

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