Monday, December 1, 2014

Mario Savio's 'bodies upon the gears' speech — 50 years later

Posted By on Mon, Dec 1, 2014 at 1:00 PM

Fifty years ago tomorrow (you always have to get the jump on these things), free speech observers and radicals everywhere should mark the 50th anniversary of Mario Savio's famous speech on the steps of Sproul Hall at the University of California, Berkeley. Savio found himself at the center of the Free Speech Movement, which had begun protesting the university's ban on political activity on campus that fall. It is remarkable in this day to consider that a university could institute such a ban (especially in light of the ongoing protests at UC-Berkeley this weekend against tuition hikes, or, more locally, the walkout planned at WSU today). In a way, the widespread political activity on college campuses shows just how successful the Free Speech Movement was in fighting such bans.

But back to the speech: It represents a sort of turning point for what used to be called the counterculture (the very culture that would go on to give birth to such alternative newsweeklies as Metro Times, for instance). It's a short but bold and defiant oration that says free human beings aren't going to be pushed around by anybody, from lawmakers and police to liberals and labor leaders. Standing in front of a crowd of 4,000 people, Savio described his meeting with university officials, who compared the president of the university to the president of a corporation. In a clever way, Savio followed this line of comparison to its logical conclusion: Universities were factories turning the "raw materials" — that is to say, the students — into finished products to be bought by corporations, government, or organized labor. It's a fine little speech, made especially memorable by Savio's passion, the way he seems to be pulling together his speech on the fly, and especially by the closing paragraph, from with the address takes its name as the "bodies upon the gears" speech.

There's 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!

It's one hell of a speech, one that resonated with the protesters of Occupy Wall Street when it started up in Fall 2011. And in a time when the average American feels more alienated than ever from those in power, they're more worth considering now than ever. 

For all his political activity, Savio was illegally hounded and surveilled by the FBI, designated as a person to be detained without judicial warrant in event of a national emergency. He would go on to a rather uneventful career as a university lecturer, and died quietly in 1996 at the age of 53. But it's his youthful fire we remember today.

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