BERKELEY (CBS SF) — From the Third World Liberation Strike at San Francisco State to the now iconic Free Speech and anti-war demonstrations at UC Berkeley, the 1960s brought an explosion of student activism that would define the decade and forever change the country.
It was a wave of protest and unrest that may well have been unleashed by a fire hose inside San Francisco City Hall.
“For me, I was 17 and a senior in high school,” recalls Mark Buell, who had come to watch protests against the House Un-American Activities Committee at the suggestion of his high school civics teacher. “A friend of mine and I came down to see what was going on.”
It was May 13th, 1960, and HUAC was holding a quasi-public hearing, attempting to expose alleged communists in the Bay Area. Inside the city hall chambers, longshoreman Archie Brown dared the committee to open the hearing to the crowds gathered outside in the rotunda.
“They were letting in select people they deemed not to be commies,” Buell explains. “Here, people were standing in line for hours, and they got pissed off.”
Police stormed the hearing room and subsequently turned fire hoses on those gathered outside, largely students.
“Everybody sat down,” Buell recalls. “They were trying to just not move, and all of a sudden they’re being hosed down and sliding down the stairs. I don’t think anybody anticipated that was going to be the outcome, and no one could believe it.”
That video of those students getting hosed down the steps and dragged out into Civic Center Plaza is just as incredible now as it was then, but in 1960, no one could have anticipated that what was happening at San Francisco City Hall was just the beginning of something much larger.
“Maybe television was responsible,” says Buell. “I don’t know, but it riled up everybody.”
Watching that HUAC protest on television, an incoming wave of students that would make history.
“Because of HUAC, I came to Berkeley,” laughs Dr. Bettina Aptheker, who would become a central figure in Free Speech and anti-war protests of the 1960s. “I watched the protests there and I told my parents: ‘I’m going to Berkeley!’ It was explosive, all these political things were happening, the Civil Rights Movement, and [the school administration] suddenly said ‘you can’t organize and you can’t picket and you can’t hand out leaflets and you can’t have rallies.’ That’s what started the free speech movement.”
By the end of 1964, protesters and strikers had effectively shut the UC Berkeley campus down, and the confrontations with law enforcement were just beginning. The activism would quickly escalate and shift focus to the war that was escalating in Southeast Asia.
“We just had this idea that having an all-women’s march to the induction center would be effective,” says Aptheker, recalling her televised interview with KPIX reporter Ben Williams in 1965. “Well I was laughing, because when I said I would nail the demands to the door I was thinking of Martin Luther. I must have been taking a religion class, something on the Reformation.”
As the war and protests dragged on, the Berkeley campus looked very much like a battlefield as students routinely squared off with police, and one very notable rising politician, Ronald Reagan.
“California,” Reagan declared, “is determined to exercise its responsibility to maintain law and order on the campuses of our universities, as well as all other educational institutions.”
Reagan would win that election for governor in 1966, and send more than two thousand National Guard troops to Berkeley. The protests, however, were spreading to more campuses.
“The Civil Rights movement,” says Aptheker. “As it bubbled up on campuses, it became a question of, how come the faculty is all white?”
In 1968, another Bay Area campus would erupt in protest, and that was San Francisco State.
“This perception that we didn’t belong, and the thought that the state & the university were uncomfortable with this many black students being present,” says Dr. Ramona Tascoe who matriculated to SF State the year before.
“In 1968 I was a sophomore at SF State, and I was the Black Students Union secretary,” Tascoe told KPIX 5. “It was the very first day of the strike, November 6th.”
Tascoe would become the very first person arrested in connection with the strike.
“It was both exciting, and also frightening,” Tascoe recalls. “The idea that I was being arrested was probably more frightening than being arrested. The idea that my mother and father would find out, see me on television.”
And so San Francisco State experienced its own stretch of protest and violence in the closing years of the 60s, directly linked to the country’s larger struggle for civil rights.
“That baton of civil rights was falling,” Tascoe explains. “We as students, we said ‘the baton is now in our hands, pick it up, run with it.'”
Race, the Vietnam War, the bomb, the environment, freedom of speech, half a century later it’s taken for granted that these things receive spirited debate on college campuses. In the 1960s it was nothing short of revolutionary. Berkeley, the Bay Area, and the country would never be the same.
“I think the question you hint at is that it was the beginning of a period of time,” says Buell, reflecting on that decade of protest. “I would have said decade but I think it’s been going on ever since. I think it let a genie out of the bottle that has never been put back in.”