FSM-A Home Page

FSM-A \ Free Speech Movement Archives FSM-A


Karen McLellan

            Michael (Rossman) and I had a complicated time of it during the months of FSM.  I’d graduated and was working as a typist at the Rad Lab, up by the Cyclotron; he was studying math in grad school, which left him a lot of time to become one of the central organizers of the movement, and me with little time to see him.

            My history as a political activist was thin.  My parents were apolitical, much more involved in the dramas of their own lives than in the world around them.  I think the cultural transition from Texas to Sausalito when I was a baby during the war consumed all the world-view adjusting they could manage.  Coming out of the south in those years, they were democrats out of habit, but like god, it wasn’t something that interested them enough to ever talk about.

            I’d spent my freshman year at the University of Missouri, where I’d gone for the journalism school.  UC didn’t have a school of journalism during these years.  I was there in May of 1960 when HUAC happened in San Francisco.  I heard about it through a friend who’d actually gotten a ticket to be inside at the hearings.  (Michael was one of those hosed on the steps, though of course I didn’t know it at the time.)  When the press called everybody commies I knew it wasn’t true and told everybody I came near at school that it wasn’t true.  After awhile a friend asked me to talk about it to a couple of different groups.  About all I could say was that I knew some of the people who were there, and they definitely were not commies, so why should we believe the others were?

            I skedaddled back to Berkeley as soon as I could, for my sophomore year, 1960.  After Michael and I met in February of 63, I learned a lot, fast.  I’d gone with him to picket in S.F., but though my heart was learning how much my head had not known, I was still dim and slow to be absorbing the huge changes that knowing Michael had brought into my life.  

            After work on Oct 2, I rushed down to campus to see what was happening.  I was aware of course of the police car at Sproul Plaza.   When I got there it looked like the cops were setting up to bust the people who had been surrounding the car.  I could see Michael up near the car, as hundreds of students sat, surrounding and surrounded. 

            The news passed among them in waves that there were hundreds of Oakland cops just out of sight behind Sproul, and that all the Berkeley police very much in view had been told to use their clubs, and then there was a rumor that squads of frat boys were waiting behind the cops, eager to join in on a good beating.  So I sat down too.  The people around me were more scared of the frat boys than the cops.  Soon I was several rows in, as more and more people sat down.  Except for Michael and a few of the others up front, I didn’t see anybody I knew.  

            I waved to a guy standing at the edge and asked,  “Are you going to sit?”  “No.  Shit, I can’t,” he said.  “I’ve got a big paper due tomorrow.”   “Okay, well, can you take my watch?  If it gets rough I don’t want it to get broken.”  “Sure!  Let me get your phone number so I can bring it to you afterwards.”  I thanked him, and several people helped me hand over my grandmother’s gold watch to a stranger who did, as promised, return it the next day.

            We all sang the songs that some had learned the hard way the previous summer doing voter registration in the South.  “We shall not, we shall not be moved.”  And of course, “We shall overcome.”  Anybody who has ever sung the words “we are not afraid” while they were shaking and petrified, has never heard the words the same way again.  Even fifty years later, when it’s long since out of fashion and seldom heard, the song takes me back to that moment.  For those who sat in at the administration building a few weeks later, the song would remind them of being beaten and dragged down the stairs and arrested, but for me, this was the moment that stuck.  It was October; we sat as it got dark early, and cold.  We sang ourselves into believing in our courage, sometimes swaying as we sang.  We shivered and sang to keep warm as we waited, terrified, to get beat up. 
            Finally Mario appeared, waving papers, excited.  My memory is that he made his way through to the car and removed his shoes as usual, as people helped him climb up and handed him the bullhorn.  He’d been with some of the other leaders meeting with the faculty and the administration, and a compromise had been arranged.  Jack would not be arrested -- we, the cops, and the frat boys could all go home.  Cheers, hugs, excitement.   Everybody got up and milled around until our feelings subsided and folks began to disperse.  It was half an hour before I could make my way through to Michael.

            “You were here?  I didn’t see you.” 

            “Bet your ass I was here.  They bloody weren’t getting to you without getting past me.” 
            He took my shoulders and looked into my eyes.  He smiled that warm, knowing smile that linked us together every time he used it.  Eventually we went on back to his place. 

            Shortly before the University went back on their promises yet again, setting off the great sit-in, Michael and I had broken up yet again, hurtfully.  By then we’d been breaking up and mending it for almost two years.  Though I was at the rally beforehand and watched as Joan sang, as Mario spoke, as people I knew streamed into the building, after what had happened around the car, I thought it would get fixed once more in time to avoid violence.  I turned away, wanting only to be far from Michael, found somebody in the crowd, and went off to bed with him.  I have no idea who he was.  It wasn’t my finest moment, and it was a decision I’ve regretted ever since … for so many reasons.

            I rushed back to campus the next morning, without my watch, thinking I would join the sit-in after all, but of course it was too late.  By the time I got there, hundreds had already been arrested, and Sproul couldn’t be entered.  I joined a picket-line at Bancroft and Tele, some of the jail-bound buses just up the street.  After awhile I got to talking with a young reporter from the Oakland Tribune, and when he went down Tele. looking for a phone booth to report in to the paper, I tagged along.

            “Hi, it’s…(I have no idea what his name was).  I’m calling from just off campus.  The strike is 90% successful.  Hardly any students are in the classrooms.  It’s peaceful, but noisy.  There are picket lines at all the entrances to campus, and cars are driving by honking in support.  There are cops all over the place, but they’re just standing by.  It’s kind of festive, actually. … What? … No, I’m right here.  On the campus. … What?  Are you telling me that the city editor has already written the story?  No, that’s just not accurate, what he’s saying. … Hey, I’m your reporter.  I work for you.  I’m here at the scene. …  But that’s just not true. … Jesus, are you nuts?  That’s just not true.  The classrooms are bloody empty; the students are honoring the lines.  He can’t just ignore what I’m telling you, what I’m reporting, and write what he wants to!  …  It’s already gone to press?  Are you out of your goddam mind?”  He slammed the phone into its cradle.

            “They’re printing that the strike is a failure, and the students are ignoring the picket lines and going to class.”

            I was stunned.  “If they do that, the students really will go to class on Monday.  We’ve got to do something.”  I led him off to find one of the organizing committees.  “Fuck!,” he said.  “I think I just got fired.  Or else I just quit.  Fuck!  How could they do that?  I’m their fucking reporter!”
            When we got the attention of someone in a crowded, somewhat frantic room (and I don’t know which Central it was, and have long forgotten where the room was), he agreed it was a crisis, but one amid many.  It was decided that somebody should get some people out to go talk to students at the various dorms and co-ops and at the frat and sorority houses that surrounded campus, as the best way to get the word out quickly.  “You do it,” the guy said to me, somebody I’d never met before and don’t remember, likely somebody who had assumed authority that morning in the vacancy caused by the arrests.  “Me?” I asked.   “Yeah, there’s nobody else.  Everybody’s still getting bailed out.  You can do it.”
            So I found myself a community organizer.  The reporter helped, saying, “Hell, I probably don’t have a job anymore anyway.”  I grabbed some people off of the picket lines and called all of my friends.  One of my best friends, Karen Grassle, joined me in organizing it, and we sent everybody we could find out in groups of two or three to the various living groups, to spend the weekend getting the word out to the students that the strike was effective and was going to continue, and to share what was to me the more shocking news that the newspaper had ignored its own reporter to lie to everybody.   

            This was how the FSM worked: if you had an idea, you checked it out with some of the people who had roles because they were working on the FSM full time, and if your idea was sound, you were in charge of making it happen.  If it took awhile to do, your group became a ‘Central.”  There were Centrals all over the place.  Press Central, Legal Central, Communications Central.   For that weekend, my friend and I became something like Correction Central. (I don’t remember what we called ourselves.)  We scrambled to find people to help out, worked the phones to set up appointments, and folks called in to us to let us know where they’d been, so we could coordinate where they should go next. 

            When the weekend was over, so was our Central.  Like hundreds of others, I’d played my small part, and it qualified me to experience for a moment a world of true participatory democracy that had come into existence for those few months.  I can’t remember whether our work was of actual use.  I don’t remember whether the strike continued or needed to, i.e., which day was the vote of the Academic Senate, which meant we’d won.  But I do have some lovely hazy memories of those months.

            We had become friends with a wonderful man named Walt Herbert who had come to Berkeley that year, to the seminary.  We would talk late into the night, sitting around in Michael’s tiny one-room, plant-infested den of an apartment, and his ideas were exciting.  Mostly it was exciting to watch minds like Michael’s and Mario’s and Walt’s at play together.  (This never got old.  I loved listening to Mario and Michael swing along in those lofty trees, following each other through the branches of physics and literature and life bio and math and of course political systems, ‘getting’ each other.  Shortly before Mario’s sudden heart-drop, Michael got off of a long phone call with him.  Mario had been excited about becoming a house-owner for the first time.  Michael was flushed with the pleasure of their talk.  “You know,” he said, realizing it perhaps for the first time, “Mario is the person I most like to talk to.”)  During FSM the idea of Walt’s that I remember most clearly was the notion that religion works best when it happens in small groups, words shared in tents in the dark of night, people just like us, working in the day and stumbling at night to make sense of the world and of their lives. “When they brought it inside, and built great cathedrals and temples, it changed irrevocably.  Rigidified, codified, no longer an exploration.  Sometimes I think System Building is original sin.”  We took to calling him God Central, but when it was all over, he went back to Texas and got a doctorate in Literature.  The FSM had changed him, too.

            It was this experience of participatory democracy that made the FSM different from anything else Michael or I had ever experienced.  My shock at the phone booth was the awakening at last, after all that had been going on, of my political awareness.  I knew vaguely that newspapers lied sometimes in their articles, but that one would dare to completely lie about the entire nature of what it had been trusted to report on…left me in shock.  My frantic work that weekend to get the word out was my small piece of the FSM, just one of many.  Because everywhere one went, it was this quality of jumping in and doing what needed to be done that touched everybody who got near it.  Oh yes, and also the fun which infused so much of it.  We were young after all, and very important, and changing the world.  There was singing, there was dancing, there was romance.  
            It changed the lives of everybody who experienced it, and it caused us all to seek it again wherever we could find it, and to create it where we could, and to long for it for




FSM-A Home Page