“We are losing equal opportunity in America; we are losing the moral foundation stone on which this country and our democracy are built.” – Robert Reich
I approached Sproul Plaza from the south that night. I walked towards the crowd, made a quick detour for hot cider (please reserve judgment), and made my way towards the top of the stairs leading up from the Student Union. It wasn’t until I turned around to face the stage that I understood the magnitude of what was going on.
Thousands of people were gathered in the plaza. The cement was carpeted with students sitting cross-legged, knee-to-knee. One elderly couple sat on chairs near the fountain. Students sat atop the Golden Bear Cafe, legs dangling over the roof’s edge; Sproul steps teemed with listeners. People of all ages stood around the edges of the open space, on top of whatever they could access to get a better look.
After more than an hour of introduction, which included the presentation of three Young Activist Awards, acceptance speeches, and some not-so-subtle audience urging to move things along, Professor Reich took the stage.
He situated that night in the rich history of the surrounding square. “The sentiments and words that Mario Savio expressed 47 years ago are as relevant, if not more relevant, today than they were then,” as we live in a country where the Supreme Court has decided that “money is speech and corporations are people.”
“We have to be willing to pay the price for freedom of speech and of a democratic system of government,” he stressed. Issues of fundamental social justice that were central to the movements of the 60s “are still very much with us. And for that reason, it is doubly important that our democracy give people the opportunity to speak up about what must be done, enable our democracy to function as it should function – not with money, not simply with privilege, but with the ability of people to join together to make their voices heard.”
He turned his attention to Occupy Cal, acknowledging that Berkeley students are speaking out about a panoply of issues and validating their concerns. Professor Reich argued that the decreasing accessibility of public higher education, as is a failing K-12 education system, creates a fundamental problem: “We are losing equal opportunity in America; we are losing the moral foundation stone on which this country and our democracy are built.”
Our democracy is undermined because, thought the economy has doubled over the past 30 years, the wealth goes primarily to the top, and there’s no limit on the money that can be spent on politics. When there’s no limit on the amount of money that “can infect and undermine and corrupt our democracy, what do we have left?” he asked.
Professor Reich then expressed his pride in the UC Berkeley community, one that has always valued free expression, social justice, and democracy. We members of this community understand the connections between the three; we feel it that the Occupy Movement and its many manifestations “are ways in which people are beginning to respond to the crisis of our democracy.” Dr. Reich praised the crowd for its patience and commitment, and assured us we’re already making a huge difference. He urged us to be patient with ourselves in defining specific demands or changes, as moral outrage is always the beginning of a large movement.
“The days of apathy are over, folks,” he announced to great cheers. “Once this has begun, it cannot be stopped, and will not be stopped.” We were left with a reminder that, were America to continue on its current trajectory, that “the bullies would be in charge” – and that we must fight the bullies, protect the powerless, and “make sure that people without a voice have a voice.”
One of the most powerful aspects of the night was the merging of generations around a common issue. In my corner of Sproul, I was surrounded by older women and men who, based on their conversations and comments, had been involved in the Free Speech movement. I was moved by their show of support for this movement started by another generation. That they were flooded with memories was tangible, and poignant. When Dr. Reich spoke the name of his friend Michael Schwerner, the two older women on the steps beside me gasped in recognition, then sighed; they remembered that news story, perhaps remembered that day.
The crowd left validated and galvanized.