Monday, October 31, 2011

The Occupy Movement and UC Berkeley's Free Speech Monument

I've long wanted to rant publicly about the Free Speech Monument on UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza. The Occupy movement -- from Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Oakland, to acts of solidarity as far afield as Cairo -- provides a fine excuse.

If you haven't been to Berkeley lo these past twenty years you may not know about the monument. Here's a capsule summary from KALW radio piece earlier this year, by Roman Mars, titled 99% invisible: Berkeley’s invisible monument to free speech.

In 1989, a group called the Berkeley Art Project decided to hold a national public art competition to create a monument that would commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, which began on the University of California, Berkeley campus in 1964. The winning design, created by Mark Brest van Kempen (who was then a graduate student at the San Francisco Art Institute), is an invisible sculpture that creates a small space completely free from laws or jurisdiction. The six-inch circle of soil, and the "free" column of airspace above it, is framed by a six-foot granite circle. The inscription on the granite reads, "This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction." The six-inch free space acts as a beacon for speakers and political events. [...]

Public space

That last bit is some serious poetic excess, no?

Look, no offense to the artist, but it's not his monument with it's "six-inch free space" that "acts as a beacon for speakers and political events." It's the long and storied struggles for free expression, for civil rights (the precipitating issue of the Free Speech Movement), against the Vietnam War, against nuclear weapons proliferation, against apartheid, for equal access to higher education, and dozens of other issues, that has drawn and continues to draw dozens or hundreds or thousands who long to make the world a better place to this epicenter of student-led activism.

It's something else too. Consider the space itself.

Public space is where the public gathers: Union Square and Central Park in New York, Haymarket Square and Grant Park in Chicago, Civic Center Plaza and The Embarcadero in San Francisco, Parliament Square in London, Tahir Square in Cairo, Tiananmen Square in Beijing. These are public spaces well known for their activist histories.

In London now, even as I type, an Occupy encampment has installed itself in the churchyard at St. Paul's Cathedral, after police prevented them from entering the adjacent Paternoster Square where the London Stock Exchange is located. In Tahir Square a few days ago, Egyptian democracy activists marched in solidarity with Occupy Oakland in the wake of a police attack that left a Marine veteran of two tours of duty in Iraq hospitalized with a fractured skull. Twenty-four year old Scott Olsen escaped injury in Iraq, but last week police in Oakland launched a tear gas cannister into his head as they attempted to clear the public from Frank Ogawa Plaza, a public space.

The rant

Much of the controversy around installing the Free Speech Monument (called by its creator, Mark Brest Van Kempen, "Column of Earth and Air") had to do with the university's demand that nothing in the monument itself, the donation documents to the university, or the joint press release announcing the monument's installation, mention the Free Speech Movement that inspired it. The late Michael Rossman, a principal organizer of 1964's Free Speech Movement, wrote an excellent overview of this irony, which I recommend to those who want to follow that thread.

But what raises my blood pressure every time I pass this nearly-invisible monument is its subtext.

For decades, students and community members have struggled with campus officials for the right to use Sproul Plaza as a theater from which to advocate for change. Time and again activists found themselves fenced in by ever-morphing, ever-narrowing "Time, Place, and Manner" regulations on the use of Sproul Plaza and other campus venues. That there need to be some regulations seems reasonable to me, in theory. We (and I do work on the campus, so it's only right that I use the first-person plural) are trying to run an institution of higher education at Berkeley, and a fine one at that.

What is far less straightforward is the ongoing use of these regulations by campus officials to muzzle political movements they find unsympathetic or inconvenient. In my thirty-some years as a member of the campus community the Time, Place, and Manner rules have been modified repeatedly to narrow the terms of on-campus protest. I've been writing about the phenomenon since before there were intertubes, and I'm hardly the only one to do so.

But back to the Free Speech Monument. I say the implication of the monument, which UCB officials only reluctantly permitted to grace the campus, is not that free speech is welcome. Rather, the implication is that free expression is constrained to a six-inch circle of soil, and the "free" column of airspace above it.

What I remember most vividly about the selection process for the monument is that one of the rejected designs was for a permanently installed soapbox, made out of concrete if my memory is reliable. But that, I thought and think still, never mind the question of artistic merits, would have sent a message that the campus couldn't bring itself to endorse: that Sproul Plaza is a working, living, usable and well-exercised forum for the practice of participatory democracy.


But a six-inch circle, into which the skinniest living activist could not possibly squeeze? That was acceptable. Barely.

What they said in Cairo

On Friday, as reported on boing boing, activists in Egypt marched from Tahir Square in Cairo to support Occupy Oakland, an encampment that has grown, been violently dismantled, and is growing once again, just a few miles south of the UC Berkeley campus.

As they vowed earlier this week to do, Egyptian pro-democracy protesters marched from Tahrir square to the U.S. Embassy today to march in support of Occupy Oakland -- and against police brutality witnessed in Oakland on Tuesday night, and commonly experienced in Egypt.

I took BART to Occupy Oakland late that afternoon, just a few stops from where I live. At the opening of the nightly General Assembly, a facilitator announced that a letter had been sent from activists in Egypt several days before, but that it was long so she would read only parts of it. No way. The crowd of five hundred or more shouted out that they wanted to hear the whole thing. The people were right on this one, it's a beautifully crafted piece and well worth a read.

I won't reproduce the full missive here (you can find it on the occupyca blog, in the post Letter from Cairo). But here's what the Cairo activists had to say about public space and the Occupy movement, excerpted from the longer letter:

We are not protesting. Who is there to protest to? What could we ask them for that they could grant? We are occupying. We are reclaiming those same spaces of public practice that have been commodified, privatized and locked into the hands of faceless bureaucracy, real estate portfolios, and police 'protection'. Hold on to these spaces, nurture them, and let the boundaries of your occupations grow. After all, who built these parks, these plazas, these buildings? Whose labor made them real and livable? Why should it seem so natural that they should be withheld from us, policed and disciplined? Reclaiming these spaces and managing them justly and collectively is proof enough of our legitimacy.

In our own occupations of Tahrir, we encountered people entering the Square every day in tears because it was the first time they had walked through those streets and spaces without being harassed by police; it is not just the ideas that are important, these spaces are fundamental to the possibility of a new world. These are public spaces. Spaces for gathering, leisure, meeting, and interacting -- these spaces should be the reason we live in cities. Where the state and the interests of owners have made them inaccessible, exclusive or dangerous, it is up to us to make sure that they are safe, inclusive and just. We have and must continue to open them to anyone that wants to build a better world, particularly for the marginalized, excluded and for those groups who have suffered the worst.

When I heard those words read into the rapt hush at Oscar Grant plaza, I wept.

Public space and winter

An early and fierce snow storm hit the East Coast this past weekend. Rain is predicted for the Bay Area later this week. In yesterday's SF Chronicle, when Joe Garofoli wrote about Big challenges ahead for Occupy movement, he was taking about the weather.

The weather?

I have three things to say to the punditocracy and other hand-wringers that have been desperately predicting the demise of the Occupy movement since the day it began.

First, while physical public spaces offer qualities that cannot be replaced by remote interactions, discourse is also a form of public space and winter won't drive it out of public sight or consciousness.

Second, galvanizing protests over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's union-busting state budget proposal early this year occurred in February and March, a period during which temperatures averaged in the twenties and thirties in Madison; during some weeks temperatures dropped into the 'teens.


This is the obvious truth, one that has played a role in every movement and organizing effort in which I've participated over the course of decades: winter is followed by spring. Political activism, like life and seasons, has cycles. When (not if) tents are folded in Zuccotti Park, it will not mean that activity has stopped and it doesn't mean that this movement is done with occupations.

Time will tell. But I'll wager this movement is not ready to be relegated to six-inch circle of soil, and the "free" column of airspace above it. Not by a long shot.


  1. The (lack of) design of American cities seems quite a subconscious decision to exclude the space for the populace to congregate, unlike the old world European cities where the town squares or market places often play a central role in civic life.

  2. Steve,
    Thank you for your thoughts on the monument. As the designer I wanted to add some thoughts about the piece.
    First the piece deals with the idea of space as most sculptures do but specifically the politics of space. I believe that this is a fundamental element of any protest, regardless of the specific issues.

    The piece is meant to highlight the fact that the entire surface of the planet has been effectively covered with jurisdiction, ownership and laws of one kind or another. Even "public space" is embedded with the laws of its city and nation. By drilling a small "hole" through this invisible layer of jurisdiction it makes the pervasive control of space visible.

    The small size of the space reflects the fact that without laws there are people who would use the space in unfortunate ways. Also most jurisdictional spaces (private property, national borders, public space) are almost always spaces that we enter into. By making a space that enters us, it hopefully makes this space more visceral.

    Finally, Mario Savio among others have objected to the fact that the piece does not deal more explicitly with the FSM. It was my intention to create a piece that dealt with the underlying issues of the quest for freedom in a society rather than specific issues of any given protest. I wanted the piece to be relevant to any issue that came up rather than be a nostalgic look at the FSM (like the Savio Cafe).

    Ive always visualized the monument being complete when a person steps into the space, has the invisible column passing through their body and speaks freely.

  3. @Mark Brest Van Kempen -- Thank you for visiting, reading, and especially for your thoughtful comment on this post.

    Your piece does convey, as you write that you intended, "that the entire surface of the planet has been effectively covered with jurisdiction, ownership and laws of one kind or another." I fully agree that as your piece symbolically "drill[s] a small 'hole' through this invisible layer of jurisdiction it makes the pervasive control of space visible."

    I did not mean to criticize your intention. It is the campus administration's selection of a work of art that can be read as an addendum, as it were, to the university's "Time, Place, and Manner" constraints on the exercise of free speech that riles me.

    That you can visualize "the monument being complete when a person steps into the space, has the invisible column passing through their body and speaks freely" is symbolically powerful in the context of your work of art. However, its placement on a plaza that is claimed, often, repeatedly, and (more or less) in-toto for living movements -- and by many, many more activists than can fit in the monument's space -- there I think that the message is far more ambiguous, and less congruent with ongoing and, as you put it, "underlying issues of the quest for freedom in a society rather than specific issues of any given protest."

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