The Operation of the Machine

Mario Savio is famous, or at least he’s famous if you’re an activist at all interested in the history of student activism in the United States. He is famous enough that he’s even been institutionalized — or co-opted — at the University of California at Berkeley:

The steps [of Sproul Hall] are named for Mario Savio, the eloquent graduate student who was the symbolic face of the movement. There is even a Free Speech Movement Cafe on campus where some of Mr. Savio’s words are prominently displayed: “There is 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.”

The speech continues — although this part, apparently, they haven’t seen fit to emblazon

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.

That’s the idea of nonviolent protest. It’s the idea of strikes and sit-ins and of linked arms and of destroying draft files with homemade napalm. The idea is to keep the machine from working at all. But it turns out that in a lot of situations, that’s very hard to do.

When I was involved, in my own small way, in a sit-in at the University of Iowa in 2000, our idea was that we would keep the machine of the administration from working by occupying their main building. We ended up occupying their hallway for a week, and while we certainly inconvenienced them somewhat (I’ll never forget the woman who came out to spray air freshener over us every morning), we could not, as it turns out, stop the machine. We never even saw then UI President Mary Sue Coleman. She had, we assumed, some sort of bathole entrance to the building, because we were there round the clock and we never saw her enter or leave. She never once spoke to us.

And so our fight, like those of many of the Occupy movements now, became not against the machine itself but against its minions. We were lucky: when the cops came to get us, they acted nonviolently. No one was sprayed with pepper spray or dragged or beaten. Others, as anyone who watches YouTube knows, have not been so fortunate at late.

Most of the people who are involved with Occupy movements didn’t set out to treat the police as the enemy. Sure, police brutality is a problem, but I think for the most part we recognize it as a symptom, not a root cause. It’s true that the actions of the Chicago Police Department at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 were officially deemed a riot, but it was Mayor Richard Daley who gave the “shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand . . . and . . . to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any stores in our city” order to the police some months prior to that in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

It was ordinary soldiers who carried out torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, but it was officials of our country at the highest levels of power who endorsed waterboarding.

It was campus police who pepper-sprayed students at UC Davis, but it was Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi who issued their orders.

And while it is local police who have done the dirty work of cracking down on Occupations in Oakland, Portland, New York City, and elsewhere, it is the mayors of those places — acting, apparently, not only with each other but also under the advisement of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security — who have issued those orders.

It’s damned hard to get to the chancellor of a university. It’s hard to shut down the machine of Wall Street. Even throwing money on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange only interrupted things for a little bit. It’s hard. You throw your body up against the machine, and fifty years later, they put your words in a coffee shop.

I understand that people are disappointed in those occupiers who have turned their attention to battling the cops. It saddens me, too. I’d rather be talking about economic inequality and the Supercommittee and the latest appalling contract between the University of Iowa and a multinational sweatshop and the work that Shelter House and the Free Mental Health Clinic have to do because we don’t actually bother to take care of people in this country and the staggering numbers of people who are out of work or on the verge of losing their homes and — well, I could go on. But how do you get people to talk about these things, or more importantly, to do something about them? And why, when people do try to dramatize them, do we insist they be “cleaned up?”

If you have an answer, I would love to hear it.

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