Stoney Burke: Master of the Free Speech Zone

Minstrels of various stripes have graced college campuses for decades. At 1980s UCLA, all we got were preachers. Some were local, some visited from afar. But they all had the same message: you are evil and are going to hell. One of my favorites was Brother Jed. He came with an entourage that included his wife, Sister Cindy, and an older woman we assumed to be Cindy’s mother. No one could throw the brimstone harder than Brother Jed. He danced, he leapt about, he gyrated his arms and hands like a magician. Pure entertainment.

And then he came.

I actually first saw him in Berkeley, wearing baggy, striped pants, his hair dyed some odd color, and carrying a weather-wore tan suitcase full of props. I couldn’t stay to check him out at the time. I was following a friend to one of his classes. But then a month later, this same man appeared at UCLA on Bruin Walk, same clothes, same hair, same suitcase full of props. He was definitely not a preacher.

“Ronald Reagan! Ronald Reagan! Scum-sucking fascist Republican! Scum-sucking fascist Republican!” he sang to the tune of “Frère Jacques.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but this lanky, double-jointed clown, who yelled profanities at the powerful and blew a police whistle against the complacent was the legendary Stoney Burke. A fixture at Berkeley for many years, he brought his adventures in free speech to UCLA, and our world would never be the same again.

Stoney says in his memoir, Weapon: Mouth – Adventures in the Free Speech Zone that he drew his inspiration from, among others, a street performer called the Swami. At that time, the Swami lived in semiretirement and hung on the Venice Beach boardwalk; I had seen him a couple of times. But really, Stoney is unique. Others have performed topical political comedy, long before Jon Stewart. Others have spoken out against the powerful on soap boxes. Others have trumpeted the sanctity of free speech. Stoney has, over his long career, combined all of these elements while literally putting his body in the line of fire. He recounts many scuffles with police.

Us malcontents, those of us who dared to raise our voices against evil and injustice, had found a kindred spirit. Hanging on Bruin Walk, a favorite pastime, became a lot more interesting. Early in Stoney’s residency at UCLA, Brother Jed returned for his annual visit. Bring the popcorn, we said, this is gonna be good! Stoney mimicked all of Jed’s acrobatics. He countered Jed’s conservatism with liberation theology. He reminded the good preacher about Jesus’ dedication to the poor. In the end Jed looked foolish, but he wore his defeat with grace. They knew one another, having crossed verbal swords on other college campuses in the past.

Stoney recalls some of his religious encounters in his memoir, including one at San Francisco State, where he went to school. He jousted with a fellow named Cliff about all manner of religious dogma. Stoney states that he knew he won when one of Cliff’s supporters threw lemonade in his face. The next day, a letter in the school newspaper called him a blasphemer. That same day, a group of Black Muslims took the free speech spot at SF State to call for Salmon Rushdie’s death for writing The Satanic Verses.

“Excuse me? I could have sworn that just last week, death threats were not included in this Free Speech game we play?”

Joust with words, never with violence. That game was reserved for the police.

I can’t recall a time when police gave him trouble at UCLA for one of his shows (they busted him at one of our anti-apartheid protests, but that’s another story), but it’s amazing how many times he did get into trouble during his travels, simply for practicing free speech. In his book, he tells a story of how on one campus a group of fans and supports literally shielded him from security officers so that they could not arrest him. He wasn’t always so lucky. One such arrest provided him the title, as well as a chapter, for his memoir. The arresting officer literally cited his mouth as a weapon. Doesn’t that sum up our society’s uneasy relationship with rights?

Those of us who engage in any sort of critical thinking risk running afoul of authorities, or at least getting their attention. I’m fairly certain that my shortwave radio listening, resulting in many letters sent overseas, attracted undue attention from authorities. I remember seeing this odd dude on a bike watching me from a distance while I watered the front lawn at my parents’ house. This was in South Central LA, and the dude was white so he sort of stuck out. Similarly, Stoney never escaped the notice of The Man wherever he went.

During one of his UCLA shows, Chancellor Young walked by with some of his functionaries. We interrupted Stoney with an off-stage whisper, telling him “hey, that’s our Chancellor!” Stoney grinned widely and got busy. As he needled UCLA’s longest serving chancellor about divestment from South Africa and other topical issues, Dr. Young looked at him with a small grin and pointing finger and said, “Oh, I’ve heard all about you,” as he kept on walking. How Stoney got on the chancellor’s radar was a mystery to us, but it really shouldn’t have been. As I said, those who challenge the status quo, even especially with comedy, will catch the attention of upper echelons, from university chancellors to high school principals.

Stoney appeared as the principle subject in a documentary by Swedish filmmaker Kåge Jonsson called “An American in America.” He went back to his hometown of Romeo, Michigan, to visit his old high school, crew in tow. They got permission to film Stoney talking with current students. Everything was going OK, until the talk got a little too real for the administration to handle. Then, the principal called the whole thing off and Stoney and the film crew had to leave. The principal, unlike Chancellor Young, had not heard all about him.

Weapon does not included blow-by-blow details of Stoney’s life, his upbringing, and so on. That’s not his style. His writing mimics his shows. The words are quick on their feet. Indeed, the whole book is a succession of vignettes, told in sharp, humorous prose, interspersed with newspaper clippings of notorious exploits and flyers of past gigs. The background info he does impart gives a clue on how Stoney became Stoney. For example, I didn’t know that he trained as a mime, and began his career in silence. But the training explains how he learned to use his body like a dancer to tell stories.

He presented his most poignant story early in the book, paying homage to his parents. He lived in an orphanage for two years, he writes, before being adopted by his then-foster parents.

“Betty Burke’s home cooking and Jim Burke’s hearty laugh would be like music to my ears once I walked in the door, back from another venture into the great unknown beyond the A&W Root Beer stand at the edge of town.”

The young Master Burke had vague knowledge of the volunteer work his parents did through their church on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. But one cold spring morning, the reality of race relations in the US slapped the 10 year old Stoney across the face, harder than any angry hand or any icy Michigan lake-effect wind. I won’t tell more than this. You must buy the book and read this extraordinary tale for yourself. I will say, though, that the silent dignity and courage displayed by Stoney’s parents, and by folks like them, is the stuff of American History, the People’s History as the late Howard Zinn called it. It is the reason why positive change happens in our land of the free.

And this tale, told early in the book, explains Stoney’s devotion to free speech. He learned the lesson early: Simple acts threaten power. And what could be simpler than standing in a public space talking critically and thoughtfully about issues of the day – and being hella funny while doing it. He has taken his adventures to colleges across the country, to Europe, and to presidential nomination conventions for both parties. (Guess which party had him arrested from their convention? It’s not the one you think.) And he has survived to tell the tale. Thank goodness he took the time to write about it.

I’ve known Stoney for close to 30 years. I’m proud to say that my college roommates and I once served as a station on his Free Speech underground railroad. He crashed at our place for a week – my birthday week actually – around the time I was coming out of the closet. My coming out meant nothing to our friendship, needless to say. He lived in the Bay Area in the early 80s and thus witnessed the plague called AIDS from close quarters. So he had earned his stripes as an honorary queer in any case.

Stoney actually figures importantly in a story of my own. A group of us formed the nucleus of folks who pushed for the University of California system to divest itself from businesses with ties to Apartheid South Africa. In 1986, we held a sit-in at the UCLA career center and were arrested. The police got pissed that “we,” and not their billy clubs, caused a riot on campus, the first since the Vietnam War days. So to teach us a lesson, they sent us to LA County Jail, rather than released us from campus police headquarters. What fun that was. The sheriffs in county jail delighted in frightening us. I remember one dude slowly putting on gloves, placing the fear of a strip-search in our heads.

But before sending us off to the Fun House, the UCPD officers did grant us our mandatory one phone call. I called home, of course. Mom asked, “Well, are you in or are you out?” “I’m in,” I said. She figured as much. My mom and dad lived the Civil Rights Movement before there was a moment by virtue of being young, black, and intelligent freethinkers. It pleased them to no end that all of their offspring followed in their footsteps.

During our brief phone call, I lost my composure only once. Mom told me that Stoney had called to ask about me, to see if I was OK. That threw me for a loop. His kindness touched me deeply as I faced a night of unknown. It made that hellish night more bearable, knowing I had folks thinking of me, and proud of what I had done.

Some of the stories Stoney tells in Weapon I knew, some I didn’t. But all of it is fascinating and funny. Stoney truly is unique, almost an institution, having adventured in Free Speech for 40 years now. He represents a history of this country that one does not typically get to read about. Do yourself a favor, and read his story. It will make you laugh, and think.

Weapon: Mouth – Adventures in the Free Speech Zone (Regent Press, 2014) can be found at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and independent booksellers.

© 2014, gar. All rights reserved.


Stoney Burke: Master of the Free Speech Zone — 3 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Coulter Counterculture - the gar spot

  2. Hung out briefly in Ann Arbor in the early 80s. Where are you now? Not on the road, any more, but out there on the trail with Bernie or something. We need you now more than ever.

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