The Coulter Counterculture

Mario Savio spent his summer vacation in 1964 doing voter registration work in the South. Racist thugs beat him and a couple of his friends, the price of the ticket for many civil rights workers. One thug had to pay $50 for the crime.

Returning to school for the fall semester at UC Berkeley, he intended to raise money for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Things didn’t go quite as planned. Berkeley had a policy banning political fundraising and activities. Undeterred, he proceeded with his activities anyway. Thus begat Berkeley’s famous Free Speech Movement.

That movement’s legacy continues to this day. For the past 50-plus years, students continue to speak on the steps at Sproul Hall, now named for Mario Savio. Groups set up tables near those steps promoting social and political causes, from dances to fundraisers to Jesus to radical queer theory.

Community activists and street performers have taken to Savio Steps. Friend and Free Speech Warrior Stoney Burke ruled the roost on the steps for years, before decamping just north of Sather Gate to the less congested Dwinelle Plaza. (Stoney Plaza anyone?)

In addition to naming the steps in Mr. Savio’s honor, UC Berkeley also hosts the annual Mario Savio Memorial Lecture. Sponsored by a fund established in Mr. Savio’s name, speakers have included Robert Reich, Angela Davis, and Elizabeth Warren.

Mario Savio had no friends on the right. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI dogged him like they dogged everyone who made waves. Then-Governor Ronald Reagan was also not a fan. So of course it is the biggest of ironies that rightwing activities now cite the movement Mr. Savio championed in their calls for equal representation at the famously liberal university. Last February now-disgraced rightwing provocateur Milo Yiannapoulos came to campus, but had his event shutdown for public safety reasons. A violent demonstration began, causing some property damage and injuring some people.

Provocation continues. David Horowitz had an event shutdown a couple of weeks ago. Apparently, the event could not take place as planned due to public safety concerns.

Undeterred, the Berkeley Campus Republicans made plans to bring rightwing flamethrower Ann Coulter to campus to give a speech. Again, public safety concerns led the University to first cancel the event, but then they backtracked. It’s been a public back and forth ever since, with the campus offering an alternate date and Ms. Coulter vowing to speak on April 27, her original date, whether the campus liked it or not. Folks speculate that she’ll take to Savio Steps and decry the University’s attempt to stifle conservative voices.

Lynne Hollander Savio, Mario Savio’s widow, had this to say about the Coulter controversy:

“I don’t think Ann Coulter has anything useful to say, but it was unconstitutional for the university to bar her from speaking…”
New York Times, April 21, 2017

Ms. Savio also suggests that the ideals of the FSM are being coopted by some folks on the right, like the Coulters and Yiannapouloses of the world.

Mario Savio did not receive payment for speaking on the steps that now bare his name. Stoney Burke received a busker’s salary for the work he did on and near the steps. Ann Coulter was to have received a speaker’s fee in excess of $20,000 for her appearance. Who knew free speech could pay so well?

To the right, everything is a commodity. A motivation to help the Civil Rights Movement propelled Mr. Savio to speak out. Today, right wing bomb-throwers, who spend most of their time belittling others, want to use free speech as a cause célèbre, to stick it to liberals, and as a cash cow.

In his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, now-Senator Al Franken titled his chapter on Coulter “Ann Coulter: Nutcase.” A fair assessment. I don’t deny that even a “nutcase” has a right to speak her mind. I do, however, question the right’s sudden fealty to free speech and the provocative way in which they pursue it.

Mr. Savio did not have large organizations backing him up the way Ms. Coulter does. He did not have a team of A-list attorney’s fighting for his rights in the courts. Furthermore, he fought a system in order to better humanity. Coulter appears to be fighting to further embolden an establishment already drunk with power. And, of course, for her own self-aggrandizement.

Under those circumstances, I’d be shocked to see her take the famous steps, sans a formal audience, sans security, sans perhaps her speaker’s fee, to boldly proclaim whatever it is she has to proclaim. Mario Savio left behind very big shoes. I don’t think they are her size.

UPDATE: And minutes after posting this, “free speech warrior” Ann Coulter is already changing her tune and saying that she might not come after all. Ha! The Young America’s Foundation, which likely bankrolled Coulter’s appearance, pulled out of the event. No speaker’s fee, no speaker. So much for championing free speech.

© 2017, gar. All rights reserved.

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