Radicals pine for Sixties spirit

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The Independent Online
IN THE cafe-cluttered college city of Berkeley, California, vestiges of the "counter culture" and the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s are still evident. But wandering along Telegraph Avenue among the homeless, the junkies and the hippies who hav e madethe south side of the university campus their stamping ground, it is hard to imagine the "magical fusion" of counter culture and political activism - the movement whose 30th anniversary was commemorated last week.

Today, Telegraph Avenue sports street vendors selling jewellery and 1960s memorabilia amid run-down shops and leaflet-plastered telephone poles. Many of the once ritzy stores stand boarded and shut, seemingly for good.

People's Park, the symbol of the struggle for freedom of speech here 30 years ago, remains a litter-strewn no-man's-land, a refuge for drug dealers and homeless so protective of their turf it is almost impossible to stroll there even in broad daylight.

At the Meditteraneum Cafe, the tables around which student radicals and political activists used to huddle are empty. I sat on the sidewalk sipping coffee and leafing through a Berkeley University "night safety guide".

"Freedom of speech now is the freedom to swear and get away with it," volunteered a woman in her fifties at a table nearby after a homeless man, unhappy with the amount of change I gave him, unleashed a string of abuse.

This feeling of loss was echoed by some veterans of the FSM. "What most upsets me about the movement was that at the end we lost so much free speech," Richard Muller, now a professor of physics, told Berkeley paper the Daily Californian this week.

Many this weekend will be comparing the 1960s struggle with the current campus movement to enforce political correctness, which seeks to prevent comment and artwork deemed racially offensive, but risks impinging on freedom of expression.

The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley peaked between September and December 1964: students staged sit-ins, were arrested and walked out on strike until the university administration bowed to their demands and lifted restrictions on free speech.

Berkeley, the most prestigious public university on the West Coast, still attracts a radical clientele, but there is no potent student political activism, even to protest civil rights injustice. This November, protests against the passage of California'sProposition 187, which denies social services to illegal immigrants, were so mild they went completely unnoticed.

"In the 1960s, the words radical, left, Students For A Democratic Society were the buzzwords. Today, people are even apologetic about using the word liberal," said sociology professor Arlie Hoschchild.

Some point also to the emergence of "identity politics" on campus, where groups with the same interests and social and ethnic backgrounds tend to band together, exclusively.

Prof Neil Smelser, of Stamford University in California and a faculty member at Berkeley for over 35 years, sees the campus as "a microcosm of US society. Traditional liberals are squeezed and very uncomfortable. And then there is the politics of identity where demands tend to be absolute and not submitted to political compromise."

Dr Hoschchild sums it up: "Perhaps the 1960s were exceptional: Vietnam was such a galvanising issue. But students then felt the world was theirs and the movement was something extra. Now students are thinking `we're in trouble too'."