A throng of young protesters wearing masks and wielding clubs attack ‘conservatives’ at a rally at UC Berkeley, the home of the original free speech movement. Back in the Governor Ronnie Reagan days, the attackers would have been the ‘Blue Meanies’ as we students nicknamed them in the Sixties. But now these opponents of speech pose as progressives and claim to be ‘anti-fa;’ (for anti-fascist) protesters who claim lineage to the fully exposed demonstrators of over fifty-years ago. Mario Savio must be spinning his grave.
What has happened to the left? What would the anti-fa do if an Allen Ginsberg look alike pulled one of his anti-establishment rants at a rally protesting conservatives? Would they accuse him of sexual harassment for micro-aggression for his unconventional stunts like disrobing at a poetry reading? Would the words in his seminal poem, Howl, like ‘cock’ and ‘pussy’ offend? What about the frequent speeches like those by ‘Jesus freaks’ on the plaza in the 70s?
Who are these people? Are they FBI undercover agents seeking to disrupt legitimate complaints about conservative positions? That did happen back in the day, and given the level of surveillance and the authoritarian nature of the Establishment today, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were. But on its face, it is not inclusive. Authoritarian and intolerant, its’ posturing is antithetical to the values and ideals of the New Left of fifty years ago.
In 1970, I knew a Black Panther and attended a Panther meeting with him. At that meeting at a coffee house in San Francisco, a lively discussion explored the likelihood of FBI agent provocateurs in the group. By that time, J. Edgar had almost no inhibition in his war against the radical movement. He planted undercover agents in radical groups around the country in addition to inciting violence at anti-war demonstrations. And it worked. Discredited by faux radicals and overwhelmed by Establishment newspapers maligning the New Left, the movement disintegrated into squabbling factions like Weather Underground and the SLA. Fortunately, underground newspapers like the Los Angeles Free Press and the Berkeley Barb exposed this undermining of progressive politics.
A period of exhilaration occurred when President Richard Nixon was driven from office. His misdeeds combined with J. Edgar Hoover’s disregard for the constitution validated the radicals suspicion of persecution. After the Freedom of Information Act was passed, evidence of the government’s harassment of the left was exposed. In the 1976 presidential primaries, Jerry Brown’s populist campaign and forward thinking ideas reaped the scorn of liberals because he didn’t conform to Establishment dogma. Instead, a mild-mannered but non-innovative peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, was elected. His moderate policies were easily exploited by the former movie actor and governor who blamed the country’s ills on Berkeley radicals. Seduced by the smiley face of Reagan and his cowboyism, a weary public caved to repression stronger than ever. Most of the radicals cut our hair, got graduate degrees, and/ or built fortunes. In other words, we were co–opted.
A few weeks ago, I finally had the opportunity to meet a local Los Angeles hero of free speech—Deena Metzger. Ms. Metzger was a cause celebre’ at Los Angeles Valley College in 1969. I was a sophomore and anti-Establishment. At this suburban community college, her cause became our local version of the free speech movement . Deena Metzger went on to be a prolific novelist, writing teacher, and shamanic healer. But in 1970, she made the front page of the Los Angeles Free Press after she was dismissed from her teaching job for “immoral conduct.” To illustrate censorship, she wrote and used in class a sexually graphic poem, Jehovah’s Child. The Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees voted to terminate her. According to Ms. Metzger, the only vote against her dismissal was from newly elected trustee and later four-time governor Jerry Brown. True to the ‘cheap’ reputation he later earned as a higher office holder in California, Brown’s reason was that it would be fiscally irresponsible, Metzger said.*
The scandal was a big sensation at the college. Demonstrations were held in the quad, later renamed Free Speech Plaza, supporting Metzger. Detailed stories were published in the LA Free Press, along with fragmented reports in the campus newspaper. The importance of free speech was brought home for me in the Metzger incident, but I had not met her until just last month. It was during my weekly writing session at the Café Mimosa in Topanga Canyon, that I noticed a flyer announcing a reading by Deena Metzger. A cycle had come full circle and right on time. The time was ripe for a glance back, the familiar issue—free speech, is back. Finally, I got to meet Deena Metzger, especially satisfying now as a reporter for the LA Free Press.
Like visiting a relative after many years absence, I felt like I was returning to a familiar person, and wanted to present myself as successful in life. Kind of like an accounting: What have I done? Did I stay true to the values? I’d never met her, but for me she represented that era’s hope and possibility for one’s self and society. I wasn’t disappointed. Remembrance of that old story added reality to my youthful memories.
A soft-spoken woman, with an earth mother quality accented by her many scarves and rings, Deena Metzger conveyed a grounded power. Still radical, her focus is now on the natural world and the pressing need to take care of our world. Comprised mostly of women from her long-running writing group, the audience seemed to absorb more than the words but also her essence. She spoke from experience within herself and the world.
Like a time-warp in that library room, I remembered how exhilarating those times of pushing the socially condoned boundaries felt as a 20 year old college student. After the talk, I bought one of her books and told her my story. She inscribed, “Many blessings for our shared history.” Meeting Deena contributed to my resolution of that long ago era of freedom when it was our zeitgeist. My soul felt freer knowing one of LA’s vanguard in free speech is unbent.
The soul of the Sixties still lives, grows, and teaches with Deena Metzger. Freedom is just that and the real heroes of freedom like Deena put their careers on the line and showed their faces. Metzger stands as an icon of the rich Los Angeles and Topanga iconoclastic history. And real progressives are those who show their faces.
*In 1969, I was fired from a tenured teaching post at a local community college for reading to my students a poem I had written on censorship and pornography. The case soon became an occasion for the advocates of censorship to organize themselves against the students’ right to know and the teacher’s right to teach. After three years, I was restored to my position by the California State Supreme Court.
From Deena Metzger’s Writing for Your Life. 1992
Imagine your life at 20. What did you believe in? What did you strive for? Who were your academic heroes?
Did you sustain those values through the decades? Perhaps you can revisit one of those inspirational individuals and renew and act on that principle.