The Taking of North Hall

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photo courtesy UCSB

At 6am on an otherwise dull Monday morning in 1968, a group of 12 black students strolled without ceremony into UCSB’s Computer Center in North Hall and proceeded to make history by barricading themselves inside. They did it the old fashioned way, with stacked chairs and heavy furniture pushed against locked doors, with chains run through push bars. First, though, they’d had to clear the building. They’d surprised a handful of computer techs there and politely asked them to leave, to which the understandably uptight Guardians of the Nascent Age of Intel replied “Uh, yeah, right!”

One imagines the scene with wonder. The contrasting haircuts alone signified a coming tectonic shift in the zeitgeist.

But the horn-rimmed and outnumbered Spartans were hesitant to abandon their million-dollar baby to the black activists. UCSB’s vaunted IBM360/65 Mainframe was the pride of modern computing, a research machine that also was the keeper of student records and other invaluable data without which the campus would be sunk. The burnished, button-festooned beast featured a sweeping 1MB of memory and in photographs looks like an enormously complicated washing machine. Never mind that UCSB computing was associated with the storied ARPANET, forerunner of today’s internet, whose DNA does indeed trace straight back to UCSB. The computer scientists were, in the later words of reputed student ringleader, today’s Murad Rahman, “absolutely astounded by what was going on. They must have thought it was something out of a comic book.” Later accounts described the black student activists as comparatively polite and accommodating, even as they bounced on the balls of their feet and tried to hurry things along. But the black students did make one thing clear. Any attempt to forcibly dislodge them would result in a broken computer.  In a markedly postmodern threat, one of the students reportedly issued these words of caution.

“Look, leave us alone and we’ll leave the computer alone. We have your mechanical brain. Give us justice.” One official report typed up in the immediate wake of the takeover describes “…some of the students crouched in front of the computers armed with heavy hammers and large wrenches…”

The threat cast a chill on the proceedings. UCSB’s Chancellor Cheadle, whose previously elusive attention was the object of the students’ ire, briefly considered having the black students ejected by force. In his later written record of the day Cheadle explained the humane calculus that informed his decision to hear the black students out.

”The first option was to…persuade the occupants to leave the building peaceably. The second was to clear the building by force, an option involving predictable and unwelcome consequences. First, the substantial destruction of computer equipment valued at approximately two million dollars…second, personal injury….”

Yeah, the occupiers knew their audience.

UCSB: A History of Silence

UCSB is today a world-renowned research university, consistently ranked at or near the top of many of those cryptic “World’s Best Universities” lists that celebrate both academic firepower and actual contribution to human culture. UCSB’s campus has an almost unseemly number of clustered Nobel Laureates. You can easily spot them because they go everywhere with their medals on. There are but a handful of globally respected Institutions of Higher Learning whose topographical largesse allows the student to come in from the breakers and minutes later take a seat in a lecture hall where a medal-wearing Nobel Laureate is dispensing arcane, graduate-level brain food. Seriously.

But UCSB wasn’t always the enlightened bastion of liberal munificence it is today. The twelve black students who took North Hall and the Computer Center on the morning of October 14th, 1968 (namely Jim Johnson, Maurice Rainey, Arnold Ellis, Tom Crenshaw, Dalton Nezy, Ernest Sherman, Booker Banks, Mike Harris, Vallejo Kennedy, Stan Lee, Don Pearson, and Randy Stewart) were all members of the freshly-minted Black Student Union, which had itself evolved from an earlier black student organization begun in 1967, called Harambee (Swahili for “Let’s Pull Together”). Both these groups had been formed as a reflexive bulwark against what the few black students on UCSB’s campus found to be an institutionalized racism.  This wasn’t the ugly, hothouse racism of hooded, spelling-challenged Master Race morons on horseback setting crosses alight on people’s front lawns, beating and murdering with impunity. This was the quieter, happy-go-lucky racism whose infected perpetrators aren’t always aware they’re carriers of the illness, white college kids in blackface strolling down the street at UCSB’s 1966 Homecoming Parade in white top hat and tails and waving giddily at the camera, or taking up shoe polish and a fiddle to effect a bracing, good-humored antebellum jig. As recently as a couple years ago a yoga studio in town hosted a “ghetto fabulous class” replete with inner city garb and costume bling. N.W.A. they called it: Namaste with Attitude. Yes, even the Enlightened stumble. These people of course don’t regard themselves as racist and surely wouldn’t self-identify as a members of a Master Race. But racism isn’t always a belief system. It’s not always about what you’re feeling. Sometimes it’s just about what you’re doing. UCSB had a problem.

A Bulletproof Coach Under Fire

The proximal cause of the takeover of North Hall’s computer center that year was rising frustration with the rumored passive-aggressive racism of UCSB’s deified Athletic Director Jack “Cactus” Curtice,  whose unrivaled record of UCSB football wins, inconquerable passing game, and central role in UCSB’s football program achieving NCAA Division I status made him a living bronze statue around which the campus establishment gathered and covertly knelt. Complaints lodged against Coach Curtice by the black athletes in his charge fell on deaf ears, or elicited vague promises of investigation which never came to pass.  The complaints described a litany of slights that aggregated to something less than the strutting racism that could be called out by school authorities but which made the experience of the black athlete at UCSB feel like something less than the thrill of victory. One typical grievance was that of an athlete who was tired of being served his meals after the white athletes on his team had eaten. Black athletes’ luggage would be lost on trips away, the black athletes would be refused service in hotels with no recourse and no backup from coach Curtice. Black athletes complained of being called “boys”. In early October of that year the BSU had issued a petition signed by 22 black athletes accusing the athletic department of racism, charges which were quickly dismissed by the Intercollegiate Athletic Commission, frustrating the campus black population further. UCSB’s athletic program fleetingly became the actionable nexus of a subsurface campus racism that was a nagging, unsung feature of everyday life for black students there. By the time of the occupation of North Hall’s computer center, the 40 or so black students on campus (out of a total student population at that time of around 13,000) had futilely gathered the signatures of 4000 sympathizers who agreed that something was amiss, and that UCSB as a campus was maybe due for a change.

It Was Not a Very Good Year

1968 was a “year of change”, as is said euphemistically by those who have never been shot at or beaten up or chased across the quad by a phalanx of upset National Guardsmen. The conflagrations that year were large and small, characterized both by the fiery, deafening explosions of the watershed Battle of Khe Sanh In Viet Nam (which would see American troops ditch a besieged base for the first time in that war), and the brief lethal whisper of a.30-06 Springfield bullet crossing a parking lot to break a minister’s jaw on the Lorraine Hotel balcony in Memphis. In the wake of Dr. King’s death a visibly broken Bobby Kennedy calmed a surging, anguished crowd of hundreds in downtown Indianapolis with an extemporaneous speech and plea for unity that is now considered a classic of unrehearsed truth-telling. The crowd dispersed peacefully, and two months later Robert Kennedy was shot in the head while speaking at the Ambassador Hotel in L.A.  In May of that year radicalized French students swarmed through the streets of Paris in a spasm of disgust with capitalism and the established order, in time bringing that country to the brink of collapse, and the Tlatelolco massacre would see the Mexican army gun down 300 gathered student protestors. 1968 had the character of a denouement, an almost stage-written wrapping up of a decade that would see the global Establishment take a flurry of finalizing body-blows and be laid to rest ringside, supine in its grey flannel suit.

Wild-Eyed Radicals Read Out Their Wholly Unreasonable Demands

Within hours of “seizing” North Hall (as nearly every newspaper that day described the event, though the students had actually just breezed in and rousted those inside), the black student occupiers of the Computer Center issued their demands in classic revolutionary style; from high windows above a gathering crowd of onlookers, through megaphones. As the hours passed and word got out that some actual revolutionary drama was afoot on UCSB’s sunstruck campus (or as the October 17, 1968 edition of UC Irvine’s student paper put it: “Santa Barbara? The campus of parties and keggers and TGIF’s? The campus where more students learn surfing than calculus, where more money is spent on booze than books? Yes, friends, demonstrations have spread to that academic playground by the sea…”), a crowd of onlookers naturally began to gather around North Hall, skeptical and restive at first, then grudgingly supportive, and finally offering themselves as a massed 1000-strong bodyguard for the black activists should the state make good on its threat to send in forces to enter the building and bring the thing to a conclusion. There was one instance of disaffection as an apparent faculty member in the mid-afternoon couldn’t take the standoff any longer and with an unsuccessful rallying cry of “C’mon!” forced his lonely way into the building, his righteous fever quickly doused by a black undergrad with a fire extinguisher.

The occupiers had 8 demands whose sum expression was the desire for increased minority enrollment at UCSB, an end to institutional and academic racism on campus, and the expansion of minority-based studies in UCSB’s curriculum. A year later, UCSB’s Black Studies dept. would spread its fledgling wings and take off on a journey that has to date been characterized by constant change and interdisciplinary outgrowth. Chancellor Cheadle, who had so successfully dodged the black students’ athletic concerns in the months-long run-up to the occupation of North Hall, capitulated so completely in the end, it stunned everyone. Once the activists had secured the beleaguered Chancellor’s accession to their revolutionary demands, making campus history and setting paradigm-changing institutions in motion – they more timidly asked for one more favor. Could they please not be disciplined for this little dustup? Cheadle agreed, offering them a collective “suspended suspension”, a whimsical little disciplinary flourish that was the equivalent of the dad-like “It’s okay this time, but one more of these and you’re grounded!”

This further incensed critics of the blacks’ brazen lawbreaking and Cheadle’s enabling. The Chancellor’s acquiescence would royally piss off then-Governor Reagan, whose battles with UC Berkeley and Clark Kerr (whose namesake building is coincidentally right next to North Hall on the UCSB Campus) would soon enough prompt the Governor to angrily invent tuition (heard of it?) and begin the country-clubbing of university education. But Cheadle didn’t completely stand down. He did refuse one of the group’s demands – that of the firing of odious but indispensable Athletic Director Jack “Cactus” Curtice. Agreeing to reasonably mitigate the academic hegemony of Eurocentrism on the college campus is one thing. But you simply don’t screw with a successful passing game.  I mean, c’mon.

The Fruits of Determined Activism

Dr. Jeffrey Stewart, Chair of UCSB’s Black Studies Department, is about 8 feet tall and has the shambling gait of the “beloved outlier professor” who is always crossing swords with admin in those 60s movies about life-changing educators and the stiffs who run them down. Not to put too fine a point on it. When he speaks it is with the easy, laconic manner of a guy with all the time in the world, but as he talks his eyes fix you with a scholarly glare. In 2012 black students on campus again drew up a series of demands for the Chancellor (Dr. Henry Yang this time), with the result that Stewart was asked to oversee an installation at North Hall that today commemorates the events of that October day in 1968. He refers to North Hall as “sacred space”.

“The idea was to create something so that black visiting students could see that they had a presence, and were making a real contribution here.” Chancellor Yang asked Dr. Stewart to work with admin and students to make it happen. His team was comprised of  Director of UCSB’s Art, Design & Architecture Museum (ADA) Bruce Robertson, ADA Exhibition Designer Mehmet Dogu, and UCSB Facilities kingpin Mark Fisher, and together they helped make the students’ dream a reality. Former Executive Vice Chancellor Gene Lucas was a booster of the project and even authorized Dr. Stewart’s course in Curatorial Methods that would train the determined students in the mounting of an exhibit of this kind. Dr. Lucas’ successor, EVC David Marshall, likewise supported the installation.

With the help of Stewart’s team the students put the thing together, and it is a sterling example of the power of the image. The series of larger-than-life photo panels that line the breezeway of North Hall are eye-opening. One panel shows the excited black students draping the handwritten “Malcolm X Hall” out the second story window, while another features the inevitable black and white child looking at each other with that bewildered “what the hell is the problem?” expression that for ages has caused shame-faced adults to look at the floor.

“The research shows that right after the takeover you begin immediately to get more courses in the black experience, in sociology, in history, in English, in education,” Stewart explains. “Later, Chancellor Cheadle authorized a feasibility study and the Black Studies department was announced in ’69.” For the record, the Black Studies department had its budget slashed by $10k in the 70s, another story. Dr. Stewart continues, “Immediately after the North Hall takeover, there were courses offered in the urban experience, black literature –  suddenly you had the option of taking courses in black culture. Right away.” The atmosphere engendered by the episode opened conversations that led to UCSB’s Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, the Department of Asian-American Studies (the first such department in the U.S. to offer a Bachelor of Arts degree in Asian-American Studies), the Department of Feminist Studies – a culturally and politically varied menu of mind-opening disciplinary departments that may also be considered the fruit of the North Hall occupation.  Could the young occupiers of October 14, 1968 have really foreseen the culture-opening shock wave their passion play would set in motion? What if things had gone the other way, if Chancellor Cheadle has called in the troops? Ringleader and head event planner of the takeover, Murad Rahman answers this way.

“We were highly aware of the risks and  possible consequences of our actions if we failed to carry out our mission with skill and precision. We did not want to make mistakes or jeopardize the success of the operation. The consequences of failure would have been disastrous for those coming after us as well as African Americans in general.” As for Cheadle…

“Personally,” Mr. Rahman says today, “I was astounded by his graciousness and willingness to negotiate with a bunch of what he probably considered to be wild and crazy misfits who didn’t belong on his pristine campus. I will always remember him as a man for whom I will always hold the highest level of honor and respect. He could have ordered us to be forcibly removed from the building, which was in fact our expectation. The Chancellor took the high ground, which I believe was the most vexatious but prudent decision he could have made. May God and history reward him for that.” The Establishment, in the form of Vernon Cheadle and the finally sympathetic crowds who gathered, seem to have seen a glimpse of the light that day.

“To me that’s part of what ’68 is about,” Dr. Stewart says. “In ’68 though they did have, you know, black power, black students; it’s not just about black subjectivity, though, it’s about an inter-subjectivity. Look at the page of El Gaucho where they cover the North Hall takeover. That page also has a piece about ‘Berkeley going on strike against grapes’ – then over in the corner Eugene McCarthy coming to campus on an anti-Vietman War mission. All these things were in conversation with each other.”

The North Hall breezeway installation tells the tale of a group of sixties students taking over a university building at a time when boldness was the default and young people would leverage any opportunity to right a wrong. Truth and beauty aren’t phony ideals. Even cinderblock can be made new. Dr. Stewart has a final thought about the commemorative North Hall installation. “I always was interested in the aesthetics of this thing, as well as the history,” he says, then breaks into laughter. “And that space looks a lot better than it did before!”

But were Rahman and his activist pals really prepared to wreck the storied mainframe computer that day? A gee-whiz reporter wants to know. Mr. Rahman’s answer is brief.

“What do YOU think?!”

SB Sentinel – Volume 4, Issue 29, Oct 10 – 24, 2015

How the Gipper Vanquished Communism, Punched Out Clark Kerr, Created Your Paralyzing Tuition, and Changed Higher Education from a Right to a Country Club

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Berkeley student Mario Savio found himself the de facto leader of a huge student campus Free Speech movement that attracted the ire of governor Reagan, who thought the student spoiled, ungrateful pinko beatniks. Reagan would fire UC President Clark Kerr for his leniency and then angrily raise fees on the students. The beginnings of today’s California tuition fubar.

In the buzzing, vibrant center of the beautiful UCSB campus sits a squat concrete box. This is Kerr Hall. Simultaneously cube-like and angular (not an easy combination to effect), the building looks like an enormous post-modern bunker, or an Iron Curtain edifice meant to make a statist comment. Which is fitting. To add to the atmosphere of gaiety, Kerr is windowless on three sides, its gray pebbled carapace textured with roof-to-ground vertical grooves, reportedly not molded in a cycle of prefabrication but deafeningly gouged out with jackhammers once the building was completed, in 1977. A demure little plaque at the bunker’s east end, gone tastefully green over the years, bears an innocuous inscription

“Clark Kerr – President of the University of California 1958 – 1967. For Encouraging a Better Quality of Teaching”.

What the hell does that mean? Who is this Clark Kerr guy? You wouldn’t know it from that bland little encomium, but Clark Kerr was UC Berkeley’s embattled first Chancellor, and not incidentally a prominent Free Speech piñata who the Commie-frightened Establishment would beat till the candy came out, to our common detriment. Clark was also Ronald Reagan’s springboard into politics in the go-go sixties. He would be invoked with contempt as a limp, liberal communist sympathizer in The Gipper’s galvanizing 1966 campaign speeches.

Kerr was, more lastingly, the architect of what came to be known as the California Master Plan for Higher Education, the nationally and globally venerated public education model that layered California’s institutions of higher learning – community colleges, the California State College System (today’s CSU), and the vaunted University of California system (the UC) – into a parfait of academic upward mobility. The Master Plan’s holy mission was to codify a promise from the State of California to her citizens: any student who aspired to an empowering education would have one, and practically free of charge; a compact that wove into the state’s cultural fabric a social and class mobility that was limited only by an individual’s desire to rise through learning. This didn’t sit well with everyone, particularly Reagan, a guy (like many during that period) to whom the word “State” summoned the Red Scare, Stalin, and Siberia’s chain of Best Western gulags. In 1966 Reagan would enlist the delighted assistance of the FBI and step lithely into the governor’s mansion on the mud-smeared back of Clark Kerr, and three weeks later Reagan would loudly fire Kerr as UC President. A couple years after that, in 1969, the Governor would formally begin California’s climb-down from investment in public higher education by placing more of the burden on the University students themselves, whose socialist ingratitude for the education they were receiving had gnawed at him since the days of Berkeley’s student protests and what he considered Kerr’s insufficiently iron-fisted response. Reagan’s convincing of the UC Regents to impose “education fees” on the UC students was comeuppance for Kerr’s Master Plan, and is considered by educational historians to be the introduction in California of a little something called Tuition. Heard of it? You can blame it on the commies.

In 1949 the United States was aflame with the Red Scare, which sounds like a rash and did indeed result in pustules and weeping sores, many of them holding public office. That year the UC had instituted a requirement that all employees, present and future, sign an Oath of allegiance foreswearing ideas and institutions seeking to overthrow the U.S. government, a thinly clad reference to Communism. Clark Kerr, since 1945 an Associate Professor of Industrial Relations at UC Berkeley, grudgingly signed the oath but would take it no further, and continually pushed back against the singling out of colleagues and staff on campus. Kerr’s pugnacity earned him the nervous respect of his colleagues in the academy, and it was Kerr the UC Regents chose to appoint as UC Berkeley’s first Chancellor in 1952. During his time as Berkeley’s head honcho Kerr proved a rock star steward of “Cal”, such that by 1957 UC Berkeley was ranked third in the nation behind Harvard and Yale. That year an impressed Board of Regents chose Clark Kerr to be president of the entire UC system. Just ahead lay UC Berkeley’s explosive Free Speech Movement, Ronald Reagan (and his girlfriend the FBI), and the meat grinder that would pulverize Kerr and make pâté of his Master Plan.

In late 1964 a bunch of Berkeley student activists set up some tables and information booths on the Berkeley campus. Most of these kids had just returned from Mississippi, where’d they’d spent an adventurous summer registering as many African-American voters as possible in a well-orchestrated effort that came to be called The Freedom Summer, or in the movies “Mississippi Burning”. The thousand-strong army of volunteers that poured into Mississippi that summer had braved beatings and harassment and arrest. Several of them had been murdered. Now the returned Berkeley student contingent, lives changed and eyes opened, wanted to talk about it. From their rickety card tables and benches and booths they disseminated info on campus and collected donations for civil rights causes.

UC Berkeley rules at the time prohibited any campus political activity outside the student Democratic and Republican clubs there, and the dean asked the students to please strike their tables and stand down. The bloodied Freedom Summer students would have none of it. There commenced over the coming weeks a swarming wave of sit-ins and angry marches, with a charismatic grad student named Mario Savio becoming the leader of the movement, one of the first American university protest conflagrations of the sixties. Kerr was caught squarely in the middle (to the delight of many), pissing off the Berkeley students for not acquiescing immediately and wholly to their demands, and enraging Edward Pauley, head of the UC Regents, for refusing to expel and otherwise punish the wild-haired socialist student rebels. Bewildered and poorly directed peace officers helplessly followed the “frightened mistakes” template, arresting and nervously clubbing kids who were, after all, only agitating for a Constitution they’d been bored by as jug-eared fifth graders just a few years before, but which had now become a precious thing which the Civil Rights struggle had burnished to a fine luster, and whose purity they felt exalted to be beaten up protecting, this tattered cousin of the Magna Carta. The bland wallpaper of ubiquitous freedom doesn’t become dear till it’s being torn down by often well-meaning morons.

Watching the goings-on at Berkeley were two birds of a feather; future CA governor Ronald Reagan and his bulldog on a long leash, J. Edgar Hoover, the dyspeptic and perennial pugilist-king of the FBI. Hundreds of thousands of pages pried from classified FBI files by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that Reagan had been going to second base with the FBI since his film acting days the 1940s, routinely flipping Hoover and the boys the names of supposed Communist subversives in Hollywood, Ronny in one recorded instance dutifully reporting on an actress who’d had the temerity at a cocktail party to complain about the Hollywood witch hunts. The relationship with Hoover would prove fruitful.

In 1966 Reagan ran for governor of the Golden State, and wasted no time colluding with the FBI to smear both the Berkeley student leaders and UC President Clark Kerr, with whom both Ronny and Edgar were furious for not cracking down on the seditious, unshowered hippies. The Berkeley students would soon enough fold an anti-Vietnam War theme into their riotous campus protests and enrage Reagan and Hoover even more. FOIA documents describe in detail the nighttime break-ins and personnel file fingering of the FBI in Berkeley neighborhoods during this period, much of which largesse showed up as fodder for Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign. In his public rhetoric Reagan vowed to send “the welfare bums back to work,” and “to clean up the mess at Berkeley.”

The student unrest at Berkeley, and the public disaffection he managed to whip into a politically helpful shit storm, got Reagan elected governor in a landslide. Once in office he went unabashedly after Berkeley, slashing the school’s budget, and, when they complained, recommending Berkeley raise money by selling their library’s rare book collections. Ray Colvig, the Chief Public Information officer for UC Berkeley during the period of Reagan’s rages, has said, “He thought if you wanted a world-class university, let the students pay for it. The idea of selling rare books went along with that.” Three weeks after his election, in the new governor’s first meeting with the UC Regents, he fired Clark Kerr.

Today there are four Kerr Halls in the University of California system; one at UC Davis, one at UC Santa Cruz, this grooved bunker at UC Santa Barbara, and most tellingly, one at UC Berkeley. Why? Providing the disenfranchised the means, not the capital, mind you, but the means, to move freely about the class system is not everyone’s cup of tea, mission statements and impassioned dais-thumping to the contrary. The metastatic growth of tuition as the defining feature of higher ed is the proof in that pudding. But it was Clark Kerr’s cup of tea. What Kerr had attempted to make an Individual Right is now an increasingly exclusive clubhouse. And Kerr? He seemed to accept his fate with good humor. When Reagan fired him, Kerr did indeed refer to himself as ‘fired’. “I leave his institution as I found it; fired with enthusiasm”. Kerr laid the foundations for a common beneficence through education and got bitch-slapped for it. And in that light the gray concrete box that is Kerr Hall doesn’t look half bad after all. It may even be the sweetest spot on campus. If you think of it, stop by and leave Clark a flower.

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