October 25, 2009

Free Speech Comes Full Circle

In the early 1960's, Berkeley students created something called the "Free Speech Movement." It incorporated some of the tactics of the civil rights movement of the 50's and helped give birth to the student activism that came to define the era.

A significant component of the radical, hippie culture we think of when we see those amusing pictures of the 60's can be attributed to the influence of the Free Speech Movement.

Fifty years later, the final nail may have been driven into the coffin of Berkeley's heritage as a place where all ideas are welcome and all points of view are respected.

It happened over a silly parade.

Thirteen years ago a bunch of Berkeley eccentrics started an annual parade called "How Berkeley Can You Be?" which poked fun at Berkeley's slavish adherence to political correctness.

The parade was "a bacchanalian romp through downtown that featured everything from flame throwers to Nobel laureates to motorized couches," said the SF Chronicle.

Participants sold beer off the back of floats, tossed candy to kids, and walked down University Avenue naked.

One group was called PETA, People Eating Them Animals, in which paraders shot Spam into the crowd and handed out cigarets.

Other floats included a flame thrower affixed to a chair on a hydraulic lift, a motorized sofa ridden by people in bathrobes reading the Sunday newspaper, a group called Berkeley Dykes, who performed a song and dance about "letting lesbians take over Berkeley and sending the straights to Straightsylvania."

"It was tongue-in-cheek satire. We really liked to push the envelope," said parade organizer Karen Hester. "But it's getting increasingly hard to be creative and have fun in this city. Berkeley's become really kind of an uptight place."

Like all cowardly, nasty governments, the Berkeley city authorities undermined the parade by finding innocent looking ways to create impossible barriers. This allowed them to maintain deniability for sabotaging the parade.

Beer could only be sold sold in a roped-off area staffed by police. "Who wants to sit inside this pen with police while you drink a beer?" Hester said.

The city also cracked down on participants throwing candy to kids (you see, children running pose a safety hazard. Also, they might be in danger of having fun.) Nudity and flame throwing were also deemed unacceptable.

The parade was canceled.

"We look forward to them having the parade back next year," said a mealy-mouthed spokesperson for the city. "Hopefully they'll have had more time to plan for a safe, fun event where you can send your kids."

After 50 years, the puritans have regained control of Berkeley. This time around they're draped in left-wing, politically correct apparel, but they're the same self-righteous bullies they were before "free speech."

Gag me.

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