Organizing the battle for Berkeley

September 3, 2010

"The North Star is one of the greatest symbols for justice stemming from the history of our people," writes Peter Camejo. "'The North Star' was an expression that meant heading toward freedom as slaves tried to escape northward. It has become a symbol in my life of both the goal and the guiding light on the road ahead."

North Star is also the title of Peter Camejo's memoir, which tells the story of a life dedicated to workers' rights, social justice and socialism--from speaking out against the Vietnam War and to marching with Martin Luther King Jr. Camejo, who died in 2008, ran for president as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) candidate in 1976, for California governor for the Green Party in 2002, 2003 and 2006, and for vice president as Ralph Nader's running mate in 2004.

Here, we republish an excerpt from North Star. At this point, Camejo--a leader of the SWP's youth group, the Young Socialists Alliance--had recently moved to Berkeley, Calif., already known nationally as a center of protest activity. He enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley as a history major and was soon well-known as an activist.

I WAS out speaking publicly against the war almost immediately upon arriving in California. At first, the meetings were small, only 20 or 30 people. As time passed, the meetings got bigger until there were audiences of thousands. The crowd usually kept growing as I spoke. I would take a microphone onto an open campus area outdoors and just start talking.

I threw in a lot of jokes, which always helped. One of my crowd-pleasers described casualties in Vietnam. I would say, "When casualties are reported every night, you will notice that on one side they say a nationality, the United States; on the other they say an ideology, communists. For instance they will say 20 Americans were killed, but they killed 1,500 communists. If they were consistent and gave an ideological breakdown, it would be something like 30 conservatives, 42 liberals, 155 socialists, and 250 apoliticals were killed and 4 existentialists were missing."

Students would break out in laughter as they recognized that the reports in the media were heavily shaped by propaganda. To report, day in and day out, that Americans killed Vietnamese in Vietnam would bring home who was the aggressor. The word "communist" was used to stop people from thinking about what was really happening. Today, there are slightly different terms, such as "insurgents" or "terrorists," used for the same purpose--to avoid having to say Americans killed Iraqis in Iraq.

I would describe how the U.S. had airplanes to bomb and kill, they had tanks and bulletproof jackets, while the Vietnamese freedom fighters had no tanks, no airplanes, nothing but rifles. The truth was that the people in Vietnam did not support the United States. The overwhelming majority was against the imperialist U.S. invasion and for the National Liberation Front (NLF). That was why the Vietnamese could sustain immense casualties and still continue to fight for their country's independence.

As the American public, on campuses and across the country, became increasingly aware of the reality of the war in Vietnam, there was a massive transformation of public opinion. It was the first time in my life, at least in the context of campus politics, that those of us who opposed the war and strongly opposed U.S. policy found ourselves in the majority.

Stop the draft

STUDENTS IN Berkeley began reaching out to draftees, urging them to refuse to fight an illegal, murderous war. In the summer of 1965, the Vietnam Day Committee (VDC) had begun demonstrating along the train tracks that brought recruits to the Armed Forces Induction Center in Oakland. Students tried to stop the troop trains and leafleted the arriving GIs. This effort continued in various forms via multiple groups, leading to a massive explosion in Oakland in October 1967.

Numerous student antiwar groups called for a Stop the Draft Week of demonstrations to begin on October 16, 1967, in Oakland. In preparation they planned to hold an organizational meeting on the Berkeley campus. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted to ban the meeting. Such a ban, of course, was in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The university formally took the position that they disagreed with the supervisors but would respect their decision, and proceeded to padlock the hall where the meeting was to have been held.

The response on campus and throughout the Bay Area was angry. As evening approached, students began milling around the plaza in front of Sproul Hall, where the campus administrative offices were located. We in the YSA discussed the situation and decided to set up a microphone--a precious asset we owned--on Sproul Steps. The microphone went up around 9 p.m. and we opened it to anyone who wanted to speak. The rally began to grow and soon there were several thousand in attendance.

In all, some 135 people spoke that night, including about 35 professors. I spoke around midnight and stayed at the rally all night. Being 27, a bit older than most students, I was exhausted by daybreak. I remember suggesting to others, "Let's call another rally for tomorrow night and plan what to do later." But the audience by this point was made up largely of high school students and young college students, and they had no intention of stopping. Chants broke out of "Let's march on Oakland!"

I could feel the gathering intensity and knew that a march was inevitable. The YSAers at the rally declared our support and so did every other group present. Spontaneously a few thousand people, a very young crowd, began marching toward downtown Oakland, where draftees would be arriving. As the marchers entered the city, the Oakland police were mobilizing and calling for assistance from other police forces. Word had gone out through the grapevine and, I believe, on the radio and TV. Young people along the way ran up to join the demonstrators. The police didn't know how to confront the growing crowd because students began spreading out across many blocks, leaving the police with only thin lines to confront them.

I watched as several students commandeered a bus parked on a slight incline. They put the bus in neutral, released the parking brake, and began pushing it so it would roll down toward a line of police. Other students quickly surrounded the bus to stop it. Movement leaders, including us in the YSA, had no control over what was happening. The demonstration had become a spontaneous outbreak of anger against the war and the draft.

Some protesters threw rocks at the police. Others argued not to use violence. The police began beating students as well as reporters, who had started popping up all over the place. The reporters must have assumed the police would respect their press badges, but I saw at least one get beaten.

Incrementally, a tactic developed that would be used extensively a year later in the battle for Telegraph Avenue. To shake off police advances, groups of students divided into three contingents as they came to a street corner, running in different directions. That had the effect of forcing the police to choose one direction or to separate. If they separated, their numbers dwindled. Before long, they would be way outnumbered. This began happening all over and in all directions. Gradually the downtown area of Oakland was paralyzed and there just weren't enough police to do anything about it.

The angriest young people continued throwing rocks at the police, who had no way to defend themselves. Another tactic developed that would be used in later demonstrations. Students threw rocks way up in the air above the police, who had to look up to avoid being hit. While the police were looking up, other students threw rocks straight at them. The police were unprepared for this onslaught and began to retreat, trying to regroup.

The demonstrations continued all day into the afternoon. I remember being exhausted but exhilarated to see the courage and defiance of youth raised against this inhumane, murderous war. In the late afternoon, as most demonstrators began to leave, I finally went home.

The student elections

THEN A new issue arose. In the wake of the demonstration, the university announced that they were going to suspend 11 students. The charge was nonsensical: allegedly the microphone used at the evening rally on Sproul Steps had not been pre-approved. The 11 suspended students had all spoken at the evening rally. My name was among them. The university seemed to be trying to target leaders of the antiwar movement but their selection was haphazard. Many years later I would read an incredible article by Seth Rosenfeld in the San Francisco Chronicle explaining that then-Governor Ronald Reagan and the FBI had created a joint project with the aim of removing antiwar student leaders and professors from the Berkeley campus. The attack against the 11 students appears to have been part of that program.

We called a meeting on campus and began organizing to defend the 11. There were huge disagreements as to how to handle this struggle. Some wanted to call a general university strike in support of the 11. Other students didn't think that was wise. What we decided to do was to run the 11 as a slate for the 10 seats on the Student Senate. Student election voting at Berkeley was done in a democratic manner, following the general concept of instant runoff voting, in which the voter selects a first, second, third choice, etc. So it was not a problem that we were running more candidates than the number of seats. The election was in a few weeks, at the end of November.

All the students charged, I recall, were European Americans except myself, a [white] Latino, and Patti Iiyama, a Japanese American. Patti was extremely brave. At that point in her Berkeley career, she had only one more quarter to go to receive her masters. In the end, it took her four years to get her graduate degree because the university suspended her three times. Each time, she continued her political activity, putting everything at risk.

Patti came from a working-class family. Her parents had been interned during the Second World War when all Japanese Americans in California were rounded up and put in camps. At a meeting to discuss the student elections, I remember saying something along the lines of, "The 11 are all white; we need to reach out more to the African American students." Patti yelled out, "Excuse me!!" The whole room broke out laughing at me.

In the meantime, the administration started holding hearings for each student charged. Certain students were told if they apologized, they would not be suspended. Some did apologize and charges were dropped. For me that was not an option. When brought before the committee and questioned, I immediately accused them of opposing the rule of law and violating the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. I compared our struggle to that of African Americans who were denied the right to vote and due process.

The committee asked me, "Would you do it again?" I answered, "Of course! Would Martin Luther King do it again? It is the administration that should be tried for what they are doing." Naturally, these answers were not popular among the professors and some moderate students involved in the so-called hearings. Patti Iiyama and others also stood up to the committee and said, "No, what we did was right; free speech is the law, not your inquisition." As the Student Senate elections drew closer, everyone knew the balloting was about this issue. The administration was starting to feel the pressure of public opinion.

The night before the student elections in late November of 1967, there was a knock on my door at 2 a.m. I went to answer it, and three policemen came in. They told me to get dressed, I was under arrest. They followed me right into my bedroom where my wife Debbie was sleeping. I told her not to worry but to spread the news once I was gone.

When I was handcuffed and inside the squad car one officer asked me, "Peter, what have you done?" I said, "I have no idea. You are the ones arresting me." Then another policeman explained that the warrant for my arrest stated only, "For Good Cause." They had no idea why I was being arrested.

At the jail the police asked me to pick any cell I wanted. They all looked the same so I just picked one and sat down to wait. Soon the media started arriving and, amazingly, the police let TV crews right in to interview me. Early that morning, the news was already on the radio and TV: "Peter Camejo has been arrested for unknown reasons." At about 5 a.m. a reporter from the Oakland Tribune telephoned the judge who had issued the arrest order, woke him up at home, and asked, "Why did you have Camejo arrested?" The judge's answer, according to the Tribune, was not specific. Once that comment was out, the judge was in deep trouble.

I was taken to court about 10 a.m. the morning of the student election. I had no lawyer, but when my name was called a whole group of lawyers stood up--they had heard about the arrest and had all come to defend me. The lawyers caucused among themselves and decided that the head of the ACLU would represent me. In the courtroom, the ACLU attorney stated for the judge the limits under which a person in the U.S. can be arrested, which include having violated the law, having jumped bail, etc. He asked the judge, under what law did you have Mr. Camejo arrested? The judge answered, "I had my reasons. Case dismissed."

Well, that settled the result of the student elections. I won in a landslide.

The truth about UC Berkeley

THE ELECTION results were a clear victory for us. Six of our 11 candidates were elected, giving the antiwar slate control of the 10-seat Student Senate. Some of the other four student senators also voted with us on issues. During the campaign, I had pledged that if elected I would use the power of the Student Union, including the $250,000 we had in the bank and our ownership of two campus buildings, to help organize the antiwar effort.

The next day, UC Berkeley announced the results of the hearings: two students were suspended until the following September, myself and Reese Erlich. Reese was a leader of SDS and very well respected. If I remember correctly the rest of the 11 were relegated to a parole-like "twilight zone," in that if they did anything else the university disliked, they too would be suspended.

Then, over the Christmas holiday break, the regents of the University of California proceeded to confiscate all student-owned university property and funds. This action was clearly in violation of the law. Official university materials, distributed to all students upon admission, stated in no uncertain terms that the students owned property, including two campus buildings. Those properties had been paid for by the $10 Student Union fee paid by each student; the fees went directly to the Student Union, which was controlled by elected bodies of the students.

I wrote a column published in the Daily Californian, the on-campus student paper, calling this one of the greatest heists in the history of California. Administrators then threatened the student editors with reprisal if they ever ran another article like mine. Very susceptible to pressure, the editors capitulated and would not print any more articles from me.

Around this same time a student who was an aspiring reporter--and as such had a tape recorder attached to his phone--called the university and by accident was connected to a call between two very high-ranking administrators. The two administrators referred to students as "peasants" and spoke openly about professors and students they wanted to eliminate. This student immediately called me and told me what had happened. I rushed to his apartment and heard the tape. I told him we needed to find the best way to go public with it--this would make history.

My biggest mistake was not making a copy. We went to the Daily Californian and played the tape for the editors, expecting they would publish a transcript and a story on their front page. The editors were shocked by the tape. But then they betrayed us by calling the administration to warn them. The administration immediately confronted the student who had made the tape and told him he could go to jail for what he had done. He capitulated and destroyed the tape. The Daily Californian editors, even having heard the tape, refused to print anything about it.

Many people have the image of UC Berkeley during the 1960s as a hands-off, permissive university. That is not how it was. The regents and the top administrators at Berkeley, who controlled the university system, were generally pro-war right-wingers, clearly unconcerned with their violations of our Bill of Rights. In one ploy after another they tried to stamp out free speech and dissent on campus.

One employee in the university administration accidentally came across a very peculiar file and told me about it. There was a file under my younger brother's name, Antonio Camejo. All that was in the file was a warning that should he ever apply to the University of California system, he was not to be admitted because he was my brother.

Further Reading

From the archives