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Radical Roots: Finding Environmentalism Amid the Schisms of mid-’60s Berkeley

September 16, 2014
by Kenneth Brower
An upside down tree

The 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement this year is also the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. In the turbulent river of radicalism that reached flood stage in mid-’60s Berkeley, radical environmentalism was just one branch. That is the tributary I want to navigate here. But it is good to sit down at the typewriter—excuse me, the computer—and try to remember that frenzied era in a disciplined way. Ah, the piquancy of the air back then! The smell of tear gas on campus! There were so many flavors of radicalism available that one was forced to focus. You had to pick just one or two.

As a freshman at UC Berkeley, I was not myself much interested in the FSM. I was on their side, but I never sat in or got arrested. At Berkeley High I had begun running with black kids, and by 1964 at the University—just a decade after Brown v. Board of Education—the complaints of my fellow students seemed to pale, in every way, beside those of African Americans. My friend Kenneth Shaw was beaten to death by the Oakland police.

Young black men in those days talked a lot about “the elevator” down at the jail, in the confines of which the OPD dispensed frontier justice. My vantage point was unusual in that I knew people on both sides. Right out of high school, I had enlisted in the Army to escape the draft. (If you joined up at 18, you did just 6 months of active duty and then 3 1/2 years in the Army Reserve.) In my own Reserve unit in San Pablo, during my Cal years, I served with an Oakland cop named Bobby. One afternoon as we turned in our carbines, Bobby confided that he always carried a knife to plant on a Negro, should an outcome require it. Ah, I said, then he would know the answer: The elevator—was it real or mythical? Bobby clammed up.

The 50th anniversary of FSM is also the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I could have easily joined that cause, hooking up with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Dr. King. I could have headed down to Mississippi in 1964 to register voters, along with Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.

First con­tact with re­volu­tion­ary the­ory and ra­cial in­justice could be an ex­per­i­ence too heady to handle. People just lost their minds. Those of us who had grown up in the town ac­quired some im­munity.

Or I could have thrown in with the militants. My girlfriend, Marion, was secretary of the Black Veterans Association at Merritt College, which, along with the Black Students Association, provided some of the first recruits for the Black Panther Party. Marion and I got married, an act then illegal in 16 states. Huey Newton, the Black Panther cofounder, was a friend of my brother-in-law, Gerry, then nicknamed “Weasel” and now named Rafik. (Weasel was no more thrilled by my marriage to his sister than was the state of Alabama. He made sure I understood: In the street, I was never to walk up, clap him on the shoulder, and sing out “Brother-in-law!”) Huey, after visits to my in-laws, would always scan 60th Street to see if it was clear of police cars, because they pulled him over whenever they saw him. Those glances up and down the street prefigured the incident with Oakland Police in which Officer John Frey died and Huey himself was shot in the stomach.

Huey was no hero of mine. He was a psychopath and a criminal. It was his habit to shoot or beat anyone, man or woman, who made the mistake of calling him “Baby,” the childhood nickname he detested. And not only that, but his rhetoric was incoherent—a major sin for me, an English major.

He was no Malcolm X.

In October 1963, in the middle of the campus civil rights demonstrations that would lead first to a university crackdown and then to the FSM, Malcolm delivered a speech at Cal, delayed at the start by the chimes of the Campanile. “Mr. Moderator, students and faculty here at the University of California, brothers and sisters, friends and enemies,” he began. “The bell up there took so long to stop ringing, I began to suspect that it was probably being manipulated by an integrationist!” No Black Panther leader was capable of wit like that, not even the cofounder, Bobby Seale, a stand-up comedian before the revolution.

After his talk, Malcolm was surrounded outside Dwinelle Hall by a dense throng of students, several of whom attempted to argue with him. I remember these young men as “Stanford” types—debate champions at their prep schools, no doubt—who had somehow managed to enroll at Berkeley. With a faint, almost affectionate smile, Malcolm shot their arguments full of holes and sent them spiraling down in flames. An appreciative murmur from the crowd grew into a groundswell of laughter.

I might have followed a man like that. The Nation of Islam! You would have seen me in the mosque, lined up with my hard-eyed Fruit of Islam brothers, wearing my fez and bowtie. Except, of course, they would not have had me. They would not have Malcolm, either, as it turned out. He had just 15 months to live before Black Muslims assassinated him.

There were other revolutionary cadres around. I was acquainted with Camilla Hall. She was a sturdy young Minnesota woman, an artist of very modest ability but great good cheer. She dressed in overalls and wore her blond hair short. A lesbian with no big grudge against men, she always made me feel welcome in gatherings at her place in El Cerrito—a tolerance not all that common back then, in the second wave of feminism and the first glimmer of gay liberation. People of my gender sometimes felt invisible in the company of these buff women, or just useless and vestigial, like the vermiform appendix. But it was never that way with Camilla. I liked her very much. It is an abiding mystery to me that she would become “Gabi” of the Symbionese Liberation Army and end up with a bullet in her forehead. 

How does a good-hearted, corn-fed girl from Minnesota fall under the sway of General Field Marshal Cinque—Donald DeFreeze, a career criminal and a Soledad prison escapee? How does she take up an assault rifle and join his homicidal, bank-robbing gang of gun molls? How does she fail to see the madness in launching a revolution by assassinating Marcus Foster, superintendent of Oakland schools, a progressive black man beloved by the community? “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people,” was the SLA motto. Yes, but Marcus Foster? Weren’t there some real fascist insects around to shoot? How could Camilla, a lover of women and champion of womanhood, collaborate in the kidnap and rape of Patty Hearst?

I had a theory at the time, simplistic but maybe not entirely wrong. It had to do with Camilla’s heartland origins. For young Midwestern immigrants to Berkeley in the ’60s, first contact with revolutionary theory and racial injustice could be an experience too heady to handle. People just lost their minds. Those of us who had grown up in the town acquired some immunity.

David Bower
Environmentalist David Brower

It was an awful thing to see in the newscasts. The firefight at the SLA hideout in Los Angeles. The house walls disintegrating in a withering fusillade of LAPD gunfire and tear gas explosions. If Camilla had not been killed as she came out shooting, she would have burned with the others in the crawl space below. 

Then there was the antiwar movement. This 50th anniversary of FSM and the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act is also the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which allowed rapid escalation of the undeclared war in Southeast Asia. I might have thrown all my energies into getting us out of Vietnam. Most of my Army buddies ended up over there. Among them was my best friend in the platoon, Paul Brown, an Eskimo from Unalakleet whose real, Inupiat name was Atongen and whose family nicknamed him “Buttocks.” As spring turned to summer at Fort Ord, Paul’s thoughts turned north to Alaska. By now everyone had moved to fish camp, he told me. The big king salmon began their run in June. Right now, split fish were drying on the racks.

Brown and I were squad leaders—four of us had a bunk room to ourselves—and one evening I came in on Atongen as he was talking in bird language to finches outside the window. I wish now that I had done better by him. I should have marched and burned my draft card and worked toward getting him home to Unalakleet. But the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution would not pass until August 1964, and antiwar activism was not really rolling as yet. Nationwide teach-ins against the war were still a year away.

There are many good causes, my father con­ceded, but this cause—a truce in our war on the web of life that sus­tains us—is the one we ab­so­lutely must win. No oth­er cause suc­ceeds without it.

The truth is that all these options for rebellion were just illusory. The choice had been made for me early, almost in the cradle. I was the oldest child of David Brower, one of the inventors of modern environmentalism. In 1952 my father left UC Press, where he and my mother had met as editors, and became the first executive director of the Sierra Club. In his first year on the job, he led the fight to kill a pair of dams in Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and Colorado—a signal event in the history of environmentalism. It was the first time American citizens stopped a big government project.

My father was instrumental in the establishment of the Kings Canyon, Redwood, and North Cascades National Parks. In 1962, in the Oval Office, he watched as JFK signed the enabling legislation for Point Reyes National Seashore—a park for which he and the Sierra Club had fought hard. Now in 1964, with the Wilderness Act in pocket (he spent eight years campaigning for that), he was gearing up for his successful fight against another pair of dams, which would have flooded Grand Canyon.

Environmentalism was like religion to him. He called it, in fact, “the Religion.” He was a prodigious worker and always brought his work home. No audience was too small for my father. If no other targets were available, he indoctrinated his four kids at the dinner table, teaching the tenets of the Religion, reciting the wisdom of its various prophets, updating us on the battles of the moment, hinting at campaigns ahead, bouncing ideas off our wee tousled heads. He was the most electrifying environmental evangelist of his time. When he hit stride in the ever-changing speech he called “the Sermon,” it was like a tent revival: Grown men and women trooped down the aisles afterward to sign up in the cause. What chance did his four offspring have? We were just little kids.

Later, in our teens, we were denied one of the great satisfactions of the rebellious ’60s—telling your old man that he was a bourgeois and a dinosaur and that his sorry epoch was finally coming to an end. Because our father was more radical than anybody around.

Radicalism derives from the Latin radix: root. It describes political movements that seek change at the very roots. Marx, Mao, Lenin, Robespierre, Thomas Paine, Emma Goldman, and the other most famous radicals of history were not, in a strict sense of radix, all that radical. They sought only to eradicate social injustice. They were content with rewriting the contract between classes of humans. The radical environmentalists who emerged as a force in the 1960s did not stop there; their intent was also to re-negotiate the contract between humans and the biosphere.

“We seek a renewed stirring of love for the earth,” my father began, in a credo defining the mission. There are many good causes, he conceded, but this cause—a truce in our war on the web of life that sustains us—is the one we absolutely must win. No other cause succeeds without it. On a dead planet, there would be no business, or social justice, or gender equality, or Internet neutrality, or music, or art, or architecture, or string theory, or love.

The Bay Area was epicenter for American environmental radicalism of the ’60s. There were other focal points, but this was the big one. The ferment in Berkeley and across the bay sparked true revolution: The Wilderness Act was soon followed by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, Earth Day. It was no accident that the environmentalism quake shook hardest hereabouts. Bay Area ground had been prepared, seeded mainly by the decision, a full century before, to locate California’s flagship university in this spot. No school anywhere has figured larger in the history of environmentalism than Berkeley, and this institutional tendency can be traced back to the University’s very founding in 1868.

Professor Joseph LeConte, on coming west from South Carolina after the Civil War to organize the new university—a Rebel, he was unemployable in the East—spent his summers doing geology in the Sierra, fell in love with the range, and cofounded the Sierra Club with John Muir. Both Joseph Sr. and his son, Professor “Little Joe” LeConte, along with Will Colby of Hastings College of Law and other UC graduates and scholars, became Muir’s brain trust and his lieutenants in the fight for Yosemite National Park. The Borax millionaire Stephen Mather, a Cal man and a friend of Muir, was the force behind creation of the U.S. National Park Service and became its first director. Ansel Hall got his degree in forestry from Berkeley in 1917, rose through the ranks to become the chief naturalist in the Park Service, and after stints in Sequoia and Yosemite returned to civilization to run the NPS educational headquarters out of 213 Hilgard Hall. And so on.

We need such people—true rad­ic­als—more than ever, be­cause our troubles are many and they ori­gin­ate down at the roots.

In the Green Revolution of the 1960s, a similar cast of characters stepped forward. The radical environmentalists who drove this second blossoming were not, for the most part, scruffy and bearded bomb-throwing types. Many had tenure. Two sons of the great conservationist Aldo Leopold were drawn to Berkeley. Starker Leopold, a zoology professor, wrote The Leopold Report, a seminal series of recommendations on wildlife management in the national parks. Luna Leopold, a hydrologist, argued early for water management policy driven not entirely by politics and economics, but also by the realities of geomorphology and climate. Dr. Robert Stebbins, a Berkeley herpetologist, advocated desert preservation. Dr. Carl Koford, a field biologist, pushed for protection of the California condor and the cougar. Dr. John Holdren, a physicist, worked toward sane technology policy and continues to do so today as President Obama’s science advisor.

In 1961 three faculty wives—Sylvia McLaughlin, Esther Gulick, and Kay Kerr—organized Save the Bay. The City of Berkeley was poised that year to fill another 2,000 acres of San Francisco Bay, and it was the final straw for these three women. For a century the bay had been steadily shrinking, reduced by a third as developers and municipalities encroached on its margins. At the foot of University Avenue, the Berkeley garbage dump grew ever farther out into the bay. Trash fires smudged the sky by day and glowed red at night, like the campfires of some medieval army laying siege to the city. The Save the Bay women attacked, and the medieval army struck its tents and departed. Where those fires once burned, McLaughlin Meadow and Cesar Chavez Park stand today, on a bay shoreline now sacrosanct, with salt marsh restoration underway everywhere.

In 1962, a young graduate of the Berkeley School of Forestry, David Pesonen, became point man in the campaign to stop construction of the nuclear plant that PG&E intended to build at Bodega Bay, on the San Andreas Fault. Pesonen’s brain trust was UC scholars Joe Nielands and Joel Hedgpeth; his troops an assortment of determined Bay Area citizens. The hole dug for the reactors is now a duck pond locals call “the Hole in the Head.” This year is the 50th anniversary of PG&E’s surrender and its decision to abandon the site.

Nostalgia distorts, I know. Nobody is more boring than the geezer reminiscing on all the miles he had to trudge through snow as a schoolboy. Yet I find myself wistful about the tumult of the ’60s. Environmental organizations are now much larger, wealthier, and more numerous than they were back then—but they’re also less passionate and less sure of mission. There is more and more corporate influence on boards, more and more CEOs from industry in command, and more and more deal making with business interests and politicians. The flush of youth, the courage of new beginnings, fades from organizations just as from people.

“Thank God for Dave Brower,” Russell Train, head of the EPA under Nixon, once said of my father. “He makes it so easy for the rest of us to appear reasonable.” My old man, a friend of Judge Train’s, took this as a compliment. He slipped it into his Sermon whenever possible, especially when working the circuit with the ecovigilante Dave Foreman, founder of Earth First!

“And thank God for Dave Foreman,” my father would add. “He makes it so easy for me to appear reasonable. Now we need someone to make Dave Foreman appear reasonable.”

That person has yet to show up. We need such people—true radicals—more than ever, because our troubles are many and they originate down at the roots. The millennials are now obliged to do just that: ring in a new millennium. We need radicals not just in the environmental movement, but in all those good causes that illuminated Berkeley in the 1960s. How is the antiwar movement going right now? And social justice? And the fight against climate change?

It is good to remember: There was a time, not long ago, when streets across America were marching with banners and placards, with song and resolve, and citizens believed they could change the world.

Kenneth Brower’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and other magazines. He is also the author of several books, including The Wildness Within: Remembering David Brower (2012, Heyday Books).

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