As the people of Delhi march, sing, run and dance to freedom’s call, as they cock a snook at the shackles of nationalism, casteism and authoritarian stupidity, a gift of love from afar. Look at them standing in the free air! Look at them standing around a piece of earth unbound from the myopia of nationalism!
The memorial the 1964 Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley, like the thing it celebrates, is both invisible and embattled. The monument appears to be a circle of concrete six feet in diameter, in the middle of the famed Sproul Plaza where thousands of students gathered to demand the right to free speech and academic freedom on one of America’s most prominent and celebrated public university campuses. But that monument is so much more than what can be seen. The concrete circle, bearing the inscription “This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction,” encompasses a 6-inch wide indentation into the ground that reaches into the soil below and 60,000 feet upwards into the sky, to the limits of American airspace. That is, in fact, the monument to free speech at Berkeley: 60,000 feet and 6-inches of invisible insistence that to speak freely is not and cannot be a right granted by any sovereign, mandated by any state. The width of the depression in the ground is as large as a person’s two feet. The ground on which they stand. From which they speak. This is the lasting monument to free speech at Berkeley. From a space as wide as our stance, reaching in an unseeable column of air to the limits of the stratosphere. A monument of air that can never, like free speech itself, be contained, torn down, or granted by another. It lies, unassuming, built as it is out of the immateriality of inalienable rights, in the middle of a campus that grapples daily with the legacy of that now 50 year old fight for the right to claim the space of the university as one of protest, of politics, of resistance.
But Berkeley, we mustn’t forget, exists on occupied territory. Its celebrated monument digs into soil that was taken, without recompense or acknowledgement, from the Ohlone people who were stripped of their lands, their language, their culture, and their lives in what America today celebrates as its great westward expansion. Thus, the monument to free speech at the University of California, Berkeley, roots itself into a soil it claims belongs to no nation and also reifies centuries of the genocide of indigenous people and of settler colonialism. This too is the legacy of the Free Speech Movement. Of the student-led activism that created Ethnic Studies programs across California and the rest of the United States. To stand in the 6-inch wide memorial is to stand in land that is occupied and to nonetheless believe that no occupation, no nation, no state, mandates our ability and our right to speak, to protest, to imagine otherwise the world in which we live.
From Berkeley to JNU. With love and solidarity.
University of California, Berkeley