Emily Wilson

Days of Protest: What the Summer of '68 Has to Teach Us About Organizing on Campus Today

This past spring, students at San Francisco State University took to the streets to protest severe cutbacks to the renowned College of Ethnic Studies, a first-of-its-kind program of its kind when it was established in 1968. Up to 40 percent of the school’s operating budget was on the chopping block, according to the San Francisco Examiner, and students and faculty were eager to push back against what one department chair described as “a backhanded way of dismantling the college.”

At the same time students and teachers were rallying to protect the school’s future, a documentary that looks at its past opened at San Francisco’s Castro Theater. Agents of Change, co-produced and directed by Frank Dawson and Abby Ginzberg, examines the student-led protest movements against the Vietnam War and for civil rights that took hold on campuses across the country in the late 1960s. In the case of SFSU, those struggles led, in part, to the creation of the College of Ethnic Studies, a response to the call for racial justice and “more relevant and meaningful education” for the university’s students.

Agents of Change shows footage of the original protests, the response by the San Francisco Police Department and the four-month student strike. The filmmakers also interviewed activists involved in those original protests, including Jimmy Garrett, who came to SFSU as a recent organizer with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee(SNCC), and eventually became the creator of the Black Studies curriculum at San Francisco State.

Garrett, now a lawyer and retired dean of instruction at Berkeley City College, spoke with AlterNet about his involvement with the film, and his days of protest. He shared his memories of Gov. Ronald Reagan’s attempts to suppress the movement, and how those actions ended up galvanizing support for the strikers instead. Garrett also highlighted the importance of the students’ connection to various labor, faith and community organizations, and the notion of how, as an organizer, one can work oneself out of a job by supporting others to speak out (a good thing). The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Emily Wilson: In the movie, you explain that you wanted to take the skills you’d acquired as an organizer and use them in the struggle at San Francisco State. What skills did you mean?

Jimmy Garrett: I’d been trained as a community organizer with the Congress on Racial Equality first and then the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. So I tried to use those skills when I was tasked with trying to replicate the black students organization that had fostered much of the sit-in movement and the Freedom Rider movement in the Deep South to see if we could build that on a predominately white college campus. A great deal of my efforts were around helping to build and pull together the on and off campus community. I saw myself as a fairly well trained organizer, and that’s what I went on the campus to do.

What I learned while doing that organizing was that as you build organizations, a great many things you come into contact with are not global — they’re day-to-day problem solving. The difference between operating from a client’s perspective and an organizer’s perspective is that if you have clients, your job is to take the lead in solving the client’s problem. If you’re doing organizing, your job is to aid people to develop their own voices, so they can solve their own problems. So I learned that rather than being the spokesperson all the time, you need to put people in position where they have to test their mettle. They’ll learn over time that they can stand alone — and then you can work your way out of a job.

EW: What was the biggest obstacle to organizing at San Francisco State?

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