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?
JG: San Francisco State for someone like myself was low-hanging fruit— it was a liberal institution. The president, John Summerskill, was a white male Brahmin who enjoyed the presence of black people. So he was not an obstacle. The biggest obstacles were the second level administrators who felt afraid and that their own interests were going to be threatened by organized working-class people of color. Much of the blowback came from them, not from faculty or top administrators.
At the state level, when Ronald Reagan became governor it was with the program of transforming the ideals put forward by Democrats that fostered the community college and state university system. Reagan basically saw education as a privilege rather than a right. And he saw us as dangerous because our position was education was a right and in fact, we should be paid to go to school and schools should always be open, and that educational institutions are places where people engage in intellectual labor. We wanted to serve the nation and be prepared to serve humanity in the broader sense. So that local group on the campus and the ideology of the Reagan administration which came down hard on the movement were the biggest obstacles.
EW: In the movie, someone says the police’s reaction to the strike radicalized the people involved. Tell us about how that happened.
JG: You have to go back to the fact there were white students at State involved in the anti-House on American Activities in 1960, so there was a growing tradition on that campus which lent itself to building a student base. At the same time you had police forces and sheriffs being militarized. The law enforcement administration in DC were funneling money and materials and weapons out, and you’re training all these law enforcement who themselves come from marginal working-class communities themselves. They were given carte blanche. Reagan said he wasn’t going to have a movement, so they were basically sent out to beat the movement to death.
But the students on the campus connected themselves to communities they came from. So we had relationships with longshore workers, we had relationships with MUNI drivers, we had relationships with local community organizations, we had relationships with the teachers unions and the faith-based communities. Because of those relationships, when they came down that hard on the demonstrations leading up to the strike and then the strike itself, those communities came to our support. We had a connection with each other.
And every night for really about two and a half years, people were photographing us, interviewing us, so people in those communities sat every night watching. They were watching white women being beaten—you can’t do that, not in 1968. I mean beaten down and getting back up and holding up her sign and getting beat down again. Across the board, people were being brutalized. We didn’t have to call people out, they came out. What we had to do was organize that energy. Had the police not been given free rein to do what Reagan told them to do, that strike would have lasted maybe 30 days.
EW: So what was the tipping point? How did you finally get Black Studies and Ethnic Studies at State?
JG: I think it was a combination of years of organizing and preparation. Black Studies was one way to deal with rising number of students going into communities doing tutorials while James Brown was singing “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” You had communities whose black consciousness was developing, and you had students who had no way to reflect on that on the college campus. When I wrote a piece called “Justification for Black Studies,” it was out of almost desperation. Black Studies was less a victory than a beginning of an attempt solve what arises when people are undergoing social development, intellectual development, and finding their own voice and sense of self. Black Studies, in that setting, was a compromise. But it was a beginning.
EW: What’s your response to the proposed cutbacks in Ethnic Studies now?
JG: I’ve sat with students and told them how we used to debate a lot of what Bernie Sanders talks about. Sanders learned a lot of his stuff from SNCC people—jobs and income now, free education and health care for everybody: we talked about that 50 years ago.
So now, I guess I’d have to start with the occupation movement and that initial attempt to challenge the orthodoxy and to challenge Wall Street and then the breakout, which we term the Black Lives Matter movement. All of that to me is in recognition of the fact that the high points of the Civil Rights movement took 30 years to build. That strike at San Francisco State took nearly 10 years to build. So what people are doing now, I think, are in the first and second stages of rebuilding a more organized sector, and it takes time.
EW: How has being part of what happened at San Francisco State influenced who you became?
JG: I already had six years in the movement by that point, so I was locked in. It was another training ground, and the way it altered my consciousness was to see if I could find places where I could be of service the rest of my life. From that point there’s never been a time where I’ve defined myself outside of that focus on service. Now I work with people building hospitals for Agent Orange victims in Vietnam. Whatever I do, my principal work will be to prepare myself to be of some positive service. That’s San Francisco State right there. There’s nothing you can do to keep me out of this; you can’t buy me out of it, you can’t put me in jail out of it. This is a way of life.