Put Your Body on the Gears: In the Words of Mario Savio

18 Aug
Mario Savio Free Speech Movement 1964

Mario Savio and members of the Free Speech Movement, circa 1964
image from npr.org

My last post delved into the life of Mario Savio, an inspirational, but oft-overlooked figure of the 1960s. Below, I’ll explore five quotes by and about Mario Savio that stood out to me while reading Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power.


For years, [Savio] had viewed hippies as too apolitical and somewhat anti-intellectual. He thought LSD could provide useful insights and people could form positive bonds by passing the marijuana pipe, but that too many had used these drugs to escape and “got blown away.” He saw Leary’s exhortation to “Turn on, tune in, drop out” as “the most irresponsible slogan of the era.”

–Seth Rosenfeld, Subversives

Reagan and other conservative leaders seemed to paint all student activists as drugged out hippies, but that picture was not entirely accurate. Many, like Savio, recognized that the psychedelic movement hurt leftwing causes in many ways (much the same as the Filthy Speech Movement seemed to delegitimize the Free Speech Movement). As a first-hand witness to the New Left’s self-destruction, Savio seemed to agree with my thesis that the mass-adoption of drug culture was a both a symptom and cause of the movement’s inevitable decline.


Becoming a father doesn’t make me any less angry at how society harms growing children through their families, but it makes me much more sensitive to how very difficult it is to avoid hurting one’s children in some way—just by being a parent. This helps me to regard with greater sympathy those whom I consider political enemies because they, too, were children at one time and are no less victims of an ill society.

–Mario Savio in a 1963 interview with the San Francisco Examiner

A new father at the age of 23, Savio displays compassion and wisdom here that go far beyond his years. What leaders today aren’t guilty of demonizing and dehumanizing their political enemies? Instead of succumbing to that temptation, Savio takes a wider approach to highlight overarching social problems and actually empathize with those he disagrees with.


We are moving right now in a direction which one could call creeping barbarism. We have to be prepared, on the basis of our moral insight, to struggle even if we do not know that we are going to win.

–Mario Savio in 1994 at a Berkeley event commemorating the 30-year anniversary of the Free Speech Movement

Speaking only two years before his untimely death, Savio had borne witness to the self-destruction of the New Left and the social movement he helped build—yet he had not given up hope. Instead, he exhorted the next generation not to give up fighting for their beliefs, no matter how long the odds—the difference we make may not be seen until after we’re gone.


There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.

­–Mario Savio speaking on the steps of Sproul Hall, on December 2, 1964

This was the shining moment of the Free Speech Movement, coming only two months after thousands of students protested the arrest of a former student distributing political literature on campus. Savio was speaking out then about a problem that still exists today: the indifference of a sprawling, illogical, unfeeling, and at times inhumane bureaucracy. He and others in the FSM viewed the university system as an unjust bureaucracy that was heedless of student rights, but the exact same sentiment precisely encapsulates the spirit of Occupy Wall Street or even today’s fair-wage movements in the fast-food industry.

Watch Savio give this iconic speech. If that doesn’t put a fire in your belly, I don’t know what will.


“To focus on personalities rather than on issues is to obscure the issues and encourage the least democratic sentiments of the public.” Leaders could be seduced, he added, into “confusing their personal destinies with their political role—and therefore into using the political arena to act out solutions to their personal psychological quirks.”

­–Seth Rosenfeld chronicling Mario Savio’s 1963 interview with the San Francisco Examiner

This quote fairly blew me away. Again at age 23, Savio had already figured out that the media and public obsession with political personalities rather than political actions is terrible for democracy. When you think today about those who are most attracted to positions of power, every word of this rings true (Rick Santorum, I’m looking at you).

I’m hoping that people will one day learn from Mario Savio’s example. A talented leader who could very well have been one of the most successful public servants of his generation, Savio stared the inner demons of power in the face and decided to walk away. Part of me will always wish he hadn’t, but part of me understands why he did.

This last quote filled me with an overwhelming sense of clarity, but also left me despondent. What hope is there for thoughtful, moral public leadership when our system is designed to elevate the power hungry and alienate those who genuinely want to serve? My only hope is that there are more moral leaders out there, somewhere—hopefully ones that aren’t on an illegal FBI watch list.

What are your thoughts on Mario Savio? Which quote stood out most to you?

Mario Savio speech

Mario Savio speaking to the masses
Image from nateriggs.com


4 Responses to “Put Your Body on the Gears: In the Words of Mario Savio”

  1. elmerado August 29, 2013 at 12:07 am #

    many of those who truly and honestly participated in psychedelic culture or the neon renaissance as ken kesey termed it were interested in making an artistic statement rather than a political statement . this is true of kesey and the acid tests, the grateful dead, jefferson airplane, quicksilver messenger service, the diggers.
    while i admire savio and his words at sproul hall, it’s interesting that kesey was dealing with the same themes and enemies two years earlier in one flew over the cuckoo’s nest (don’t see the movie; it’s garbage). kesey called it the combine.

    the chief appeared to him in a peyote haze and he proceeded to write the first three pages of the book.

    it was a very emersonian time before commercialization set in and the market known as the baby boom moved in. the creative impetus was provided by people who were born before or during the war not boomers.

    anyway watch berkeley in the 60s if you get a chance.

    Obviously, i’m no more an ibm comptuer than i am an ashtray — bob dylan

    • emkaydoubleyou August 29, 2013 at 8:05 pm #

      You make a very interesting point about Ken Kesey and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “The combine” and “the machine” are indeed a common enemy!

      I understand those who took an “artistic” approach to drug use, namely Kesey and the other early adopters who truly were breaking new ground in the late 50s/early 60s, but I think that the problems that became corrosive to the psychedelic movement (and by proxy, the New Left movement) came from those who took the call to “Turn on, tune in, drop out” too literally. Many just couldn’t handle it and became “burnouts” who jaded the public’s perception of an entire generation (much the same as the Filthy Speech Movement did to the FSM). Others used drugs as an excuse for selfish behaviors that were not only self-destructive but destructive to the lives of others. Even Kesey spoke of a “double line in the middle of the road” at the Acid Test Graduation, preaching moderation to a movement he believed had gone off the rails.

      The forces of consumerism were certainly also to blame, as they brought (commercialized) psychedelic imagery and co-opted ideals into popular culture, making a mass movement out of something that perhaps wasn’t suited for the masses. Which is not to say that there weren’t psychedelic musicians and artists who agreed to mass-market their wares for a price–though that seems only natural.

      Anyway, you’ve given me much to consider. I’ll have to check out that documentary. Also, perhaps one day there will be a more true-to-life adaptation of Cuckoo’s Nest…although part of me will want it to still star Jack Nicholson!

      • elmerado August 30, 2013 at 3:29 pm #

        besides having creative control wrested from him, nicholson was one of the many problems kesey had with the film (he never saw it). when you understand that mcmurphy was kesey, this makes sense. he said on at least one occasion he wanted gene hackman who looks a lot more like kesey that nicholson. if you have ever seen or have a chance to see the great books episode on cuckoo’s nest there are scenes in it which i have to think are more along the lines of what kesey would have done. i can’t find my tape of it.

        the conflict with the machine is everywhere in the early 60s as far as books are concerned — catch 22, etc. in soul on ice eldrdgie cleaver talked about america’s “mechanized, automated, cybernated environment.” heck even as early as 1952 with vonnegut’s player piano.

        i don’t see a psychedelic movement per se, i see individuals who were buiding a culture based on the words roots (to show the soul) and then a bunch of people who just had appetites and a desire to take instead of contribute. too much drag energy.

        leary was an idiot as was abbie hoffman — media whores. anybody who followed them got what they deserved.

        once the toothpase is out of the tube you can’t put it back in. anytime you have a pioneer-wilderness sitautio there will be casualties and you have to know the risks going in.

        it got ugly with downers, heroin and cocaine coming in. different types of drugs

        kesey may have been preaching moderation but he was also putting on an act for the judge, I believe. he had a family with small kids, didn’t want to serve major time, nor did he wish to be a martyr for the undeseving and ungrateful.

        the new left particularly weather underground, weatherman types had their own problems that brought about their demise.

      • oldblue125 August 30, 2013 at 3:49 pm #


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