When I participated in anti-Vietnam War protests in the late 60’s, I was very careful. I had a foreign student’s visa to play sports at UC Berkeley. If I was caught demonstrating, I could easily lose it. My track and field coach warned me: “We brought you here to run. Not to think!” Literal words that I do not forget.

The Free Speech Movement was born at UC Berkeley in 1964. On December 2 of that year, student leader Mario Savio gave an iconic speech on the steps of Sproul Plaza: “There is 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!”

Today, when in many university campuses across this nation students are setting-up improvised camps, to protest what they consider an apartheid-like genocidal attitude being carried out by the government of Israel against the people of Palestine, Mario Savio’s words resonate loud and clear. A growing fervor beats inside the hearts of young people today, as they did in the 60’s. Of course, not everyone participates and there are many disagreements. The same happened then, when my generation were the students. Back then, students had diverse and contrary opinions, or diverse levels of consciousness and militancy.

For example, I clearly remember the many strong and beefy young men with crew-cut hairstyles. They were members of Cal’s football team who would stand, shoulder to shoulder, with the police and with members of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). That’s when we faced each other: The students who were protesting versus those who despised our efforts, and were eager to beat us up. 

Eventually, the police grabbed a megaphone and made an announcement: “In the name of the people of California, this gathering is now declared an illegal assembly!” Those of us who protested yelled back in the same response being used today across this nation: “We are the people! We are the people!” 

Once, while protesting in 1967, I realized I was standing right in front of a student member of the ROTC, in full uniform and weaponry.  He was also a runner in our track team! Devon W. (although I do not forget his name, I prefer not to print it), a rather quiet kid and not very sociable. We had never had a significant conversation, but he knew me … and recognized me, in spite of the handkerchief that pretended to hide my identity, and, hopefully, protect me from tear-gas bombs as well. 

For a few long seconds, Devon and I looked at each other, expressionless. Eventually, he looked away. We never spoke about that encounter and he did not denounce me. I also never asked him how he felt when he faced me, or other students that knew him.

In our youth, as we begin to forge political ideas, we make decisions that perhaps will change with the passing of time. Or perhaps they will be solidified as we mature. 

That exchange with Devon made me think about the bellicose attitude adopted by President Joe Biden towards the students who are currently protesting against the continuous massacre in Gaza. Just last week, the president rejected the petitions made by protesting students, who asked him to end his support of Israel. Biden responded: ”Order must prevail … Dissent must never lead to disorder.”

To that, I ask: What is war if not the worst of disorders?

What was Biden’s posture when he was a student? In his 2007 memoir “Promises to keep,” Biden wrote of an event that he had lived during the Vietnam War, when he was in college: “We walked by the Administration Building and we looked up and there we saw people hanging out of the windows — out of the Chancellor’s Office — with S.D.S. banners.” He was referring to the Students for a Democratic Society, a well-known activist group of the era. “They were taking over the building. And we looked up and said, ‘Look at those assholes!’ That’s how far apart from the antiwar movement I was.”

As we can see, President Biden’s attitude persists. It has not evolved.

I certainly hope that Devon W’s attitude evolved, from our brief encounter in 1967.