Clenched fists and billy clubs
Preserved Berkeley posters recall antiwar movement of the ‘70s
Catherine Sullivan remembers the days of civil disobedience at Chico State. As a student in 1969, she joined a group of politically minded undergrads who walked en masse across the same section of First Street over and over again, all day long, and in big enough numbers that traffic came to a standstill. Seven were arrested, and although Sullivan was not among them—"Being a good Catholic school girl, I had to go to class,” she quips—her participation was entirely in keeping with the rebellious spirit of the times, when the Vietnam War raged and student protesters raged against it.
“There was a sense that your own voice counted, and you could stand up for things,” Sullivan says. “Young people felt they had that right.” Now she is reliving that past. As curator of the Janet Turner Print Museum, Sullivan has put together an exhibition that commemorates those heady days, entitled “Speaking Out: Printmakers Protest.”
The show, which runs until Sept. 21, features a collection of 1970s-era antiwar posters, all of them silk-screened prints, created by art students at the University of California, Berkeley.
The prints, on display for the first time, represent the explosion of protest that rocked the campus after four students at Kent State University were gunned down by the Ohio National Guard in May 1970.
For a week following that tragedy, they were plastered across town, on telephone poles, fences, garbage cans and in store windows. Several use newspaper images to decry the killings. In one poster, the National Guard, awash in purple, advances across the campus, grouped like so many plastic action figures, engaged in dubious battle.
Another one drips with venom: A policeman, billy club in one hand, gun in the other, straddles a fallen student and around him the lyrics: Would you like to swing on a star/ carry moon beams home in a jar/ and be better off than you are/ or would you rather be a pig?
Still others are in-your-face gory. “Kent State: It takes a bloodbath” features the head of a slain student, lying in a pool of his own blood.
There are those that strike a positive chord, such as “Don’t mourn; organize,” which shows four arms, black, brown, red and white, reaching their fists together in a gesture that says Fight the Power.
But mostly they condemn the horrors of napalm and the “violence” of world hunger. They flip you off, or they quietly urge you not to be silent.
The posters are presented in a ragged fashion, tacked to the wall, as they must have appeared in their heyday. They are largely anonymous and undated. Some are cryptically marked with the numbers “4973.”
While they are not considered high-quality works of art, they serve a vital purpose as cultural artifacts, what Sullivan calls “spontaneous expressions of student politics.”
The spontaneity is reinforced by the fact that several of the posters were created on the backs of large sheets of discarded computer printouts. The paper’s perforated edges, pre-laser printer, are still intact.
The prints were selected from 100 posters that comprise the Wayne Pease Collection. Pease, a Chico resident who was then a 30-year-old actor and director, had been visiting Berkeley when the posters were on display and says he “ran around like a maniac” collecting them. “I thought the posters powerful and that they would eventually be an artistic and historic document,” he says. So, he rolled them up and stored them for many years before donating them to the Turner Museum in the 1980s.
“If students were being drafted and sent to Iraq, I’ve no doubt the same thing would be happening today," he says.