On December 2, 1964, Mario Savio gave his famous “Bodies on the Gears” speech on the steps of Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley. It was during the Free Speech Movement. In protest of the university’s ban on political activity, Savio spoke these words:
“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!”
I’ve always loved this speech. A weathered and coffee-stained clipping of these lines has been pinned to the bulletin boards of dozens of assigned cubicles and offices where I have worked as a public defender. The counterculture community that raised me, on the remote Lost Coast of Northern California, grew out of the participation of my parents and their peers in this 60s Berkeley political activism.
Put your body on the gears resonates with so much about public defense. Free human beings will not be pushed around by the machine, will not be the raw materials for the prison-industrial complex, will not be abused by the criminal punishment bureaucracy.
It’s what we do in public defense, we put our bodies on the gears of the machine. We think to ourselves, you’ve got to go through me to cage this human, to convict this person, to sentence this community member.
Often we do it at the expense of our own well-being. We sacrifice our sleep and family time to long hours, incredible stress, impacts of trauma and moral injury. In the best of circumstances, sustaining well-being is a challenge in public defense. These are not the best of circumstances.
The machine has found new gears in this Covid19 era. There are new levers of abuse in the form of jail conditions ripe for an outbreak, and a whole new apparatus of closed courts that refuse to release people from unhealthy jails.
There is a new conversation about health and public defense. Do we fight to go into the jails for contact visits that may cause this virus to spread? Are we endangering people more than we are helping them? Do we continue to appear in empty courtrooms, standing next to the people we represent, even as judges and prosecutors and witnesses appear on zoomed in computer screens from the safety of their homes? What does it say about these machines that they see us and our clients as unworthy of personal protective equipment or procedures that ensure social distancing? The plans and strategies to protect public health do not include the people we represent.
I hear many public defense leaders grappling with questions of advocacy and safety. Should each public defender choose whether to do jail visits? Whether to work remotely or come to court or the office? Whether to agree to remote hearings or demand live hearings? Whether to meet in person with witnesses and family members?
My biggest fear in these conversations is that the questions will be framed to position public defender health as conflicting with client centered representation. These two things should always be on the same side. We have to care for our well-being to be able to fight for our clients. We have to maintain our health in order to fight what is shaping up to be a very long fight to free people from jail and to regain access to courts that are now closed.
We’ve got to keep our bodies and minds as healthy as we can if we’re going to keep putting our bodies on the gears of this machine.