Catching Up with Barry Shapiro ’69

 

Barry Shapiro, right, stands next to George Murphy, the Dean of Student Affairs, at a student demonstration in sympathy for Berkeley Strike protesters in 1966. Photographed by Robert Glasheen.

The spring issue of Triton centers on the history of campus activism starting with the period of extreme student unrest surrounding 1969. As we pored over the archives and old newspapers looking for significant moments and event, one name kept popping up: Barry Shapiro ’69.

We had to find out: who is Shapiro, and what is he doing now? The answer: a lot.

“It took me to get to the age 80 before I recognized that I was older,” he says. Now 81 years old and living in the Bay Area, Shapiro is as busy as ever, truly putting the “active” in activist.

His voice is full of energy as he speaks passionately about the politics of 50 years ago and current events alike. He talks about his involvement in Just Elders, an organization of elders who mobilize for senior rights and also support youth movements like March for Our Lives. But 50 years ago, Shapiro was a graduate student working on two things: a dissertation about the weaknesses of liberalism and the rapid politicization of a young UC San Diego.

Barry Shapiro ’69 in his art studio.

Before Shapiro studied at UC San Diego, he got his start in organizing as a graduate student at UC Berkeley in the early ’60s. He became well-acquainted with the burgeoning New Left, a movement of the time that swept across college campuses in the United States and Europe. When the Free Speech Movement took over UC Berkeley, Shapiro organized for political and academic freedom on campus and to free students who were arrested at protests.

When he realized that UC San Diego’s philosophy department was better suited for his research interests, he left UC Berkeley for a coveted research fellowship with Professor Herbert Marcuse. Shapiro brought with him all of the organizing and community building skills that he learned at Berkeley, and he wasted no time in using them.

Shapiro soon gained school-wide notoriety when he openly challenged UC Regents, UC San Diego administration, and Chancellor McGill in anti-Vietnam war, anti-racist and Third College self-determination protests. He appears in Chancellor McGill’s memoir The Year of the Monkey: Revolt on Campus, which details the political uprisings at UC San Diego. Shapiro is described as the “redheaded, bearded fellow” leading protests and rallies.

Beyond the protests, Shapiro also thrived academically. He was especially adept at translating dense philosophical texts, like Jean-Paul Sartre, and applying them to  issues the world was facing. From organizing with the Graduate and Undergraduate Liberation Front (GULF) to advocating for hiring Black faculty and the creation of Black Studies on campus, Shapiro challenged academia’s indifference toward people of color and other marginalized communities.

“It was hard making the consciousness of the oppressed a legitimate area of consideration in academia,” Shapiro said. “Academia was… comfortably ignoring the plight of a huge portion of the American population.”

After graduating from UC San Diego in 1969, he worked as a diversity and sexual harassment prevention trainer across the country. This may seem like an odd job choice for someone who is very much an academic at heart, but he intentionally chose this career to openly challenge prejudice and present new ways of thinking.

“I needed to go out and actually go face-to-face and toe-to-toe with workers in the world and get them to think differently,” Shapiro says. “I chose a career which was much more immediate than an academic career.”

Never one to be idle, Shapiro has done as much social justice work as he can over the years. He’s written psychology books, hosted a social justice talk show, photographed protests, and taught philosophy. But above all, Shapiro is an artivist—an activist who uses art as a social justice intervention in political discourse. His early work from UC San Diego is very much hands-on—Shapiro’s well-known images of his fellow activist and former roommate Angela Davis ’69 are handmade collages, for instance. But for the past 15 years, he has taken graphic design classes to learn Photoshop and other digital media tools.

“I set aside my books, took out scissors and glue and produced several images designed to reveal her plight as a Black Power activist facing an angry Establishment. “Angela” was published as a poster and widely distributed at the time,” Shapiro says.

“Photoshop did not come naturally to me,” he says. “But I still want to have a good vocabulary in the digital language.”

As Shapiro enters his 80s, he doesn’t dwell in the past. He continues waking up in the morning, creating art and going out into the world to confront discrimination and inequity. Shapiro devoted himself to social justice when he was just a child, so he still has work left to do.

“I would never live my life as if I didn’t notice that there was injustice in this world,” he says. “I would take the actions that were necessary to set it right.”

More than 70 years later, Shapiro has kept that promise with no intentions of ever breaking it.