November 2011, Week 3


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Mon, 21 Nov 2011 21:50:18 -0500
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Poet-Bashing Police 

November 19, 2011

The New York Times Sunday Review


[Photo} Berkeley, Calif. Ben Margot/Associated Press
Activists raised a tent in front of Sproul Hall on the
Berkeley campus as police officers in riot gear
retreated on Nov. 9.

LIFE, I found myself thinking as a line of Alameda
County deputy sheriffs in Darth Vader riot gear formed
a cordon in front of me on a recent night on the campus
of the University of California, Berkeley, is full of
strange contingencies.  The deputy sheriffs, all white
men, except for one young woman, perhaps Filipino, who
was trying to look severe but looked terrified, had
black truncheons in their gloved hands that reporters
later called batons and that were known, in the movies
of my childhood, as billy clubs.

The first contingency that came to mind was the quick
spread of the Occupy movement. The idea of occupying
public space was so appealing that people in almost
every large city in the country had begun to stake them
out, including students at Berkeley, who, on that
November night, occupied the public space in front of
Sproul Hall, a gray granite Beaux-Arts edifice that
houses the registrar's offices and, in the basement,
the campus police department.

It is also the place where students almost 50 years ago
touched off the Free Speech Movement, which transformed
the life of American universities by guaranteeing
students freedom of speech and self-governance. The
steps are named for Mario Savio, the eloquent
undergraduate student who was the symbolic face of the
movement. There is even a Free Speech Movement Cafe on
campus where some of Mr. Savio's words are prominently
displayed: "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."

Earlier that day a colleague had written to say that
the campus police had moved in to take down the Occupy
tents and that students had been "beaten viciously." I
didn't believe it. In broad daylight? And without
provocation? So when we heard that the police had
returned, my wife, Brenda Hillman, and I hurried to the
campus. I wanted to see what was going to happen and
how the police behaved, and how the students behaved.
If there was trouble, we wanted to be there to do what
we could to protect the students.

Once the cordon formed, the deputy sheriffs pointed
their truncheons toward the crowd. It looked like the
oldest of military maneuvers, a phalanx out of the
Trojan War, but with billy clubs instead of spears. The
students were wearing scarves for the first time that
year, their cheeks rosy with the first bite of real
cold after the long Californian Indian summer. The
billy clubs were about the size of a boy's Little
League baseball bat. My wife was speaking to the young
deputies about the importance of nonviolence and
explaining why they should be at home reading to their
children, when one of the deputies reached out, shoved
my wife in the chest and knocked her down.

Another of the contingencies that came to my mind was a
moment 30 years ago when Ronald Reagan's administration
made it a priority to see to it that people like
themselves, the talented, hardworking people who ran
the country, got to keep the money they earned.
Roosevelt's New Deal had to be undealt once and for
all. A few years earlier, California voters had passed
an amendment freezing the property taxes that finance
public education and installing a rule that required a
two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature
to raise tax revenues. My father-in-law said to me at
the time, "It's going to take them 50 years to really
see the damage they've done." But it took far fewer
than 50 years.

My wife bounced nimbly to her feet. I tripped and
almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that
moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and,
using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at
the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to
see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies.
Particularly shocking to me -- it must be a generational
reaction -- was that they assaulted both the young men
and the young women with the same indiscriminate force.
If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs.
If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on
their spines.

NONE of the police officers invited us to disperse or
gave any warning. We couldn't have dispersed if we'd
wanted to because the crowd behind us was pushing
forward to see what was going on. The descriptor for
what I tried to do is "remonstrate." I screamed at the
deputy who had knocked down my wife, "You just knocked
down my wife, for Christ's sake!" A couple of students
had pushed forward in the excitement and the deputies
grabbed them, pulled them to the ground and cudgeled
them, raising the clubs above their heads and swinging.
The line surged. I got whacked hard in the ribs twice
and once across the forearm. Some of the deputies used
their truncheons as bars and seemed to be trying to use
minimum force to get people to move. And then,
suddenly, they stopped, on some signal, and reformed
their line. Apparently a group of deputies had beaten
their way to the Occupy tents and taken them down. They
stood, again immobile, clubs held across their chests,
eyes carefully meeting no one's eyes, faces impassive.
I imagined that their adrenaline was surging as much as

My ribs didn't hurt very badly until the next day and
then it hurt to laugh, so I skipped the gym for a
couple of mornings, and I was a little disappointed
that the bruises weren't slightly more dramatic. It
argued either for a kind of restraint or a kind of low
cunning in the training of the police. They had hit me
hard enough so that I was sore for days, but not hard
enough to leave much of a mark. I wasn't so badly off.
One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O'Brien,
had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a
Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her
hair when she presented herself for arrest.

I won't recite the statistics, but the entire
university system in California is under great stress
and the State Legislature is paralyzed by a minority of
legislators whose only idea is that they don't want to
pay one more cent in taxes. Meanwhile, students at
Berkeley are graduating with an average indebtedness of
something like $16,000. It is no wonder that the real
estate industry started inventing loans for people who
couldn't pay them back.

"Whose university?" the students had chanted. Well, it
is theirs, and it ought to be everyone else's in
California. It also belongs to the future, and to the
dead who paid taxes to build one of the greatest
systems of public education in the world.

The next night the students put the tents back up.
Students filled the plaza again with a festive
atmosphere. And lots of signs. (The one from the
English Department contingent read "Beat Poets, not
beat poets.") A week later, at 3:30 a.m., the police
officers returned in force, a hundred of them, and told
the campers to leave or they would be arrested. All but
two moved. The two who stayed were arrested, and the
tents were removed. On Thursday afternoon when I
returned toward sundown to the steps to see how the
students had responded, the air was full of balloons,
helium balloons to which tents had been attached, and
attached to the tents was kite string. And they hovered
over the plaza, large and awkward, almost lyrical,
occupying the air.

Robert Hass is a professor of poetry and poetics at the
University of California, Berkeley, and former poet
laureate of the United States.


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