Monday, November 21, 2011

Poet-Bashing Police

Poet-Bashing Police



November 19, 2011


The New York Times Sunday Review


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 mine.


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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