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Regarding My “Walk-On Part in the War”


“Did you exchange
A walk-on part in the war
For a lead role in a cage?”

I’ve been in a couple of bad riots. Riots so bad that yesterday’s tear gas shells are replaced by today’s shotguns where the first round is birdshot, the next two are double-ought buck, and the last round is a slug. Then the shotguns are not pacifying enough so the next day it’s the National Guard.

You don’t want that. You do not want to be rioting in a city where the army is in the streets with fixed bayonets and full clips.

I remember those moments from my student days in Berkeley. Days that culminated in a little action called People’s Park. It was in my neighborhood just off Telegraph Avenue and it was a fine place to freak out in until it wasn’t. People’s Park was one of those things that “seemed like a good idea at the time”.

You had your standard cookie-cutter initial protests. Then you had your standard cookie-cutter initial riots which were sort of fun since only the local cops were involved. Then that changed. Quickly.

First, you had the Highway Patrol showing up who were not as gentle as the Berkeley Police. Then you had the Oakland Cops showing up. They opened their trunks and took out their street sweeping shotguns. This resulted in a lot of loose buckshot wounds, one persona blinded for life, and one person was killed outright. (James Rector. I remember his name today after fifty years because he was shot on the roof right above me as I was running away from the shotguns at speed. )

After that, I went home for the night….

The next day as I walked up towards Telegraph Avenue from the Green House with thousands of other fools I saw the trucks full of soldiers moving on streets that ran parallel to Telegraph. Being, at the time, a Hippie Poet I had no idea about “tactics.” On that day I would learn some stinging facts about “tactics.”

Once the Guard has all of “The Protestors”  gathered in a clot on Telegraph for the Rantfest the rest is simplicity itself. The Guard slowly closes on both flanks and then encircles the riot zone.

Then they tighten up the noose and just herd the rioters into an enclosure. In this case, it was the central plaza and student union area of the UC Berkeley Campus.

Ready.

Steady.

Cue the tear gas helicopters…

Then they open up one exit and line it with cops and soldiers with truncheons pour encourge les autres as you exit. It. Is. Not. Relaxing.

All that was 51 years ago.

This was the dream of “Peoples Park:”

This is the reality of People’s Park today:

James Rector (1944-1969): Died for what?

Yours truly at 0:13 early in my own Zelig/Footnote movie. (And much slimmer too. 31/30. Sigh.)

Notes on that era from Ceremonies of the Horsemen

That lyre is an old lie. And there was no truth. And without truth, there was no foundation, and, hence, no enduring reality. There was only America, only one dream of America. No better or worse, no more or less real, than a thousand other dreams of America. It was a dream woven on the loom of the stars and the ocean that enmeshed that western city on seven hills which we watched at night from the green house on the flatlands across the bay. A thousand and one nights watching and telling tales which were, in the final analysis, only variations on a single theme of light reclaimed and held against the flooding dark for but a moment.

And then the distant guns coming closer, the clang of the brazen bells, the rising sirens, the chopping whir of helicopters, the boots falling in lockstep, the thud of nightsticks, the crackling orders on two-way radios, metallic clicks from the blue steel chambers, shotgun fire, the blood and the bodies and the screaming…

We awoke in a metal dawn. The air tasted of rust. The smell of burning automobiles and tear gas was woven in the morning breeze and we slowly came to understand that the dreams were gone and only the nightmare was left. It was a slow nightmare which if not exactly true  was at its bottom as real as the black neoprene bags waiting in rows on the tarmac in Saigon.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • nunnya bidnez, jr September 4, 2020, 6:38 PM

    You lived in The Greene House??

  • Retail Lawyer September 4, 2020, 6:44 PM

    I was there, too. I was just 18, and the whole thing very much frightened me. I was afternoon napping in my 8th floor dorm room and woken up by tear gas, my first experience with it! I went out into the hallway and some resident was running down the hall, yelling “off the pigs” and I followed him out to the fire escape, to see what was going on and see if there was less tear gas. He threw a frozen orange and hit a police car in the roof, caving it in. Luckily, he did not kill anybody. The police definitely were made of sterner stuff back then.
    Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  • Terry September 4, 2020, 7:50 PM

    I remember that crap fest very well. I was across the Bay at SF State. Another institution run by fools.

  • PA Cat September 4, 2020, 9:54 PM

    It may be that the People’s Park riots of 1969 led to a less violent outcome during the Black Panther trials in New Haven the following year. I had finished college a semester early and had moved to New Haven in the spring of 1970 to get ready for graduate work. New Haven is a small city in terms of its land use; you can walk downtown from most neighborhoods in less than an hour. Which means that even though I wasn’t living all that close to the courthouse, I could see National Guard troops in full riot gear lined up around all four sides of the town green and extending to the undergraduate campus. There were also busloads of agitators from NYC and Boston arriving with threats to “burn down Yale.” Although the undergrads went on strike until the end of the semester and were treated to speeches by the likes of Abbie Hoffman and Benjamin Spock, there were no major incidents of violence; the only student who needed medical attention was an undergrad who collided with a tree trunk while playing Frisbee.

    Compromises worked out between the Yale administration, the governor, and the New Haven PD have been credited with preventing a major bloodbath that spring, but I’m inclined to think that what happened in Berkeley the year before was a factor in cooling down the hotheads– as well as the presence of several hundred NGs.

  • ghostsniper September 5, 2020, 4:11 AM

    Nothing changes hearts and minds faster than a cracked skall or a 3/4″ slug hole in the chest.
    For some, nothing else will work.

  • BillH September 5, 2020, 6:59 AM

    so bald alt so spät klug

  • I Am Who I Am September 5, 2020, 7:11 AM

    Though about 10 years your junior, I remember watching all that unfold on TV.

    From your picture of ‘People’s Park‘ today, it is clear the City of Berkeley won. But instead of parking cars there, they now park the unrooted and the lazy. It is a shrine to what we have become

  • Jack September 5, 2020, 7:31 AM

    I watched all of those student riots and most of the rest that have occurred in the country since then, including most that are going on now and I still hold the same belief when the protests becomes violent and/or destructive to public and personal property: These people are generally young socialists or marxists who desire the destruction of this Republic and ultimately by violent means. Sweep the streets and run them out of the country.

  • Casey Klahn September 5, 2020, 10:23 AM

    I think we’re essentially there. Black armed militias. Anarcho-Communist rioters. We’re most of the way back to the 60s, now. Protests may be a civil right, but at some point in time they become just a front for rioters. It’s called insurrection, then. Protests don’t enter into it.

    Gerard’s poignant memory reminds me of how violence has its own mind about things. Once that genie’s out of the bottle, it does not go back. Ever heard of bloodlust? It happens to normal men, pushed to madness temporarily by adrenaline and circumstances.

    You want to protest? OK, but don’t bitch about what happens later. You fukn brought it on yourself.

  • Joe Krill September 5, 2020, 10:53 AM

    May 14, 1969. I remember it well. I was living in the Central Highlands trying to help a country we had a Treaty with defend herself from communists and here we have a bunch of amoral spoiled wanna-be thumb suckers trying to destroy our home. Uncle Sam should have sent a company of grunts back for a little R&R in the park. To this day I still cannot stomach anything that reminds me of those spoiled “educated” parasites who took full advantage of the protections of the Constitution to try and destroy America. Now these pieces of well worn shit paper are running the show.

  • James ONeil September 5, 2020, 12:32 PM

    Ah, war stories. I guess I won’t talk about in the fifties, when I was at U of Florida and a 4 or 5 man panty raid was met by the campus police with tear gas who did not give consideration to which way the wind was blowing, hence emptying two dorms full out in to the street to join the few raiders and a good time was had by all.

  • pbird September 5, 2020, 1:22 PM

    Yeah, we did a little of that in Seattle too. lol

  • Phil Ossiferz Stone September 5, 2020, 1:56 PM

    Thank you all for raping and murdering your country so you could have fun in the Sixties. Sincerely, everybody younger than you that thought it looked like a nice country, and we would have liked to have lived there. But now we’ll never get the chance.

    /spit

  • Ed September 5, 2020, 3:24 PM

    Berkeley gets all the press but just up the road from me at Cornell is where this whole shitstorm really started, with the blacks occupying Willard Straight Hall and Cornell capitulating.

  • RileyD, nwJ September 5, 2020, 5:53 PM

    While all this was going on in 1969, I was stationed at Barksdale AFB, LA working on AGM 28A Hound Dog missiles carried by B52s. Traveled to most CONUS B52 bases to work on them. 18 months later I would be out for almost 2 years before re-enlisting. None of this made sense to me then, nor does it now.

  • Mitchell Strand September 5, 2020, 8:18 PM

    Excellent mic drop by Ronaldus Magnus at the end…

  • Mrs. R September 6, 2020, 5:51 AM

    Role/roll homophone error is grating to the eye. Please fix.

  • Dirk September 6, 2020, 8:28 AM

    History shall repeat itself. Once again our side will ” maybe” ravaged the useful idiots, while their shot callers above, and insulated behind the curtain go free, to continue to plot, to destroy.

    You want meaningful change, take their leadership out. Curb stomp em, string up up as examples to the world.

    Not going to happen, we’re all to busy being ” left alone”.

    Dirk

  • One-Yard Sprinter September 6, 2020, 9:19 AM

    I was living on Dwight Way, first apartment building off of Telly. Went looking for action and it found me. Birdshot. Two collapsed lungs. Surgery at hospital in Oakland. Long recovery.

    Am I still angry at the cops, guardsmen, and Alameda County sheriff’s men who violently suppressed the demonstrators / rioters? Yes, they shouldn’t have been authorized to use live ammunition. For all I know maybe they weren’t and just lost control when in danger. And, to be fair, they were in danger. There were people throwing more than frozen oranges at the lawmen — things like concrete blocks.

    The experience left me cynical about both sides in the conflict. The establishment powers had gone on a riot of their own when more restraint might have reduced the casualty list. Or maybe not; we’ll never know now. Or they could have just let the demo go on and on till the students and street people got tired of it and went home to smoke a joint.

    But I have no time for the demo organizers either. They were commies and soi-disant revolutionaries who wanted the carnage to happen, to recruit for their cause. Can’t make an omelet etc. What’s the life of a James Rector compared with the overthrow of capitalism?

    Today’s BLM / Antifa riots are different but similar.

  • Gordon Scott September 6, 2020, 10:08 AM

    Riley, there were a lot more B-52 bases then. You must have seen a lot.

  • Vanderleun September 6, 2020, 10:08 AM

    Wonder who you are or were.

  • RileyD, nwJ September 6, 2020, 9:07 PM

    Gordon Scott – So many, but the most memorable were K.I. Sawyer AFB and Minot AFB in the middle of the winter. Flight line work in winter weather there at both was brutal. Then there was Griffiss AFB where the flight line guard did not get the word about our visit. Nothing like watching a 2 striper holding a shaking gun on you and the rest of the team while your security clearances were checked. Thankfully we went to Loring AFB in late May early June when they still had snow in the shadows off the road piled 8 feet high or more. Memories.

  • TwoDogs September 7, 2020, 5:20 PM

    “What’s the life of a James Rector compared to the overthrow of capitalism ?”

    I’m not sure I took your meaning right, but I’ll offer this : I’ll take the life of Rector and millions, tens of millions like him if that’s what it takes to preserve capitalism. The effing commies have shown time and again that they are willing to spend lives on that scale to destroy it. We should meet their bloodlust head on.

  • One-Yard Sprinter September 9, 2020, 10:56 AM

    TwoDogs,

    I’m not sure I took your meaning right, but I’ll offer this: the hospital I was taken to (not sue of the name after all these years; Herrick?) had so many maimed demonstrators that the victims overflowed into the corridors. They possibly included a few innocent bystanders, but only a few. A lot of them were naive, foolish, many larping as revolutionary soldiers. They didn’t deserve to be shot, though.

    Gerard, if “wonder who you are or were” is directed at me, drop me a note at the email address provided should you want to exchange war stories or reminisce about Berkeley in the late ’60s (and there was a lot that was good aside from the pervasive craziness). It was a unique time and place, never to be repeated, like Paris in the 1890s.

  • LargeMarge September 14, 2020, 12:17 PM

    And now, many of those rioters drive yuge RecreationVehicles with the bumper-sticker:
    “We’re spending our children’s inheritance!”

  • Tennessee Budd September 14, 2020, 3:31 PM

    These days, the protesters would be hard put to find someone who could create so literate a flyer.