“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. “Gentle” was not in their instruction manual. Instead, their first move was to open their trunks and take out their street-sweeping shotguns. Then they racked them and opened fire.
This resulted in a lot of loose buckshot wounds with one person blinded for life, and one person 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 strolled 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, the enclosure was the central plaza and student union area of the UC Berkeley Campus.
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.
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?
That’s 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.