(From Betrayal, SAMISDAT #96, 1980.)
Vietnam in Berkeley
(about the May 1969 Peoples Park riots)
The Hueys shrieked in low, so low I might have downed one with a well-aimed rock. But there were no rocks. Entering Sproul Plaza at the end of Telegraph Avenue, each spewed a yellow-green cloud, rising slightly to clear Sather Gate. I thought of fish, dumping milt. A sea of high school classmates surged, parted like the tide.
In the brief lull between Hueys came their screams. Blue-jacketed, helmeted, gas-masked billyclubs split heads and booted crotches, advancing in a robot-like phalanx. Khaki fixed bayonets cut off escape. Kids vomited; broke out in blisters; cried for water. But Ludwig’s Foundation offered only dry gum wrappers.
Some clutched one another, keeping their heads low. Others raised each other out of their own puke. An older handful hurled half-empty gas cannisters back at the clubs. And then more Hueys came. I could see no longer through the yellow-green curtains.
Prevailing winds protected us, the press, outside the cordon.
“Jesus Christ!” a KRON cameraman muttered, squinting down. He tried to get himself a cigarette, one-handed. Dropped the pack. Stopped the camera, set it down, picked the pack up, then cast it aside.
I held my rail, staring. These were my friends and classmates, the gentlest, brightest kids I knew. Kids from my art class, who’d volunteered to build a park, People’s Park, on an unused sunbaked lot. Leni Schwendinger, named for Lenin, an avowed Communist, who didn’t yet understand that communism meant Gulags as surely as fascism meant Auschwitz; Danny Goldsmith, a high school Disraeli, who saw in the park a miniature Israel, and could not realize that Palestinians had land rights too; others whose names I’d forgotten, poets and painters and musicians who had often mastered beauty, yet at 15, 16, and 17 had not yet discovered violence. Hill kids, mostly, who had remained in segregated, tracked college prep classes, while black and white met in shop and detention hall; who’d sung “We Shall Overcome” in glee club, while I’d fought bad guys with knives and razor blades in the lower corridors; who’d collected allowances and spent them on Beatle records, while I’d worked weekends and vacations painting Oakland ghetto apartment houses.
I’d tried to warn them, tried to speak of pits in yards where three-year-olds were made to fight like dogs, parents betting on the outcome; of covering blood on the walls with two coats of latex paint; of the world I knew, where “rights” meant what fists could earn, “peace” was something carved on tombstones, and “love” was a less violent form of rape.
They’d never understood. When union goons brought them sod, stolen from a strikebound mass transit construction site, they’d taken it for “free,” and laid it, unaware that company goons would claim it back through the law. When older, college-aged leaders told them to hold the park, they’d slept there, not noticing that those leaders slept at home. When the “Blue Meanies” broke their heads, storming the park at down, they’d begun to learn.
Huey after Huey after Huey. Vietnam in Berkeley. I heard those radical leaders exhorting their victims to “Storm your Bastille! Seize your Harper’s Ferry!” They’d appealed through bullhorns to ideals and glory, new Napoleons.
Almost alone, I’d remained in class. I’d only heard the rife fire on Bloody Thursday, yesterday; only greeted the first limping survivors as they straggled back, not been among them. Club-swinging cops drove the rest like cattle.
Then I’d joined the thick of it. I’d had no choice. Protected by my press card as a local newspaper stringer, by my precocious size and strength, and most of all by my crewcut, I walked between the kids massing opposite City Hall and the police, who ringed the hall with gas and shotguns. Regular reporters entered the hall to speak with mayor Wallace Johnson, with council member Ron Dellums, and other official spokespersons. I thought of following them. But before I did, I glanced backward at the crowd, my people, perhaps wrong but my people nonetheless. I glanced forward again, to 2,500 National Guard reinforcements spilling off trucks, clutching automatic rifles. I stepped through their forming lines to join my people.
I’d remained among them all the rest of the day, speaking to no one, taking notes. I’d helped to block a Guard truck, kneeling before it with my empty Polaroid camera, forcing it to slam on brakes for me, a newsman, where it would have crushed the others. I’d lain on the ground, my body part of a vast peace symbol, then of the letters spelling “Love” and “Peace” to the Huey pilots.
In principle, I knew, my friends were wrong. One could not simply appropriate another’s property, even “public” property, even to build a park. But again, Ronald Reagan and the university regents he’d appointed to administer the property were also wrong. If my friends were wrong in the cause of life, Reagan and the regents were wrong for death, for building a laboratory on the park site in which to devise weapons and lethal chemicals, for sending the canvas-draped tanks and machine guns arriving at the Berkeley Marina, when a fight had been the farthest thing from most of our minds. I couldn’t say the same for those leaders with their bullhorns, leaders now actually on death’s payroll.
My head reeled. The gas bombing had happened on Friday, after Bloody Thursday. On Saturday I’d played baseball before a thousand grimly silent Guardsmen, little more than my own age, scared. The game became a brawl. Our pitcher cracked, swung a bat at catcher Mike Cain, then swung it at me when I came in from center field to try to stop him. Impassive, unmoving, the Guardsmen only waited for play to resume. It didn’t. It couldn’t.
Sunday we all marched, 50,000 strong, behind respectable middle-aged churchmen now, who led half the town in mourning for the several dead and in protest against the violence the provocateurs with their bullhorns at last justly ignored. From the flatlands past the park, through the hills, and back down we paraded, loudspeakers blaring Grace Slick, Bob Dylan, Janice Joplin, and Jimy Hendrix. Girls choked Guard rifles with fresh bouquets. They were funeral bouquets for the flower children, for the park builders’ own innocence. The few people remaining gentle at heart spoke of leaving Berkeley soon, forever.
The remainder grew grim with nightfall, the post-march street dance and party becoming at once a wake and a war dance, until the cops moved in again with the Guard behind. Now some of them were struck and injured. Now mayhem became rationalized, excused, used, and mutual. I watched this from a tree, sketching the silhouetted bloody revelers before their bonfire, with the eerie sensation that we had regressed 4,000 years, that the violence was habit, that we would soon rip a virgin’s heart out.
Monday I was chased by police myself, as an “outside agitator,” when I tried to cover a junior high school protest against a tear gas assault on a gum class. A mistake, all a mistake, a lieutenant said later. His own son had been burned by an exploding gas cannister.
Monday and Tuesday nights several hundred Berkeley High School students slept in on the campus, protesting the presence of the Guardsmen who were bivouaced in every vacant lot in the city. I joined them each evening for an hour or two after baseball practice, painting watercolor miniatures of the riot scenes. I found myself the only member of my art class who was still able to work. The rest had received class credit for helping to build the park. When bulldozers destroyed it, they lapsed into shock. They tried to paint, tried to draw, but only dabbled and smudged sheet after sheet of paper. I gave them my own paintings, trying to compensate. I had always been tougher, harder, more used to the world than they. I had relied on my hour each afternoon in the studio for hope, for a sign that how I lived was not the only way to live. When their world collapsed into mine, I lost that dream as surely as they gained a lasting nightmare.
From the concrete steps in Sproul Plaza I peered over the top while police dragged 300 of my classmates to waiting Black Marias. They were hauled to Santa Rita Prison; thrown into outdoor barbed wire pens until parents bailed them out. Two girls I knew were gang-raped by Alameda County sheriff’s deputies, men who might have been their fathers. One guy I knew, Bill Clement, caught the edge of a birdshot blast in the back. But I didn’t see that. I only saw the Hueys, formation after formation.
“You’re bombing your fucking children!” a woman reporter screamed up at them from beside me. She wept, shaking her fist; buried her head in my shoulder, expecting me to hold and comfort her, though she must have been twice my age. I couldn’t move.
Wild boars sometimes eat their young, I reflected, reciting an old Yorkshire proverb: “Dogs is inferiors and horses is inferiors, but pigs is equals.”
At age 10, five years before People’s Park, I’d stood with my skateboard on those same steps. Baffled, I’d heard poets John Thompson and Doug Palmer read “obscene” poetry, later watching police carry away those who sat in protest after the two were arrested.
That had happened in an almost carnival atmosphere. Frat-rats held a sympathetic bawdy songfest.
Now I blundered away from the newswoman, away from another staggered file of Hueys appearing over the rooftops.
Many years later I learned that the lead motorcyclist during the march of 50,000, whom I’d interviewed, was psychologist Gene Chontos. Chontos later cofounded the Wild Burro Rescue sanctuary, though he has not been involved now in many years.
The female reporter who shook her fist at the helicopters turned out to be Marilyn Baker. In 1976 her investigative reporting brought Richard Avanzino to the presidency of the San Francisco SPCA. Avanzino went on to become probably the most influential figure in the humane movement of the past 40 years. We were friends for about the last 10 years of her life.
I have remembered the People’s Park riots in other writings. This was to fellow journalists in 2005:
My first big story was covering the People’s Park riots in Berkeley in 1969, & I could have learned a lot more than I did at the time from one of the incidents I experienced then.
On about the third day of the worst violence I pointed an empty Polaroid camera at a couple of Alameda County sheriff’s deputies who were beating the crap out of a demonstrator, & dropped to one knee to steady it, resulting in a truckload of National Guardsmen stopping because I was in their way.
The whole situation just plain stopped as result of the thirty seconds or so that my action bought, because I was recognized immediately as the press.
I had been seen for several days working as press. I had talked to cops & sheriff’s deputies, been to press conferences at the cophouse, & somehow that probably made a much bigger difference than the press card clipped to my shirt or baseball cap.
I don’t think anyone was very happy that I was there, but nobody tried to club me or take my camera, though this happened to other reporters who were not quickly recognized as such, & my attempt to take a photo without any film left served basically as a time out that simmered everyone down.
People, including law enforcement, usually only follow the orders that they are inclined to follow by nature. Otherwise, they don’t understand them.
During People’s Park several arrestees were gang-raped by Alameda County Sheriff’s Deputies, who were mostly WWII & Korea-generation military vets, high school graduates of the 1940s and 1950s, with no real police training.
This was pre-women’s movement, so there was no organized consciousness-raising about rape among police, or reporters, but a lot of reporters, National Guard officers, and regular beat cops with college educations were appalled.
Some of the deputies who had not actually been involved, though, seemed genuinely puzzled. The demonstrators were hippies, right? And hippies practice free love, right? And practice group sex, right?
And “no” means “yes,” doesn’t it?
The ignorance & stupidity was stunning, even by the standards of then, but ignorance & stupidity appeared to be all it was. These guys hadn’t been ordered to be idiots, & didn’t seem to be evil.
Culturally, they were just non-comprehending, & were surprised to find that other men didn’t see any of it the same way.