In 1968 I entered the University of California at Berkeley with the object of qualifying myself to teach college literature courses. I had unavoidably heard all about the student protests there. Two years earlier Ronald Reagan had been elected Governor of California, in large measure because of his opposition to the “beatniks, radicals and filthy speech advocates” who were causing the trouble. The university was in bad odor with ordinary citizens, but it had one of the best English departments in the country and it was what I could afford.
Still, U.C. Berkeley was the national center of student protest against just about everything, and everybody knew there would be bouncy times ahead.
It’s astonishing how dated all of that seems now, as if Mario Savio and J. Edgar Hoover had never been anything but comic antagonists in the sub-plot of an old Bette Davis movie. What was it the police and the People’s Park demonstrators used to throw at each other? At this distance I could almost swear they were custard pies, except it was during that little fracas somebody finally got himself killed—some guy standing on a rooftop, if I remember correctly; the proverbial Innocent Bystander, just looking down on the progress of the brawl up and down Telegraph Avenue, exactly as if it had been a 4th of July parade. An Alameda County Sheriff’s deputy blew him away with a load of buckshot. No more happy endings.
This isn’t the place for a history of political protest at the University of California and, in any case, I wouldn’t be the man to write it. This is the story of a single event in those years, something that happened one afternoon in 1970. I’m damned if I can even remember what particular item of public policy was being thrashed out on this occasion; suffice it to say that the police and the National Guard were very much in evidence—there was even a line of jeeps blocking off Sather Gate, their bumper guards all covered over with tangles of barbed wire.
Throughout my previous three and a half years in graduate school I had maintained an attitude of lofty contempt towards all such matters. I could afford it—for reasons best known to themselves, my draft board had left me more or less alone and, after all, I was a student of high art. The problems of politics and moral conflict, what was laughingly called “real life,” were beneath my notice, and my response, when some clown in a Milton seminar suggested we should stop holding classes to protest a new escalation of the war, was simple annoyance. What, after all, did I have to do with all that?
But that afternoon I was in the Central Quad, quietly having my junk food lunch , when the guys in the gas masks and the fixed bayonets sealed off the whole area and wouldn’t let me go after I had finished my Hostess Snowballs and my bag of corn chips. I couldn’t have been more surprised.
Berkeley. That’s what it has become in the popular imagination, a kind of non-stop street war. Even now, years afterward. When I was far enough along with my dissertation to start looking for a job, chairmen tended to act as if they were afraid I’d plant a bomb in the staff men’s room; but it wasn’t really like that at all—at least, not very often. It was a kind of urban pastoral, really, with dogs playing in the fountains and pigtailed mothers lugging their children around in papoose slings made out of old parachute halters. There were redwood trees and huge lawns and creeks where the water ran over the pebbled beds with a clatter like dice in a china cup. If you resided on the north side of campus, and timed your visits to Telegraph Avenue with care, you could live your whole life without a whiff of trouble. So what happened that particular day was not typical.
I wouldn’t want to suggest that there was anything desperate, or even particularly dangerous, about what happened; it was uncomfortable enough, and people were very properly scared, but no one was significantly injured. I had already seen many worse things, during the People’s Park blowup, or the Third World College Thing—the names we gave them sound so silly now—or the business about the Cambodian Incursion, but those were real confrontations, almost battles except that the weapons were all on one side. Student riots have the kind of legitimacy conferred by precedent. This was different. This was simply puzzling.
So there I was, sitting on the steps of the Student Union, having my lunch. Right across the width of the Quad from me was Sproul Hall, where I’d go and stand in line at the beginning of every term to file my course cards and sign my tuition waiver, and down at the opposite end of the length, the other direction from Bancroft Way, past Ludwig’s Fountain where the Marines and the SDS would set up their little booths and compete for converts, was Sather Gate—at that moment, as I’ve indicated, a wall of barbed wire. The Quad was like a corridor, enclosed by buildings; the geography is important because you have to realize how easily the avenues of escape could be sealed off.
Because that was precisely what happened. Not all at once, of course—the jeeps had been clogging Sather Gate all day—but I suppose anyone with eyes in his head could have seen it coming.
I don’t know what kept me from seeing it, except perhaps a blind refusal to imagine that all this business, which I perceived as some kind of personal vendetta between Ronald Reagan and four or five easily identifiable undergraduate demagogues—all probably retired corporation lawyers by now—could possibly have anything to do with me. I was neutral, you understand. Except that it didn’t work that way, which I should have been bright enough to have figured out on my own.
Anyway, having purchased the components of my junk food lunch, I walked across the street to the steps of the Student Union, where I could enjoy the sun and free my mind to contemplate the full horrors of the prospectus exam that was less than two weeks away. I dare say there were troopers around, but this was 1970 and there were always troopers around; like the Con Edison trucks in New York, you got so used to them they might as well have been invisible.
The plaza wasn’t any more crowded than you would expect it to be at around noon—that also is important to remember; there was nothing like a mob there, any more than the Friday afternoon shoppers on Fifth Avenue constitute a mob. Everything was perfectly peaceful, and as I sat there, my fingers getting slick from the vegetable oil on the corn chips, I even managed to convince myself that perhaps I knew enough about Andrew Marvell to keep from being humiliated during the forthcoming ordeal. After all, the examiners were only human, just like me, and I had done my homework like a good boy and the world was an orderly and coherent place, free from unpleasant surprises.
Of course, the give-away was that the evangelist was gone. He and his wife had been singing hymns and trying to save us from perdition for about the last two months—every afternoon, from about eleven thirty on. And now they weren’t around. I guess somebody must have tipped them.
I was about halfway through my second Snowball when the first file of Guardsmen, their helmets belted down and their khaki trousers tucked into the tops of their polished black boots, came clipping down Bancroft like the devil was after them. I suppose the idea was to catch everybody flat-footed. Well, they did that.
Because, of course, none of us were worried about the Guard. After all, who the hell were the Guard?—just a bunch of guys who also hadn’t wanted to go to Vietnam and had found this very convenient legal shelter.
So when they formed their line along the sidewalk, between Sproul and the Student Union, nobody was very worried. They had their bayonets fixed and they weren’t letting anybody out, but what difference did that make? Pretty soon their officers would get bored and call them off and everything would be the way it had been. I looked around a little and discovered that the whole Quad was closed off—unless you could climb over a building, you weren’t going home—but that knowledge didn’t cause me very much disquiet. I didn’t have to meet a class until two; and I could wait. By two all of us would be back about our business.
I stood there on the steps, watching, a prisoner but still feeling myself to be fundamentally uninvolved, and then a curious thing happened.
One of the Guardsmen, perhaps twenty feet away from me, suddenly seemed to notice my individual existence. He looked at me and then he lowered his rifle just enough so that it was pointed directly at my chest. The butt rested against his thigh and his finger was on the trigger, and he held me there like that for what seemed forever—probably it wasn’t more than a few seconds.
He could have dropped me like an ox. All he had to do was to twitch his finger and I’d be a corpse, lying there in front of the Student Union with my heart’s blood oozing out onto the cement. He knew it, and I knew it, and he knew that I knew it. I haven’t any way of guessing how seriously he entertained the idea, but for that moment, however long it lasted, it seemed a possibility between us.
I may be dead, I kept thinking; in a few seconds from now my life could be over, and the last things in the world I’ll ever see will be that Guardsman and the top of the car parked in the street behind him. I didn’t move. I just waited for him to make up his mind. But I don’t think I was frightened; I think I was far too astonished to be frightened.
And then he raised the barrel of his gun, and it was over.
Two o’clock came and went and they still had us penned up, perhaps three or four hundred people, and by then, of course, we knew we were in a certain amount of trouble. We knew that much the minute the Guardsmen put on their gas masks. And they weren’t alone, either.
Picture the Adversary. The men from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office were called the Blue Meanies, and they were as impersonal as robots. Black boots, blue flak jackets—you could see the body armor bulging underneath—black gas masks, blue helmets. The eyes were shielded by tinted goggles. You could not see a human face.
Every once-in-a-while, just to keep things stirred up, they would send in a column of men, swinging clubs like they meant to brain the human race. They never got anybody, although they caused a certain amount of screaming—everyone would just withdraw out of range, and they never broke formation. They would just advance thirty or forty feet into the crowd and then sink back behind the line of Guardsmen; I think they just wanted to make sure everyone stayed nervous. They did that maybe three or four times.
At a few minutes before three, a detachment of men went into the Union and flushed out the few students who were inside—one or two middle-aged employees were allowed to remain; I remember their faces as they looked out at us through the glass—and the building was locked.
The showdown, whatever it was to be, had finally arrived, and I don’t think I exaggerate if I say that it was generally felt as an intense relief. Hell, what could they do? It wasn’t likely that they had received orders to massacre the whole lot of us, so what could they do?
I assumed I was going to be jail—that was the way it usually worked—and I began to calculate how fast my father was likely to be able to drive over from across the bay and spring me. Probably that evening he’d be buying me dinner at the Copper Penny on Shattuck Avenue, and I’d be explaining how I had managed to acquire a criminal record. I imagined it would be rather a touching reunion, and I was looking forward to it.
Then someone, a police officer but not in uniform, took up a bullhorn and addressed us from behind the line of Guardsmen.
“DISPERSE. DISPERSE. YOU ARE ORDERED TO DISPERSE.”
Well, that was fine. Just where do we go, pal?
The question was answered when the Guardsmen started advancing, moving forward as one line, their bayonets straight out in front of them. They moved us down an open staircase, about forty feet wide, between the Union and another building, down into a small patio about half the size of a tennis court. As I said, three or four hundred of us. We were eyebrow-to-eyebrow in there.
And then—and I swear to God it’s the truth, although I hardly believe it myself anymore—a helicopter, a god damned helicopter flew right in over Sproul Hall. We could hear it a long time before we saw it: whuffle, whuffle, whuffle. It sounded like the noise you make flexing a sawblade back and forth, except enormously loud, and deep, as if coming from under water. Except this one was coming from east of Sproul Hall.
I wasn’t more than fifteen feet directly underneath the thing when it started releasing its load of tear gas—we learned later that it was the same formula they were using in Vietnam, called CS gas; you could regard that as one of the little amenities of dealing with the National Guard rather than the police, who didn’t have anything so sophisticated.
They let us have it good. The helicopter circled over us a couple of times, until there was a cloud of gas down so thick you couldn’t see to the end of your arm, which you couldn’t see anyway because you couldn’t stand to open your eyes. I’ve never experienced anything that stings like that stuff.
Well, you can imagine what it was like. Everyone packed together like that, desperate to get away from the gas. People were shrieking; it was pretty noisy. The only thing I can think to compare it with is the scene in the Cecil B. DeMille movie where Victor Mature pulls down the temple on the Philistines.
I remember seeing one stringy-haired girl in an orange sweatshirt and a pair of blue shorts, crouched beside one of the glass doors into the basement of the student Union, trying to push it open. She was crying like a child, I suppose from pure terror. Then the brownish clouds closed in around me, and that was the last thing I did see.
And then they let us go. They just melted away. I started to run, the crook of my elbow thrown over my eyes and one arm out in front of me so I’d break that first and not my head if I collided with anything, not caring what happened so long as I got out of there. But nobody tried to stop me. There wasn’t a uniform to be found, anywhere.
Somehow, I don’t know how, I got into Sproul Hall. For some reason they hadn’t locked that. I found a drinking fountain and was bending over it, about to try washing the pain out of my eyes—I didn’t think I could stand it much longer—when I felt someone’s arm along the side of my head, pulling me away from the water.
“It’s a lot worse if you get it wet—better just to leave it alone.”
It was a girl’s voice. She sounded as if she had been through this drill a hundred thousand times in the last month.
“Then get me out of here, will you?” I shouted—for some absurd reason I must have thought I would have to make myself heard over the clash of arms and the screams of a suffering multitude; God knows there had been enough screaming just a few minutes before. “Please just get me out of here. I’m sorry, but I can’t see a fucking thing.”
And so she led me off—we must have looked like Antigone and the blind Oedipus as I stumbled along, trying not to fall up any more stairs. By the time we were as far as the Pelican Building I could bear to open my eyes again. My face felt like it was on fire and the tears were just gushing, but after a fashion I could see. The girl left. I never saw her again. I don’t even know what she looked like.
For me personally, the immediate effects of this peculiar incident were trivial. For a few days my face looked like it was badly sunburned and for about a week I found I had to take a nap every afternoon. Then I was fine. In the long term, however, I have remained deeply puzzled. Even after more than forty years I have reached only a few conclusions.
One of these is that the whole business was a deliberate, planned provocation. There is the fact that the National Guard troops put on their gasmasks almost an hour before the helicopter arrived. Since none of us were equipped with tear gas, the only possible explanation is that whoever issued the order knew what was going to happen—and that they intended to give us a pretty broad hint. Then there were the actions of the Alameda County Sherriff’s deputies, who kept sending club-wielding columns into the crowd. Why would they do that, except to keep everybody stirred up and on edge? I strongly suspect they were trying to elicit some response, something that would justify the tear gas that they had to know was on the menu.
But the crowd, the hostages who were without an avenue of escape, remained peaceful. I remember of one guy got slightly hysterical and turned over a trash can, but a number of other people immediately closed around him, pulled him back and calmed him down. Every once in a while you would hear someone call out, “Stay cool. Stay cool.” I think a lot of people grasped way before I did what was really going on, that we were being set up for something.
And then we were ordered to disperse—which of course the man with the bullhorn had to realize was impossible—and then we were herded down into that little enclosed courtyard, which was precisely the opposite of being dispersed, and then the helicopter showed up.
The authorities, I have come to believe, wanted to provoke a riot. And when the riot didn’t happen they went ahead with their plans, which involved acting as if it had.
The whole thing was on the evening news that night, complete with film, and the public response was everything Ronald Reagan—who, I might point out, was running for re-election that year—could have hoped for. In the weeks following I heard a number of irate citizens claim that there were students down on the plaza engaged in public fornication and all kinds of other indecent and antisocial behavior. When I told them that I had been there and nothing of the sort had taken place, they would just look at me as if I were crazy. There had been more trouble on the Berkeley campus, therefore the students were responsible. Q.E.D. People will believe what they want to believe and facts don’t matter. The myth is all that counts.
I want to make clear where my sympathies lay, then and now. I thought the Vietnam War was a mistake, but everyone under the age of thirty thought that. Yet I had meekly registered for the draft and accepted the idea that the government had a right to compel my service. If the Selective Servic hadn’t come up with their lottery (my number was 310), I certainly would have been drafted and I would have served.
Further, I thought, and still think, that the student protests at Berkeley were ill-considered and overdone, a kind of unfocused rage at The System. Eventually, I came to believe, the whole business was being pursued for its own sake, having degenerated into a kind of game. Was the People’s Park actually worth a riot in which someone was killed? And for the life of me I couldn’t see how a student strike was going to force Nixon into withdrawing troops from Cambodia. I was, by Berkeley standards, practically a fascist.
That said, all I can do is bear witness to the events of one afternoon in 1970, when the inexplicable happened. The government of the State of California engaged in an unprovoked attack on its own citizens. I will never know what the authorities thought they were doing, but there it is. The facts have to stand on their own.
The Vietnam era was a turning point in American history. It was the time when a significant portion of the public lost faith in the motives and veracity of their government. We have never really recovered from that trauma.
My own experience is simply one small window on those times.