Robert Hass on OWS Berkeley
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 graduate 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.
Students were, as we noted earlier, beaten, and Hass describes his own brief encounter with a billy club. Later, Hass concludes:
“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.