Monday, November 21, 2011

Questions for a nation past its sell-by date

University of California, Berkeley
Nov. 9, 2011

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.

Once the cordon formed, the deputy sheriffs pointed their truncheons toward the crowd. It looked like the oldest of military maneuvers, a phalanx out of the Trojan War, but with billy clubs instead of spears. The students were wearing scarves for the first time that year, their cheeks rosy with the first bite of real cold after the long Californian Indian summer. The billy clubs were about the size of a boy’s Little League baseball bat. My wife was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children, when one of the deputies reached out, shoved my wife in the chest and knocked her down. . . .

My wife bounced nimbly to her feet. I tripped and almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. Particularly shocking to me — it must be a generational reaction — was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines.

None of the police officers invited us to disperse or gave any warning. We couldn’t have dispersed if we’d wanted to because the crowd behind us was pushing forward to see what was going on. The descriptor for what I tried to do is “remonstrate.” I screamed at the deputy who had knocked down my wife, “You just knocked down my wife, for Christ’s sake!” A couple of students had pushed forward in the excitement and the deputies grabbed them, pulled them to the ground and cudgeled them, raising the clubs above their heads and swinging. The line surged. I got whacked hard in the ribs twice and once across the forearm. Some of the deputies used their truncheons as bars and seemed to be trying to use minimum force to get people to move. And then, suddenly, they stopped, on some signal, and reformed their line. Apparently a group of deputies had beaten their way to the Occupy tents and taken them down. They stood, again immobile, clubs held across their chests, eyes carefully meeting no one’s eyes, faces impassive. I imagined that their adrenaline was surging as much as mine.

My ribs didn’t hurt very badly until the next day and then it hurt to laugh, so I skipped the gym for a couple of mornings, and I was a little disappointed that the bruises weren’t slightly more dramatic. It argued either for a kind of restraint or a kind of low cunning in the training of the police. They had hit me hard enough so that I was sore for days, but not hard enough to leave much of a mark. I wasn’t so badly off. One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.

-- Robert Haas,
UC poetry professor,
former poet laureate
of the United States

From a New York Times essay published Sunday

'Paternoville,' Penn State
September 2009

Some ad hoc tent encampments on public property are more equal than other ad hoc tent encampments on public property in these United States.

If you're, say, a student at the Pennsylvania State University and you're one of, say, 700 students and their tents crammed into a lot outside Beaver Stadium, and you're there because you want choice seats in the student section for this week's home game, that's a good thing.

That's a beloved tradition.

Media types will write whimsical stories about those wacky campers in State College braving the rain and the cold in a tent --
and doing it all week -- for the sake of college football. The school's football coach will drop by to pose for pictures with his worshiping flock. ESPN personalities will drop by to press the flesh. The 60-something university president will go slumming amid the teen and 20-something campers for kicks and giggles.

You'll get your own university website, a "mayor," a plaque and a write-up in the alumni magazine.

You are what America's all about.
You are Paternoville.

PERHAPS you just fancy Apple products. If the gadget's name starts with an "i," you have to have it. Now. Before anyone else does. So help you Jobs.

There's a way to achieve that. You camp out to stake your place in line. Scores of you camp out for the love of "i." Hundreds of you, even.

It's all good. Apple is happy to let you do it in exchange for your iMoney.

Media types will write whimsical stories about those wacky campers in
(fill in the blank) braving the rain and the cold in a tent or a lawn chair -- and doing it all week -- for the sake of the brand new iWhatever. The store's manager will drop by with coffee for his worshiping flock. Noted tech bloggers will drop by to press the flesh or -- hell -- join you in your campout. The 60-something mayor will go slumming amid the 20- and 30-something campers for kicks and giggles.

You are an American patriot. You are buying s***.

BUT IF YOU'RE a student at the University of California-Davis or Cal-Berkeley, and you're one of, say, 100 students and their tents crammed into the quad, and you're there because you're alarmed at how tuition is skyrocketing, how a college education is becoming more and more unattainable for those of modest means and how American society is becoming more and more unequal, you are a dangerous thug and an anarchist. Your tent encampment is a threat to public health, public safety and public access to public property.

That's an unacceptable situation.

Media types will write serious stories about brewing unrest. Pundits will warn of the sheer unsustainability of your unruly protest --
random tents and shelters mired there in the rain and the cold -- for the sake of an amorphous agenda you cannot articulate.

Riot police will drop by to beat the s*** out of the "criminals," fog the dirty hippies in the face with pepper spray and tear down the troublemakers' tents.
Fox News Channel personalities will make fun of the liberal wackos on the air. The 60-something mayor will denounce the "mob" of 20- and 30-something "occupiers" for political advantage.

You'll get thrown in jail, receive a court date, and your wrists will have nasty bruises from the handcuffs for quite some time.

You are what's wrong with America.
Get a g**damn job, you filthy commie freak.

* * *

PAY NO ATTENTION to that question behind the headlines and official concerns for public health and safety.

Ask not why you're no threat to public health and civic order if you squat on public property for superfluous reasons. Or why doing so in a peaceful political protest is a transgression requiring raids by riot police employing chemical agents, truncheons and excessive force.

Ask not what kind of a country celebrates the unserious as its riot police beat professors, pupils and poets driven to civil disobedience as a last resort for asking serious questions and demanding serious answers.

Ask not these things. Your betters have decided you don't need to know the answer.

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