11/13/2011 03:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Police Riot at Berkeley: If They'll Beat a Poet Laureate, Will They Kill a Student?

The year was 1967. Body bags were coming back from Vietnam at the rate of 1,000 or more a month. I had skipped my freshman year and finished my honors thesis in my third year, but I stuck around at Harvard for the simple reason that I didn't want to die in Vietnam or grow old in Canada. To fill the time in what would have been my senior year, I got a book contract.

The book was Notes from the New Underground, an anthology of the "underground" press. To gather the articles, I went to California for what I thought would be a week. Los Angeles took, as expected, two days. Then I flew up to Berkeley, where I quickly found a lot more to read.

I also found a girlfriend who went by the name of Blue Cheer, and great music at cheap prices -- like Jefferson Airplane and two other bands for $3. I called my roommate and told him I wasn't planning to be in Cambridge any time soon. "If you don't get on the next plane, you may never come back," he said, and because he was from California and knew a bit about the pleasures of Berkeley, I returned to college and my book project and the writing that became my life.

I'm not a child. I've always thought of Berkeley as sunny and friendly, crunchy and stoned, but I also remember it as the site of one of the greatest political speeches I have ever heard. Mario Savio. Sproul Hall. 1964. The conclusion:

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, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all....

The video is even stronger. It's only a minute. Do watch:

I thought of Mario Savio when I read the first accounts of the rout of "Occupy" protestors last week in Berkeley and watched Stephen Colbert's brilliant takedown of the Berkeley police:

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[Correction: The AP story which described the police as "nudging" the protesters was based on early television news footage, which did, in fact, show police doing nothing more than push the protesters back. Later, as the videos taken by protesters show, the police beat, pulled and just generally battered Berkeley faculty and students.]

Then I started getting emails from Berkeley:

This past week at UC Berkeley, several thousand students, faculty, and employees of the university came together to protest a proposed 81% tuition hike, increased privatization of the UC system, the troubling conflicts of interest demonstrated by Board of Regents members' private business interests and their responsibilities to advocate on behalf of the UC community with the State government. While, for example, the governing body of the UC Regents (publicly appointed officials of the State of California) and campus administration have decided that the burden of making up losses in the budget crisis should fall heavily on students through rapidly rising tuition (the current figure is already triple what it was ten years ago) and on members of faculty and staff who've received reductions in pay and increased workloads --- or have been laid off entirely --- the current Regents have invested at least $1.5 billion of the UC's money in projects in which many of them personally hold significant stakes and, of course, also authorized $3 million in bonuses to top administrators last year alone.

These are some of the reasons why so many people (myself included) gathered together on Wednesday to stand in peaceful protest in front of Sproul Hall. In addition to organizing numerous teach-ins, a rally, march and campus-wide walkout, students also hoped to set up a two-day encampment in the spirit of the other Occupy movements around the country to create a public forum for discussion and education about the current financial situation of the university and the condition of public education in the country today. All day, the crowd was gathered in explicitly peaceful assembly to petition our government for a redress of grievances. As the university first responded by the early afternoon not with administrators to enter into dialogue, but with hundreds of riot police, some students even took the time to recite the first amendment to police and protesters alike.

Whether or not you agree with the reasons for the protests, however, I would hope that you would all at least share my horror at what followed. As hundreds of students linked arms to form a human chain around the one tent they had (the few others they had tried to set up were ripped down and confiscated by the police with no warning earlier in the day), riot police began beating them mercilessly without warning or provocation. Some of you may have seen the following clips.

Here, you can see the police suddenly start to attack the protesters without cause. The young man in the front that they keep beating even after he's unable to get up is a first-year graduate student in my department named Josh Anderson. He was the first of a number of students that had to be taken to the hospital that day. As you can see from the video, neither he, nor any of the other students being beaten with batons strike back at the police with violence. Instead, you can see him, barely able to stand, gingerly raise a peace sign after being repeatedly struck on the head, neck, ribs, and legs.

In the following video, the first woman (in pink) that the police drag out of the crowd by her hair is Professor Celeste Langan, a beloved professor of British Romanticism and media studies in my department and director of the UC Townsend Center of the Humanities. As she places herself in front of students, the police approach her with batons. She repeatedly told the police not to beat her but arrest her instead. As you can see here, they respond by dragging her out by force and throw her to the ground.

When the police violence occurred again later that night, they broke the ribs of another English professor, poet Geoffrey O'Brien. When the police wouldn't stop beating him even after he too had fallen to the ground, a good friend and fellow graduate student, Ben Cullen, rushed in and demanded that they stop. The police, in turn, rained multiple blows on him, bruising his ribs as well. And just in case it's not clear yet that the violence was not only against 'some kids looking to make a fuss,' the police also thought it necessary to jab 70-year-old former Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Hass several times in the stomach with a baton as well.

Many of us have knee-jerk reactions to cops beating citizens. Mine comes from George Orwell, the subject of my honors thesis. He wrote something like this: When I see a policeman with a club beating a man on the ground, I don't have to ask whose side I'm on. But with the exception of the great Colbert, you will look in vain for an intelligent conversation about any of this on television.

Instead, on a daily basis, Very Smart People tell the likes of Joe Scarborough that it is "class warfare" when "the left" calls for the rich to pay taxes at the rate they did in 1999. Oddly, they never call it class warfare when they discuss proposed Social Security and Medicare cuts -- that's "reform." I'm not taking sides here; I'm just noting, as Orwell and others have, the power of a simple change in language.

That change is now coming to the "Occupy" movement. Polls show that many Americans agree with the protestors: "35 percent had a favorable impression of the protest movement.... Only 16 percent could say the same for Wall Street and large corporations." But the words you are starting to hear to describe the Occupiers are ones I came to hear often when the 1967 "Summer of Love" ended and the body bags from Vietnam started to top 1,500 a month: filthy, violent, promiscuous, etc.

As I was following a trail of links about police violence in Berkeley, I happened upon a video showing how, in May, police in Barcelona dealt with students protesting the Spanish government's proposed "austerity" measures.

On a message board that accompanied this video, someone proposed a definition of "class warfare" you won't hear on television: "The rich are now rich enough to pay half the population to kill the other half of the population."

Sickening, that -- and, I fear, prophetic. When some student or "Occupy" protester dies from a police beating -- and you know that's coming -- no doubt we will hear some cheers.