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:

[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:

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.