I was a boy of 20 when I transferred from the cloistered halls of Pomona College up to the University of California, Berkeley. This was 1969. Nobody had yet invented the term “antifa” – for anti-fascist. But that’s what we were: anti-war, anti-discrimination, anti-fascists.
I was not there for the People’s Park demonstrations of the previous spring, when, during a march down Telegraph Avenue, police shot and killed a student, James Rector, who was watching from the roof of the Telegraph Repertory Cinema.
But I was there the next April, when colleges and universities across the country – from Harvard to Stanford to Kent State – exploded in protest following news of President Nixon’s secret invasion of Cambodia. Governor Ronald Reagan ordered the National Guard into Berkeley. He made no secret of the distain (or maybe it was fear?) he felt for the freedom to assemble and speak. He had earlier described Berkeley as “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants.” He publically denounced UC administrators for allowing students to hold demonstrations on campus.
Helicopters buzzed Sproul Plaza spraying tear gas. For a day or two before the University shut down, I sprinted from class to class with eyes fogged and streaming, throat raw to the point of gagging. Berkeley was like an occupied state. Reagan’s fascist instincts surfaced memorably in the line: “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.”
But none of this, not even the massive anti-war march across the bay in San Francisco – an ecstatic, miles-long human sea – radicalized the boy like an incident later that spring, during the shutdown. With no school to attend, people in my apartment building heard about an eviction set to take place in another Berkeley neighborhood. Evictions were carried out by the Alameda County Sheriffs, dubbed the Blue Meanies for their blue jumpsuit “riot gear” uniforms. (And in mocking reference to the buffoonish, music-hating beings in “Yellow Submarine,” the Beatles cartoon film of 1968.) It was a sheriff’s deputy who fired the buckshot into James Rector.
This eviction had a set date and time. The idea was to go there and try to prevent the woman from being thrown out of her home. A friend and I walked together and found, when we got to the address, that the eviction wasn’t happening. The sheriffs had anticipated a protest and backed down, or decided to call it off.
About a hundred of us milled about in the residential street. It was a sunny day. There were a few Berkeley city cops there encouraging people to leave. Which we did, slowly. Until we reached the intersection at the end of the block. Then, in a coordinated move, squad cars swept in from each of the four directions and blocked any escape. Car doors slammed and cops with batons moved in, yelling at us to leave, all the while tightening a circle around us.
People tried to run, but there was nowhere to go. The cops were yelling and swinging at random heads and shoulders. I watched them grab one would-be escapee and throw him over a wall onto somebody’s concrete driveway, where he lay bleeding from the head. I took my friend’s hand and pulled her, running directly at what might have been a gap in the police line. It was that or wait to be clubbed.
As the nearest cop raised his baton I pushed my friend to the ground and leapt at the same time as high as I could, as if hurdling a barrier. I was a pretty good leaper in those days and hoped he might swing under me. But no, at shoulder height his baton caught me square on both shins and I went to pavement like a shot bird.
I couldn’t move. My legs buzzed, paralyzed. My friend had crawled through untouched, and she and a couple of strangers dragged me to the curb.
I don’t remember much of what happened after that. The feeling in my legs came back slowly. We saw people carry off the kid with the bleeding head. And eventually we walked home ourselves.
It is the senselessness of it that is so lasting. The mindless, inchoate brutality. The realization that power is its own justification. Protesters today, facing state-sanctioned violence against citizens legitimately seeking redress, will be radicalized, too. They will not forget the blood, the gas, the stupidity. They will become antifa. Because when confronted so viscerally with fascism’s blunt stick, that is the only rational response.