“None of the police officers invited us to disperse or gave any warning.”
When former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer prizewinning poet Robert Hass went to visit Berkeley’s Occupy movement, it was mostly from curiosity. He had heard that thousands of UC-Berkeley students, staff, and faculty protesting a proposed 81 percent tuition hike were “beaten viciously” earlier in the day. “I didn’t believe it. In broad daylight? And without provocation?” He went to see for himself. And you can see him at about 1:13 in the KTVU video here.
I don’t know much about the Occupy movement; I’m mistrustful of large crowds of any kind. But I do know Bob Hass, a gentle presence who has been personally kind and generous to me.
So when the Berkeley professor, who turned 70 last March, gets beaten by police with billy clubs, it’s hard to be of two minds about it. Ditto if they push and knock down his slender wife, the poet Brenda Hillman. Here’s the way the Bob explained the episode in a New York Times oped:
“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. … If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines. …
“We couldn’t have dispersed if we’d wanted to because the crowd behind us was pushing forward to see what was going on. … 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.”
This passage is vintage Bob:
“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.”
In Berkeley, of all places. A place where the police should have known better. This month’s events looked more like Tiananmen Square than the home of the Free Speech Movement.
To paraphrase George Orwell, or rather to quote Jesse Kornbluth at the Huffington Post paraphrasing George Orwell: 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.
Here’s Celeste Langan being dragged by the hair: