Friday night was the best night to riot in Berkeley. Friday nights you could take a breather from the relentless academics of the school week, let off a little steam and perhaps do something good for the world.
To that end students at Cal had deemed the romantic French students running wild through the streets of Paris worthy of their heartfelt support and encouragement. As it turned out those Parisian partisans represented the fiery meteor of post World War II children splashing down in the sea of generations that sent a tsunami racing across vast oceans.
This titanic collision took everybody by surprise, as did the Berkeley turnout for the rally to support those irresistibly dashing French students. After all their grievances were ours. Their vision was ours. Their campaign against the world’s three evil C’s … capitalism, consumerism and class … was ours as well.
And who could possibly fault their demands, especially for more money for education! No reasonable person could possibly feel otherwise!
The support rally on that that Friday afternoon in May 1968 was so vast it spilled out from campus through Sather Gate and cascaded down Telegraph Avenue like a rampaging river. No one had expected it, but it proved that the revolution was under weigh! There was no time to lose! It was time to hop on board!
And so it was that thousands of us found ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder with complete strangers strung out along four or 5 blocks of Telegraph, packing the sidewalks on both sides so tight you could almost feel the pulse of compassionate Francophiles standing next to you.
I stood stuffed into a small patio facing Telegraph. I’d chosen the spot strategically both with the instincts I’d gained growing up on the tough streets of Vallejo and the military training I’d suffered through at Fort Ord as a punk private who had no choice but to suffer through it.
I figured the cave-like aspect of the patio would protect me from flanking maneuvers, and the restaurant’s two large plate glass entry doors at my rear would provide an excellent exit should the need for retreat arise.
I watched in wonder as busses and cars drove past us, in spite of the sidewalks jammed with Parisian partisans, so jammed I found it surprising supporters didn’t spill out onto the street. But, they restrained themselves from blocking traffic with admirable discipline.
I mused how unlike this was to the circus Teddy Kennedy had created on University Avenue just a couple of weeks earlier while campaigning for his brother Robert Kennedy (who was tragically assassinated in LA a few weeks later). Teddy, imbued with all the aura and glamor of Camelot and the Kennedy clan, stopped on that busy Berkeley transit arterial to give an impromptu speech that not only brought traffic to a standstill, but stopped a freight train as well!
“Gotta hand it to these kids!” I thought to myself, “courteous, yet determined and courageous in their convictions.”
Then I listened in complete dismay as a police officer with scrambled eggs on the brim of his hat, stars sparkling on his uniform and holding a bullhorn bellowed out over and over, “This assembly is blocking traffic. It is illegal. You must disperse immediately. You must leave this area at once.”
After an interval during which nobody present could confirm the officer’s contention regarding traffic flow, and during which time it became perfectly obvious to all concerned that none of the protesting pedestrians were going to budge an inch, a drama rarely seen on an urban street played out … a slow motion showdown between hundreds of cops who’d come to the aid of Berkeley’s constabulary (courtesy of a mutual aid pact), and thousands upon thousands students … California’s best and brightest … who stoically awaited the inevitable confrontation.
It was a little watching the antagonists at the OK Corral get ready for their shoot-out. And it was historic to boot! It ushered in a stormy inter-generational struggle that lasted for years and ultimately re-defined our nation’s self-image.
The first act of that struggle unfolded in the long shadows of that balmy Spring afternoon employing the template of the campus’ Free Speech Movement a few years earlier. I watched in fascination as that template was updated to a newer, more virulent form of activism, one on steroids, one you could call Activism Berkelium!
And I was ready for it, or so I thought …
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