Ever smash a cantaloupe? It makes a real ugly sound. A billy club makes that sound when smashing a skull, especially if the club is wielded by a seriously mean cop.
I first heard those cranial chords in May 1965 when all hell broke loose on Telegraph Avenue. I heard it resonating from the cranium of a poor, confused fellow who just happened to be standing behind me and Bobby Seale … a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
You could say the guy was a half-step slow, but I think it was confusion. You see, when a busy, major street is blockaded for five or so blocks, street lights are doused, cops stand with weapons scanning the street from the rooftops, hundreds of cops in assault gear assemble on the street, and sidewalks teem with protestors ready for a rumble … that’s when confusion itself becomes the organizing principal of the day.
Nothing was normal, and the melodrama unfolding in front of my eyes gave my brain such a vast array of sensory information that it slowed its task of assimilating and sorting through all of it. You really couldn’t fault anyone for being confused .
Not only that. I stood next to Mr. Big Big Trouble … one Bobby Seale, co-founder of a militant social group called The Black Panthers. This relatively new, infamously strident, semi-terrorist bunch of radicalized separatists had become a target of the Oakland cops … with Mr. Seale at its bullseye.
Of course some of the group’s fund raising activities had been characterized as racketeering which made the group subject to some deserved special scrutiny. But, all that legal stuff aside, there was one universal rule in the East Bay … “Avoid the attention of Oakland cops at all costs.” They even had a special nickname for them, the Blue Meanies (after the blue, badge-less jump suits they wore into battle, later made infamous by their depiction in an animated Beatle movie called “Yellow Submarine”). It was a name they’d repeatedly earned.
All of this made standing next to Mr. Seale himself uncomfortable in a very bad way … though it greatly simplified my thinking, that is to say I narrowed it all down to just two basics: starting and foot speed. Unsurprisingly these turned out to be Mr. Seale’s thoughts as well, so that when the signal whistles blew and all hell to broke loose we instantaneously started to dodge and weave like weasels caught in a hen house.
When the Meanies charged, swinging their clubs like Cubans with machetes in a sugar cane field, the blow intended for Mr. Seale’s skull struck the cranium of that unfortunate chap standing just behind us, which produced that memorable dull, cantaloupe-smashing-on-a-big-rock chord. Ugly!
As I made my way through the chaos and confusion unfolding all around, blinded by a large, expanding envelope of tear gas, I lost some of my enthusiasm for supporting those French students and actually started to debate whether it was worth all the bother. And if the damned riot hadn’t been ignited by open and flagrant dissembling by the authorities in charge, I would have had little sympathy or stomach for any of it.
But there you have it, a young man filled with ideological sensitivities and beliefs that spontaneously ignite into whole-body passions and drive him into situations where, when he finally looks up and pays attention, make him think “what in the hell am I doing?”
And so it was with me as I ran up Channing Way to escape that chaos below, one that would engulf Berkeley for two more years with tear gas, activists, cops, the world press, protestors and the California National Guard all playing their parts. That afternoon marked the beginning of violent protests that quickly mutated into a revolt against military involvement in what President Eisenhower called a really dumb idea …. a civil war ten thousand miles across an ocean in a tropical jungle.
He was right … dead right. Vietnam was not only a dumb idea, it was an unforgivably tragic chapter in our national life.
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