I watched them warming up. Hordes of would-be revolutionaries roamed around Sprout Plaza and Sather Gate getting ready for a charge up Telegraph Avenue in an ill-advised, Bastille-like assault on cops who stood armed in full riot gear awaiting the onslaught. Some of them joked, others rested and still others practiced their golf swings by wacking empty cans up and down Telegraph Ave with long billy clubs.
I’m sure a few misanthropic anarchists and Maoists in the mob truly believed that this riot, this very riot could prove to be the tipping point of the real revolution! But I wasn’t buying any of it. First of all, the fruits of success were far from ripe. The cops had guns, armories, jails and gear. The revolutionaries only had a bunch of utopian slogans, rock ‘n roll and overflowing adrenaline. The odds against them looked very long.
Back then most guys on campus (even some engineers) tried to look more or less like Che Guevara whose rebel persona inspired romantic notions about life and politics. But more and more unsavory Che lookalikes popped up around campus and they never seemed to be going to class or carrying so much as one book.
I guess the ever-growing media circus on campus during those years inevitably attracted malcontents and Che fashionistas. Reporters and TV crews numbering came from around the globe and day-in and day-out roamed the area around Sather Gate looking for a story with all the sound and fury emanating from Berkeley.
That noise was coming from the Boomer Generation that was making itself heard on campuses all across the country …and in Berkeley their boom was a sonic blast that, combined with the unending press coverage, attracted all of those itinerate insurrectionists for nothing attracts revolutionaries like a camera’s lens.
Of course underlying much of this hubbub was a noble and legitimate goal … the attempt to end the unbelievably self-destructive “war” in Vietnam. That so much blood was spilled as the result of our government backing an unpopular, corrupt government in a civil war fought in a jungle across a wide ocean was more intentional insanity than national security … but even such monumental blunders don’t justify dragging the entire architecture of government down.
Nevertheless, more and more Trotskyites flourished in Berkeley, helping with the riots order to further their personal vendettas against the system and its institutions … especially the banks where, with just a few guns and a bomb, they could fund their noble pursuits and bring about a peace and universal love that lay just over the horizon on their revolutionary road.
The promise of that new Nirvana was given spiritual credibility by practitioners of Astrology who predicted the coming of a seismic shift in human behavior with the dawn of a new astrological Age … that of Aquarius, the advent of which was happening contemporaneously with the uprising in Berkeley!
And so it was that we all thought we’d be peace loving vegetarians with the dawning of the new era, one in which selflessness, friendship, communal caring, social justice and organic living would prevail. A new world was opening up … soon!
But the grotesque war in Vietnam just ground-on, and the protests got uglier and uglier. Young GIs who’d been drafted and sent to Vietnam against their will found themselves greeted on their return by these new-age, peace-loving Aquarians who spit in their faces and called them kid killers.
A building on campus was bombed when the ire of protesting students focused on the campus ROTC program. Activists took to throwing rocks and bricks and sharpened bits of steel at cops … all of which brought more and more TV attention, which in turn furthered the violence.
It was truly a crazy circus. Singers, songwriters, rock stars and blues legends came to serenade us. Black Panthers, Hell’s Angels and The Grateful Dead came to render assistance and spiritual guidance. Evangelical missionaries arrived by the ark full spouting biblical admonitions to save us from ourselves.
But none of it worked on the day they now call Bloody Thursday, which, from my observations, didn’t take a Newton to figure out that it had too many explosives with fuses that were much too short … so that when the thousands of Che’s stormed up Telegraph throwing rocks, garbage cans, trash and sharp bits of metal at the cops, I stayed behind at a distance watching the drama unfold.
The cops were seriously outnumbered that day, and when their options narrowed they started shooting. A couple of young men who’d been up on a rooftop with some others watching the action on Telegraph, and perhaps, like many other roof toppers, throwing stuff at the cops, were caught in the fire.
Afterwards the Alameda sheriff’s deputies said they thought they had birdshot in their shotguns, but some had buckshot. They said it was a mistake. Whatever the truth, it mattered little for Alan Blanchard, a young carpenter who was blinded and James Rector, a young student who lay dead.
The final body count for Bloody Thursday according to Wikipedia “At least 128 Berkeley residents were admitted to local hospitals for head trauma, shotgun wounds, and other serious injuries inflicted by police. Local medical students and interns organized volunteer mobile first-aid teams to help protestors and bystanders injured by buckshot, nightsticks, or tear gas. 111 police officers were injured, including one California Highway Patrol Officer Albert Bradley, who was knifed in the chest.”
After this tragic conclusion to an ill-advised and ugly confrontation, the days of carefree rioting were over, and all of those camera lenses focused on a man with an iron will and surprising political skills … and a genius for using those lenses like few others.
He was the governor of California, and a future president of the United States … one Ronald Reagan.
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