It's not every day a former US Poet Laureate is clubbed by police for standing up. But that's what happened to Robert Hass at the #OccupyCal demonstration last week.
In his essay for the New York Times, Hass writes about what drew him to the demonstration. It was pure, simple curiosity.
Earlier that day a colleague had written to say that the campus police had moved in to take down the Occupy tents and that students had been “beaten viciously.” I didn’t believe it. In broad daylight? And without provocation? So when we heard that the police had returned, my wife, Brenda Hillman, and I hurried to the campus. I wanted to see what was going to happen and how the police behaved, and how the students behaved. If there was trouble, we wanted to be there to do what we could to protect the students.
What happened next is pretty bizarre. His wife was talking to the police about nonviolence and why they should be home with their children instead of standing in front of her with billy clubs when one of the cops shoved her in the chest and knocked her down. These people, remember, are not college students. Robert Hass is 70 years old. I imagine his wife is close to him in age. They're both old enough to remember Reagan and what he's done to this country.
Another of the contingencies that came to my mind was a moment 30 years ago when Ronald Reagan’s administration made it a priority to see to it that people like themselves, the talented, hardworking people who ran the country, got to keep the money they earned. Roosevelt’s New Deal had to be undealt once and for all. A few years earlier, California voters had passed an amendment freezing the property taxes that finance public education and installing a rule that required a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature to raise tax revenues. My father-in-law said to me at the time, “It’s going to take them 50 years to really see the damage they’ve done.” But it took far fewer than 50 years.
As Hass stepped forward to help his wife to her feet, this happened:
My wife bounced nimbly to her feet. 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. Particularly shocking to me — it must be a generational reaction — was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines.
NONE of the police officers invited us to disperse or gave any warning. We couldn’t have dispersed if we’d wanted to because the crowd behind us was pushing forward to see what was going on. The descriptor for what I tried to do is “remonstrate.” 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. The line surged. I got whacked hard in the ribs twice and once across the forearm. Some of the deputies used their truncheons as bars and seemed to be trying to use minimum force to get people to move. And then, suddenly, they stopped, on some signal, and reformed their line. Apparently a group of deputies had beaten their way to the Occupy tents and taken them down. They stood, again immobile, clubs held across their chests, eyes carefully meeting no one’s eyes, faces impassive. I imagined that their adrenaline was surging as much as mine.
His entire essay is moving, as much for his sadness and concern for the students as his concern for the entire country. But there's one small shiny spot in the story.
The next night the students put the tents back up. Students filled the plaza again with a festive atmosphere. And lots of signs. (The one from the English Department contingent read “Beat Poets, not beat poets.”)
Someone should ask these officers whether they can look at themselves in the mirror and like what stares back at them. Someone should ask them if they feel more manly and powerful when they club a guy who writes poetry for a living. Someone should ask them why they're afraid of poetry. Someone should make them stop.