The Teargas Years

teargas Berkeley

I had gotten to learn Strawberry Creek Canyon pretty well. It was my favorite escape on campus, a gash of green nature cutting through the cement and pretense. I had walked it when the creek was in flood, trying to figure out how far I could kayak it before being beheaded by a bridge. It was a channeled hint of what once had been wild in Berkeley before the university was plopped there. It wasn’t Doe Library.

This was almost fifty years ago, when I was a grad student there in the anthro department.  Ronald Reagan was governor. The rotten war in Vietnam had gotten rottener, had spread. Many of my peers were either dying or staying stoned in Southeast Asian rice fields and jungles. America was on another killer mission. Meanwhile, back on campus, classes and seminars went on, as students spared by the draft—women, the unable, and lucky draft-lottery winners like myself—pursued our studies, hopeful of careers untinged by Agent Orange.

The protests against the war had been sustained for years, so long that they had come to partly define, partly shape a semi-generation of people who cared enough to continue to object. At the time, much of the nation did not appreciate us. My Republican patriot father banished me, a Commie. No one thought our government would lie. Our enemy wasn’t even white—yellow-peril gooks in black pajamas.

I had first met teargas at a protest in New York years before, when my major concern had been not getting counter-protestors’ red paint splashed onto the fine, baby-blue, Irish-wool sweater my girlfriend had just given me. I was unprepared. I learned to always carry a cowboy bandana and a small plastic bottle of white vinegar in my backpack. They helped a little, but not much. Maybe they only helped psychologically. I’m a smoker. I know how to cough. The eyes are worst.

For two successive spring semesters the Cal campus was shut down, either by student strikes or administrative lock down. Reagan hated the university, did everything he could to cripple it—a campus with more Nobel Laureates than most countries. For eight years he refused to either visit or convene its governing board of regents there. It was like the other side had gone to all this trouble of drawing a line between us. Yet another American killer mission.

It was a perfect Bay Area late spring day. It had been a wet winter, and everything with roots was eager to be green. Strawberry Creek was cleansing its stream banks. A dozen of us sat around a long table in a high-ceilinged, oak-wainscoted conference room. A Professor Dundes seminar on folk epics or something. I don’t recall. No spring daylight came through the tall plywooded-over windows, but we all could see the wisps of teargas seeping in the cracks. Outside, down by Sather Gate, we could hear the confused sounds of confrontation. This was ridiculous. We all, including Professor Dundes, gave up pretending, packed up, and left. I went to the demonstration.

At times that spring there seemed to be as many men (all men) in uniform on campus as there were students. And the men in uniform were armed—sidearms and billy clubs mainly, but also guys with teargas grenade launchers. The students were unarmed. In all the weeks of protests, I don’t believe a single officer was injured. Any injury would have been big news. The uniforms also had the gas masks. That day we got gassed from above. An army helicopter swooped low over Sproul Plaza, spewing an indiscriminate cloud of gas. If you were there, there was no escaping it. My vinegar-soaked bandana was no protection.

I retreated to the trees along the creek to await the recovery I knew would slowly come, as my burning eyes would relearn to focus and my nose and throat would clear. My bandana became a snot rag soaked in tears and mucus. I headed for home. My way home was past the ROTC compound and Edwards Baseball Stadium. In the road outside the stadium, an olive-colored army truck, one of those with a green canvas Conestoga cover, was laying on its side, both in flames and totally ignored, not a person in sight. Godard surreal, the only soundtrack the crackling of the flames and occasional small explosions from inside the truck.

Then behind those sounds, there was the low roar of a crowd reacting to something inside the stadium. I went to check it out. The gates were open, unattended. There was a baseball game in progress, Cal vs. Stanford. Cal had runners on second and third. A run had just scored, and a white 1 flopped into place on the center field scoreboard. I sat to watch the end of the inning. In the distance you could hear the helicopter as it made another Plaza drop. Disperse, ye rebels. Cal is mounting a rally against its arch rival.

All classes were cancelled after that, not to resume that semester. But I was back on campus the next day. The anthro grad students wanted to issue some sort of statement. It was one of those meetings that makes no one want to attend meetings, but some sort of document of solidarity was cobbled out. I went back to the demonstration, just another body added to the chanting throng. Today, the full panoply of paramilitary California law enforcement was on display. Not just campus cops and Berkeley cops, but CHP and National Guard, and squads from all the local counties sheriff’s departments. The most notorious of these were the Blue Meanies, the blue-jump-suited, black-helmeted Alameda deputies, in full riot gear, including three-foot black wooden batons. The highway patrol contingent was the most restrained, most professional. You got the impression they were embarrassed to be there. The Blue Meanies were there for sport and blood and bashing-hippie bragging rights.

I remember thinking how strange it was that a movement based on the belief that the state had no need for enemies either foreign or domestic was now the enemy of the state. I stopped to write down, any enemy of enemies is my enemy. The teargas canister landed about three feet away from me. I kicked it away and headed in the opposite direction. It scattered the crowd of protestors, broke it open. And the Blue Meanies, in grotesque, outdated gas masks, rushed into the gap, swinging their black bats. I was fumbling to get my notebook back into my backpack, the gas already stinging my eyes, when he decided I was his prize.

This is where Strawberry Creek comes back into the story. It was only ten yards away, and I made for it—out of the gas, but with my own, personal Blue Meanie only steps behind me. It was mud to the first boulder, but he took it quick on his ass. His baton hit the rock where I was standing. He had missed. After that, it was a piece of cake. Adrenalized, I gazelled up the stream bed, while he floundered from boulder to pool. He was screaming obscenities now, as if enough fucks would stop me. I looked back. Behind my predator, on his hands and knees now in the gleeful water, the white chemical fog closed out the canyon. Sometimes I still can smell it, or think I can. That was a long time ago.

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