I was attracted to the idea of going to U.C. Berkeley for the reputation it has around the world for being politically radical and a place of great intellectual stimulation. That and the fact that I had lived in Los Angeles all of my life. I wanted something new, I wanted to experience less oppressive living conditions than those that I faced while I lived in Watts and commuted to school in the more affluent westside of Los Angeles.
I could have written something similar, except instead of Watts yatta yatta yatta I would have to substitute “my parent’s household.” But, still. Berkeley was “the bird sanctuary,” as my ultra-conservative calculus teacher put it; and if the town had given him the willies, I would be right at home.
And, I was.
I went hunting for a picture of Sproul Plaza because my last post got me thinking about Berkeley in the early 80s. Sad to say, the Young Republicans were the fastest growing group on campus. The student body was swinging to the right, even though the city was (and still is) firmly at the polar left.
True, when Reagan won the election in ’80, people flocked to the streets for candlelight marches. And, true, the threat of a draft followed (or preceded) by an imperialistic invasion of El Salvador or Nicaragua brought us out into Sproul Plaza by the hundreds. But the heyday of UC Berkeley protest had passed. Without the Vietnam War or the draft to galvanize the student body, our activism could and would only go so far. Even Insane Anglo Warlord (a rearrangement of Ronald Wilson Reagan, popular at the time) and the threat of unilateral aggression against Central America couldn’t push us as far as we should have been pushed.
Daniel Ellsberg spoke to us one day in Sproul Plaza, a noontime demonstration in protest of America’s policies towards El Salvador. Towards the end of the protest, he instructed the students to lie down and play dead. I didn’t understand the image at the time, and I still don’t. Did he mean to provide a living illustration of the dead and injured which would follow from a Central American invasion? I don’t know. I laid down with everyone else (peer pressure, what can I say) while the Feds milled around at the edges of the crowd, snapping pictures.
The next day, activist Stoney Burke gathered a crowd (as he usually did, and as he apparently still does. Nice to see that Stoney is still giving ’em hell!) He surprised us by railing against Ellsberg who, as you might imagine, was one of our heroes. But Stoney couldn’t forgive him for having us all lie down. As best I can recall, what he said was: That’s what they want you to do — lie down — and that’s exactly the last thing you should do.
Back then, me and the other guys talked a lot about what we would or wouldn’t do. Should we put in our names for Selective Service? Burn the forms? How public should we be about it?
Should we step forward, or lie down?
I feel like I’ve been lying down most of my life, and I’m sick to death of it.
There’s something swirling in this head of mine, something that feels like activism. Maybe I’m thinking along these lines because I received my copy of Crashing the Gates today, and the more of it I read, the angrier I get. Or maybe I’m still thinking of V.
From Alan Moore’s foreword to V for Vendetta:
Naïveté can also be detected in my supposition that it would take something as melodramatic as a near-miss nuclear conflict to nudge England towards fascism . . . .
It’s 1988 now. Margaret Thatcher is entering her third term of office and talking confidently of an unbroken Conservative leadership well into the next century. My youngest daughter is seven and the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS. The new riot police wear black visors, as do their horses, and their vans have rotating video cameras mounted on top. The government has expressed a desire to eradicate homosexuality, even as an abstract concept, and one can only speculate as to which minority will be the next legislated against. I’m thinking of taking my family and getting out of this country soon, sometime over the next couple of years. It’s cold and it’s mean spirited and I don’t like it here anymore.
It’s a new century, and the times are far worse than depicted in this, Moore’s 1988 time capsule. As we watch Bush and his cronies wriggle out of one fiasco after another, whether it be something as subtle as spying on your political critics, as disdainful of human life as the bungling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, as flagrantly treasonous as outing a CIA operative for political payback, or as crass as shooting your hunting buddy-slash-campaign contributor in the face at ten paces — yeah, I could go on, I haven’t even touched on Iraq, Abu Ghraib, or Guantanamo — it would be easy to give in to hopelessness.
And yet I feel hopeful. Why? Because we’re in the majority, and thanks to the blogosphere, we have a voice. We’re getting organized, smart . . . and active.
We’re not going away. We’re not lying down.