By now, many have seen the footage of the police beating students and faculty during the Occupy Berkeley demonstrations.
Here is another lens for that assault, this time through the eyes of Robert Hass, former poet laureate of the United States and Berkeley professor of poetry and poetics. His account is published in the New York Times. Having heard that the police had beaten students, Hass and his wife went down to the Occupy site to observe and do something to protect the students.
His beat poem starts with juxtaposing the militaristic actions of the police with the innocence of youth.
Once the cordon formed, the deputy sheriffs pointed their truncheons toward the crowd. It looked like the oldest of military maneuvers, a phalanx out of the Trojan War, but with billy clubs instead of spears. The students were wearing scarves for the first time that year, their cheeks rosy with the first bite of real cold after the long Californian Indian summer. The billy clubs were about the size of a boy’s Little League baseball bat. My wife was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children, when one of the deputies reached out, shoved my wife in the chest and knocked her down.
Military formations. Fresh faced kids beaten with clubs the size of baseball bats. His wife, trying to reach the humanity of the police officers by appealing to their parental instincts, is shoved to ground.
Hass, one of the most gifted wordsmiths in our country, is rendered nearly speechless as the police phalanx moves into the students.
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.
Brutal, indiscriminate violence. Hass had the audacity to raise his voice against the violence only to become a victim.
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.
Mission accomplished. Tent city invaded and laid waste. Law and order restored.
Hass does a marvelous job in describing why students are protesting the rising costs of a college education, which leaves many in crippling debt after graduation only to struggle to find a living wage job in our rigged and corrupt economy. The entire university system in California and other states is crumbling. The tea stooges are pushing to reduce or eliminate state funding for universities, forcing them to raise costs, cut programs, go private, or close their doors.
Hass closes with joy and admiration at the student's ingenuity in response to the restrictions against conventional tents in the public spaces of a public university. The poet in him smiles.
On Thursday afternoon when I returned toward sundown to the steps to see how the students had responded, the air was full of balloons, helium balloons to which tents had been attached, and attached to the tents was kite string. And they hovered over the plaza, large and awkward, almost lyrical, occupying the air.
Robert Hess has long been one of my favorite poets. I always feel alive reading his work. Sometimes poetry is nothing more than aesthetics. Sometimes it has a razor's edge. Here is Hess taking a razor to the Iraq war and its terrible political calculus.
Though the U.S. military does not count
why put a weapon in the hands of your enemies.
By conservative reckoning,
9500 Iraqi civilians were killed during the invasion of Iraq.
By conservative reckoning,
300,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed during the occupation of Iraq.
Two and half million Iraqis have been driven from their homes
and living in exile.
Two million Iraqis, having been driven from their homes by ethnic cleansing,
are living in internal exile.
Last night on television
a candidate for the presidency of this country
described this state of affairs as winning.
This morning in the news
no television broadcaster or journalist noted these omissions.
Walt Whitman, where are you?
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Emma Goldman, Rosa Parks, Henry David Thoreau,
where are you?
Something has gone very wrong with the moral imagination in America.
Something has indeed gone very wrong with the moral imagination in America. People calling themselves moral are championing violence, whether it is the destruction of countries far away, torture of supposed enemies, or violent repression of their fellow citizens. Their moral imagination is fired and crystal clear when is comes to a fetus, but catatonic toward the suffering of the already born from poverty, disease, catastrophe, or violence. We discriminate and incarcerate with a vengeance. Some twisted theology allows these moralists to see the world as just as long as someone else is the victim. It is an outrage bordering on evil to expect the rich to make any sacrifice. And austerity means nothing more than kicking the chair out from under those that have the least.
With the Occupy movement, our moral imagination seems to be coming alive again. You know the movement has struck a nerve when police in "Darth Vader riot gear" are sent in to attack those that dare to dissent. Kudos to Robert Hass for speaking out.