In the bad old days of the Nixon era when, like today, public unrest was reaching critical mass, I found myself involved in a campus demonstration at UT-Knoxville that began as a theatrical protest over the lack of a student voice in university affairs. A student group had petitioned, and was granted, a vote on the search committee to find a replacement for the beloved Andrew D. Holt, the retiring president of the university.
Despite this arrangement, the committee waited until spring break, when the campus was vacant, and chose who they wanted without student input. Students gathered on the Hill to object to the bureaucratic bait-and-switch with some street satire and guerrilla theater, only not everyone got the joke. Several beefy-looking jock types confronted the hippies during a break in classes, the crowd swelled, and the mood grew ugly. Predictably, the university panicked and called the Knoxville city police, enraging the students, who began chanting, "Pigs off campus." When one of the protest leaders was arrested and thrown into a squad car, what had begun as fun and games turned deadly serious, as the group of protesters turned into a crush of people who rushed the doors of the administration building, which were quickly locked by university employees.
I was trapped in the middle of a sea of rage and could see the police riot squad assembling a flying wedge in preparation to disperse the crowd. You could feel the mentality of the mob take over, driving the protesters' anger. The fear was palpable. When the squad of baton-swinging riot police waded into the mob in a skull-cracking frenzy, beating students to the ground and spilling their blood onto the late spring snow, I turned and ran. Casualties began trickling into the Student Center, none worse than the wound to my own conscience.
Because I ran, I considered myself a coward. I vowed that the next time a situation arose where I could be in danger from the police, I was going to be prepared like the South Koreans and bring my own damn helmet and stick. Fortunately for my health, I never had to put my freshly minted, false courage on the line. No other campus or anti-war demonstration in which I participated turned violent.
Ultimately, I reached an age when I could no longer think of the "cops" as a monolithic thing as much as dedicated individuals doing a difficult job, no more than the police could classify any long-haired or black person as a revolutionary. With the exception of a few major cities where corruption was systemic, police forces became more professional, better trained, and increasingly attuned to the law. The end of the Vietnam War seemed to also bring a halt to the venomous rancor among citizens, and the intimidating image of the helmeted riot cop was iconicized in the disco group the Village People.
Since we've been through all this generational nastiness before, it was with particular disgust to hear Newt Gingrich say to the Occupy protesters, "Go get a job after you take a bath." I thought I was having some hideous flashback of the worst of the Seventies. In any case, there are no jobs and all the bathtubs are in use by the Cialis Company. What could really use a thorough rinsing, however, is Gingrich's soul. He was among the architects of the very difficulties that are causing the street protests today. The return of police violence, however, was unexpected.
By now, everyone has seen the video of UC-Davis campus police lieutenant John Pike using pepper spray on a group of passive protesters, as if he were spraying for termites. The repugnant casualness of his actions made my blood boil, as it did for one old friend whose daughter is a student at the university, and said, "It was like Kent State without the bullets."
Although Oakland's mayor Jean Quan and New York's Michael Bloomberg have become the modern equivalents of Richard J. Daley and Bull Connor, the police are there to ensure public order and have no further responsibilities to the protesters. Not so with UC-Davis chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, whose first concern should be the safety of the students in her charge. Katehi complained that students staying on the Quad overnight constituted an "encampment," something she had unilaterally banned for the weekend protests. It was her office that sent in the campus police. The two officers impersonating exterminators were put on administrative leave while Katehi forms a "task force" to study the incident. I'm sure in the eyes of my friend, whose daughter is now participating in the protests, Katehi is not someone you can entrust with the care of your child and needs to resign immediately and hire a good civil attorney.
There's no question that the movement has been infiltrated by "agitators" who turned out to be undercover police. But for every cop like the ones at UC-Davis, there's Captain Ray Lewis, former chief of the Philadelphia police, whose arrest at the OWS protest for disorderly conduct while in full uniform was caught on a video that also went viral. Lewis felt compelled to make the trip to "assist the movement." He understood that the protests are for the protection of policemen's rights too.
Lewis carried a sign encouraging the NYPD not to become "Wall Street's mercenaries." Lewis also demonstrated the power of the Internet at the very same time the police evicted all protesters from Zuccotti Park, proving that the Occupy movement needs no permanent encampment and that we've discovered a useful purpose for the "flashmob." And for the cops who don't yet get it, thanks to cell-phone cams, the whole world is watching. You will not be allowed to beat these people, so you had better damn well join them.
Randy Haspel writes the blog "Born-Again Hippies," where a version of this column appears.