I first met my friend Trucker in 1970 at a rally against the Vietnam War. Our demo was going to start on the Berkeley campus and continue with a march down Telegraph Avenue. This was shortly after the National Guard and police had murdered six demonstrators at Kent State and Jackson State, so the mood was extremely tense. The Berkeley city government had denied us a permit to march and called in police reinforcements from Oakland. The Oakland cops had a reputation for brutality (based on their treatment of the black population), and we were expecting an ugly and possibly violent confrontation. Out of fear, many people decided not to march, but others of us argued that marching was now more important than ever. We needed to defy the government’s attempts to scare us into silence.
After speeches and music in front of Sproul Hall, we marched off the campus and were met by a wall of police sealing off Telegraph Avenue. Some of our hard-cores in front tried to break through the barrier but were clubbed down. Cops began firing what looked liked shotguns, and people started screaming and running in panic, but it turned out to be tear gas.
A demonstrator wearing a biker helmet, swim goggles, and a cloth around his face picked up a gas canister with gloved hands and hurled it back at the police — a classic scene of a brave individual defying tyranny. Inspired, I pulled off my old green beret that I’d been wearing and used it to protect my hands as I scooped up a hot canister and threw it back where it came from. I thought about all the grenades I’d thrown in Vietnam and felt much better about this one.
The first line of cops, those who were firing, wore gas masks, but those behind didn’t, and I felt a surge of triumph seeing them run from their own gas. But the ones in masks kept advancing and firing, looking like robots.
The peace marchers fell back, fleeing down side streets. Agonized from the tear gas, I sank to my knees, hacking convulsively. My eyes were seared, nose and throat raw, skin burning. Through the tears I saw the guy in the biker helmet approaching. He helped me off the street into a doorway and pulled out a first-aid kit. From a squeeze bottle he squirted glycerin water into my eyes and nose, helped me rinse my mouth and throat with regular water from a canteen, then rubbed moist baking soda under my eyes. He was firm but gentle, like a good combat medic. I saw the cloth around his face was a towel wet with vinegar to absorb some of the gas. This man was equipped.
As soon as I could walk better, we straggled away from the scene. The police strategy had worked: the march was broken up, scattered in all directions. We walked down to People’s Park, angry, bitter, exhausted.
The park was full, and no cops dared to show, although they and other agents were probably there undercover. Joints were being passed around, and we got high. Smoking grass back then had an innocence to it that it hasn’t had since. Cannabis helped us to abandon the death world we saw around us and resurrect our child-selves. Stoned people were learning to play again, singing, blowing giant iridescent soap bubbles, juggling pine cones, tossing Frisbees back and forth. But under it seethed a mood of defiance and rebellion. A statement in RAMPARTS magazine summed up our feelings: “Alienation is when your country is at war and you want the other side to win.” But I would have spelled it a-lie-nation. A group of conga drummers were playing, and their furious, insistent beat seemed to herald a rising tidal wave of protest that would sweep the militarists out of power.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but this wasn’t the beginning of the wave but its crest, and in the next years it would dwindle down. But this was better than no wave at all. It didn’t sink the ship of state, but it did slosh over the deck. And now a new one is rising that may go even higher.
The events of the day bonded Trucker and me as friends, and although our lives took different directions after that, we stayed in touch. Years ago he went totally underground, changing his identity and location, and since then all I’ve had for him is a webmail address. - William