UC Berkeley police give "Beat Poets" new meaning: poet laureate Robert Hass on his violent encounter

University of California, Berkeley poetry professor and former US poet laureate Robert Hass writes in the New York Times, on what transpired when he wandered down to the Occupy with his wife, to see for himself if reports of police brutality against student protesters were really true:

[UC Berkeley] is also the place where students almost 50 years ago touched off the Free Speech Movement, which transformed the life of American universities by guaranteeing students freedom of speech and self-governance. The steps are named for Mario Savio, the eloquent undergraduate student who was the symbolic face of the movement. There is even a Free Speech Movement Cafe on campus where some of Mr. Savio’s words are prominently displayed: “There is a time ... when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part.” 

Earlier that day a colleague had written to say that the campus police had moved in to take down the Occupy tents and that students had been “beaten viciously.” I didn’t believe it. In broad daylight? And without provocation? So when we heard that the police had returned, my wife, Brenda Hillman, and I hurried to the campus. I wanted to see what was going to happen and how the police behaved, and how the students behaved. If there was trouble, we wanted to be there to do what we could to protect the students.

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.

PHOTO: Occupy Cal demonstrators gather in Sproul Plaza at the University of California, Berkeley November 15, 2011. Throngs of anti-Wall Street protesters converged on the University of California at Berkeley on this day, vowing to set up a tent camp in defiance of campus rules a day after police dismantled a long-standing encampment in nearby Oakland. (REUTERS/Stephen Lam)


  1. i’m constantly surprised how short our national memory is, i really hope we’re not going to see another kent state before this is all over.

  2. There seem to be two kinds of trollish behavior that happen in these threads (well, two that I want to talk about). I’d like to point to them now before they begin:

    1) The victim blaming. Basically, “Don’t stand in front of a cop who is holding a billy club if you don’t want to get hit”, or some variation on this. These are pretty easily dismissed, I think, because we understand the right to peaceful assembly, and the tradition of non-violent protest.

    2) The call to arms. This one usually goes “I’m so fed up with this, when will somebody fight back!? Why are they just taking it!?” This one is a little more tricky, because I think when we see injustice and abuse of power, it’s quite tempting to let our anger guide us to violence. I feel it myself.

    However,  I would argue that this second type is the much more dangerous comment. If there is anything the 1%, their media, and their bought-and-paid-for government officials want, it’s for this protest to turn into a riot. This would justify more beat downs, and disqualify the OWS protest’s messages very quickly. The media and officials already try to paint the protesters this way, but until they have evidence it’s not as effective. They’re waiting for it, and trying to provoke it.

    I won’t claim that everyone commenting that they want to see the protesters fight back are agents provocateur, but consider that such a tactic would doom the movement as surely and as quickly as anything.

    1. There’s also the variation of 1) The sociopath commuter:  People who explicitly or implicitly support the beating and torture of protesters because their morning commute is being slightly inconvenienced.

  3. Great blog post from Bob Ostertag. Militarization Of Campus Police

    Last week, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper published an essay arguing that the current epidemic of police brutality is a reflection of the militarization (his word, not mine) of our urban police forces, the result of years of the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror. Stamper was chief of police during the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, and is not a voice that can be easily dismissed.

    Yesterday, the militarization of policing in the U.S. arrived on my own campus.

    These issues go to the core of what democracy means. We have a major economic crisis in this country that was brought on by the greedy and irresponsible behavior of big banks. No banker has been arrested, and certainly none have been pepper sprayed. Arrests and chemical assault is for those trying to defend their homes, their jobs, and their schools.

    These are not trivial matters. This is a moment to stand up and be counted. I am proud to teach at a university where students have done so.

  4. Haas mentions that, “We couldn’t have dispersed if we’d wanted to because the crowd behind us was pushing forward to see what was going on.” I have a bad feeling there are those who will take this detail and blow it up into “it was the fault of the crowd, not the police”.

    And that, in spite of the facts, is how I’m sure the story ultimately will be re-reported and repeated.

  5. Actually, that *is* more or less the old meaning of “Beat Poets.” Poets willing to be beaten in the course of a fully lived life.

    1. Kerouac originated the use of the word, describing a beat generation that was just plain tired, as in, “I’m beat.” From Wikipedia:
      Jack Kerouac introduced the phrase “Beat Generation” in 1948 to characterize a
      perceived underground, anti-conformist youth movement in New York. The name arose in a conversation with writer John Clellon Holmes. The adjective “beat” could colloquially mean “tired” or “beaten down, but Kerouac expanded the meaning to include the connotations “upbeat,” “beatific,” and the musical association of being “on the beat”.

  6. While there certainly are trolls who do these things I think most people being trollish in the manners you describe are genuinely expressing themselves.
    1)Victim blaming is the default response for many people because most Americans are authoritarians. We understand the right to peaceful assembly, we value liberty; most Americans do not. We can’t dismiss their victim blaming, it’s an authentic expression of an ideological sociopathy that must be confronted.
    2) A call to arms is the default response for anyone with a sense of justice. You see a bully with a badge brutalizing someone and it takes an act of will to hold yourself back from physically intervening. I’ve been there, the urge to fight back is so overwhelming you can hardly think. I make a terrible pacifist, but it is so abundantly obvious that non-violent direct action is the only effective tactic we have. Even when it might be morally justifiable to use violence against the police, it is politically unjustifiable. I think any reasonable person can be convinced of this.

    1. I think victim blaming is the default response in the US  WRT authoritarian violence because victim blaming is *the* default response in the US. 

      Look at other news events and the way an awful lot of people react.

      10 year old get’s raped? Victim blaming. 
      (Also:  Won’t somebody think of the accused and their reputation!?)

      Lose your house in a predatory loan? Victim blaming.
      (Also: Those poor people ruined our economy!)

      I think it’s the toxic side of our worship of the individualistic and self-sufficient ideal. In fact, I think most people in the US *think* they are anti-authoritarian… for the same reasons they *think* trickle down economics works.  To me the victim blaming comes less from the fact that people in the US are willingly authoritarian (we love big government?) and more from the fact that people in the US would rather believe that a) it’s your own fault if something bad happens to you no matter what because that means you can keep it from happening to you and who cares about anyone else and b) admitting there is a problem would mean there’s a problem!

      Remember most people see themselves as good, and they’ll protect that good self image over everything else. 

      The thing is, if you are in the business of keeping control of people that is a very easy mindset to manipulate.  As long as people see themselves as *the good guys* and the protesters as *not like them* then they will see the cops as punishing people who are lesser people.  

      To me the US national mindset is like an insecure narcissist just on the verge of an awful confrontation with reality.

  7. On the topic of fighting the police and whatnot, here’s a comment I wrote somewhere else awhile back:

    If I remember this correctly, some autonomen types participating in “anti-globalization” protests in Italy during the late 1990’s developed an entire system of comedic rioting. They would wear white jumpsuits and body armor improvised from foam and inner tubes and basically create a buffer zone to protect the crowds from attacking cops. It was serious business but they had a playful attitude about it and treated the police like they were just participants in a game rather than combatants in a violent street battle. I think humor is the best way to defuse tense situations, and reframing the actions of the police in ways that makes them feel silly is a great way to motivate them to stop. I do like the paint bombs, but on the spectrum of tools useful in a situation like this it crosses a major line that is best not crossed unless they escalate the violence. Throwing potentially toxic substances at them will make them extremely angry. Throwing things at cops in general is best avoided. I think if we throw anything at them it should be completely absurd and pose minimal risk of causing physical harm, like donuts… imagine the surprise when they attack the crowd and in response a wall of delicious donuts begins raining down on them. You know most of the cops are going to think it’s awesome if we only fight back using donuts, and we can juxtapose video of these cops munching on the donuts with their bosses on TV whining about “coming under repeated projectile attacks from protesters” and then stammering through an answer whenever some asks, “you were attacked with donuts?”

    Weaponized donuts could be just the thing we need to transform the police into allies.

  8. Sadly, I would say that the officers in riot gear lack a sense of humor. Throwing even something as harmless as a donut *could* be read as an act of aggression, and might very well result in escalation. I know it seems petty, but I think it could turn into a disaster.

    1. i have to agree, a complete lack of tolerance on the part of the police for any fight-back at all seems to be the rule in these encounters, not even for humorous ones.

  9. I generally am just as opposed to victim-blaming as the next guy, but I was pretty much disgusted by the artistic license the author took with the description of the scenario. Comparing the police to a Trojan phalanx and going WAY out of his way to allude to the victims/students as rose y cheeked innocents.  Let the journalists report the facts and let the poets write the ballads to come later.

    1. Actually a lot of ancient poetry was considered historical. So you might want to reconsider that statement. 

    2. So when he described how the police knocked his wife down and beat the protesters with batons, you took that as some sort of metaphor?

  10. Beat cops beat students and beat poets. 

    4 detectives and 4000 beat cops.  Well thats because beat cops make us money and detectives dont…..  You dont make any money solving actual crimes, but you can make a ton of money arresting and getting bonds from thousands of innocent people.  Hell why not sit along the streets and highways and ticket people for things that “might happen”  Brilliant!  I know how about we blame the poor people for the economy instead of the mismanagement of money from the top down….  That’ll trick em.

    tHe EnD iS nOw!

  11. The officer was heard saying 

    I do not like green eggs and ham
    I do not like them Sam-I-am
    I do not like them with a hat
    I do not like them with a bat

  12. Xeni ( and Steve Boyett)

    Kerouac did not coin “Beat Poet” it was Bob Kaufman after he was literally beaten when he jumped on a cop car to deliver a poem. So Xeni, your new meaning is actually the old meaning.

    Kaufman took a 10 year vow of silence after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. When the Vietnam war ended in 1973, the first words Kaufman spoke were:

    All those ships that never sailed
    The ones with their seacocks open
    That were scuttled in their stalls…
    Today I bring them back
    Huge and intransitory
    And let them sail


  13. You don’t have to imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever anymore, you can just turn on the tv now.

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