Casually Observing the Berkeley Protests



The evening started out with just another pretty sunset...
The evening started out with just another pretty sunset…

It was nearing 5pm. I was heading up to a Telegraph Ave. bistro that serves breakfast all day. I come here on weekends because it can be less crowded than the nearby Caffe Mediterraneum.


As I stepped inside, the door was shut behind me and I was told that, due to the impending protests, I would be the last customer of the day. “Lucky me,” I said, “I’d better get that order in and make it official. I’ll have a…” At that point I was informed that the grill was in fact already closed. The door was opened behind me and I was invited to come back real soon.


“Because of the protests,” they explained again. I didn’t blame them, but I was still hungry, so I went over and got my eggs at Caffe Mediterraneum.


The good old Med. Open on Christmas. Open on New Years. Always open so that those lonely paying customers in need of a meal can always get one. The Med is not gonna let a bunch of outside agitators intimidate them into closing down. No way. That goes against every fiber of this café’s being. The bricks and bats carrying wing of the anarchist protest movement doesn’t scare the Med, even though many of them are probably camped out on the sidewalk in front of the Med and using its bathroom like a festival porta potty.


The only thing I notice out of the ordinary at the Med is a handwritten sign on the cash register explaining that they’re cash-only today, as if the anarchists had somehow managed to overthrow their credit card server.






I knew it had been game-on last night when, from the moment it got dark until I fell asleep well after midnight, I heard the constant drone of a circling chopper or two coming from the downtown/campus area of Berkeley.


I like the sound of circling choppers. It helps me sleep at night like the white noise of a thunderstorm or the shriek of a far off train whistle. This is the sound of my Los Angeles childhood, where you’d hear LAPD choppers circling at all hours.


The next morning I read about the damage caused by some of the protestors on an international news site. When I turned on CNN at the top of the hour, it was the lead story.


I dunno. I’m not feeling it. Vandalizing Berkeley over racial and police injustice seems like disrupting the Monterey Pop Festival to protest Bob Hope’s USO Vietnam tour. On the other hand, this week marks the 50th anniversary of the onset of the Free Speech Movement right here at UC Berkeley, when the Sixties began in earnest. Today, those events have been canonized. Maybe last night’s actions will leave a similar legacy.


I saw that they broke some windows at Trader Joe’s last night. I’m not sure if that’s because TJ’s is a symbol of the police-state industrial complex or because they wanted to liberate some frozen pizzas and liquor bottles, or because the floor-to-ceiling glass windows just said “break me. You know I want it.”


Meanwhile, back at Caffe Med, darkness has fallen outside and it will only get darker. I still have a couple of errands to run, so it would smart to get going now before the action picks up again.


My first stop will be the ATM. I have to get more cash since I spent the last of it on my omelet. I recall that in the student riots of the Sixties they used to go after the banks right after they torched the ROTC buildings. That was before there were ATMs, so I have to be ready for anything.


After my meal I walked a few blocks down Telegraph to the ATM, which brought me about a block away from campus. I could hear things starting up in Sproul Plaza, the epicenter of all protest movements of the Sixties and beyond.


After hitting the ATM I went by the store I intended to visit. The lights were on and the staff was inside peering out, but the security gate was shuttered. Most of the storefronts seemed to be shuttering up like that.


As I turned around to walk back up Telegraph away from campus, I heard two opposing symphonies playing out like Ives polyharmony. In one ear was the megaphoned political chanting coming from Sproul. In the other ear two people were getting into a random street fight that never quite came to blows. All I know is two angry males were facing off across the width of Telegraph Ave over something involving a parked car. One guy was calling another guy who looked to be about my age an “old mother-fer,” baiting him with homophobic remarks, and telling him to go home and watch Matlock reruns. The old guy stepped into the middle of Telegraph and said something to his tormentor, but the younger gentleman was apparently satisfied enough with his Matlock remark to leave it at that.


I don’t know what that fight was about, but confrontation was in the air and Telegraph Avenue seemed like the wrong place to be driving a car after dark on this particular night. On foot myself, I saw that traffic was being stopped at Bancroft Way, where Telegraph meets the campus, effectively turning Telegraph, already a one-way street in this area, into a dead end and creating instant gridlock. Panicky drivers started backing up, trying to extricate themselves from a dire situation before they got irrevocably boxed in like fish in a barrel.


Since my store was closed and it seemed like it was going to be an early night, I opted for Plan B, getting some Ben & Jerry’s and heading home. When I got to the corner store, I noticed that they had been hastily shuttered up, too. I kept going until I got to 7-11. They were open so I got my ice cream there. It seems counterintuitive that the protests close down the mom and pop corner stores, but the multinationals like 7-11 stay open and get all the business. I suppose that’s just one of the many ambiguities that special times like these bring on.

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