The long arm of the law came to Harvard Square last night swinging its billy club, swimming it hard and to the head and not pulling its punch. It was police-state law, the enraged and petty law of men who know something is wrong and don't know what to do about it, the frustrated law of men who are laughed at and can only reply with a quick crack at your skull.
By and large, local police have been a tolerant lot, not unfriendly to the demonstrations that periodically crop up in the Square. But last night the police went out for a fight and when it didn't turn up, they made one. They had given their permission for the rally. Yet they reacted to the crowd in the Square with the indignant surprise of a man who has found a herd of goats in his vegetables garden. The crowd was not particularly large nor unruly by local crowd standards. Yet the police waded into it as if it were hell bent for the vaults of the Harvard Trust Company. They insulted women and bashed undergraduates and ripped out camera films and told proctors to "go back where you come from." It was a good chance to throw around a little weight. One cop summed it up pretty well: "We knew they were cutting up a little, so we came down to break it."
Break it they did. But last night's police broke a lot more. They broke the mutual confidence and respect that has so far prevented in Cambridge as much as anything else, the rotten town-and-gown riots that occasionally ignite at New Haven and Providence. They broke a tradition of good-natured understanding that has kept cops and students at far more than billy-club length for a long time. Towards the end, they were egged on by a few students who were inane enough to scale bottles when they should have gone home. But basically, in a bizarre reversal of form, the cops broke the peace.
There probably won't be crowds in the Square for a while now. In that, the cops may have done part of what they set out to do. But there is still a month to June, then summer, and past that the football games. Some day the crowds are going to come swelling up from the river towards the Square again, and the sirens will run wailing out from Central Square to greet them. A drunk will push a cop, maybe fuzzily remembering last night, and the cop will push him back. And then maybe the billy-swinging cops will think back to the days when they broke heads to stop a good-humored crowd, and wonder if it was the single answer. For they will find no friendly crowd, but a surly one, expecting the fight, and then the nightstick will be the only way.