Off the Town After the Riot
LONG AFTER the riot was underway in and around Harvard Square Wednesday night, a gaggle of clubbies strolled out of the Fly Club on to Mr. Auburn Street. One of their number, a self-confessed liberal, spotted a friend who was obviously a refugee of the latest confrontation two blocks away. "Hey-, the clubbie yelled, "what's going on up there?"
The friend started to answer, but, before he could get three words out of his mouth, the clubbie cut him off with the drippingly sarcastic remark, " This will do a lot to end the war." In others words, he didn't really care what was going on up at Mass Ave. A confrontation is a confrontation, and the clubbie had his party line on that subject all nearly prepared.
Well, good for him-and good for all the liberals, reactionaries and radicals of Cambridge who are now sitting at dinner tables spouting their political and moral reactions to last week's riot, the largest in this city's history; a disturbance of this kind, after all, does rank tops in dinner conversation. But-as the next few months will obviously show-the meaning of this point in the history of dissent against the racist-imperialist policies of our government does not lie in our morning-after responses. The meaning lies in what one saw and felt on the streets around Harvard Square during the four hours of trashing here last week.
Anyone who has witnessed a large number of police-demonstrator confrontations since Chicago could not fail to recognize the subtle, but significant ways in which Wednesday night's display departed from precedent. Nor can anyone who has spent a lot of time in the streets fail to see what last week means in terms of the future, for the meaning is all too clear; Next time there may be guns.
The three major confrontations before Wednesday that we all seem to share are those at the Chicago convention in 1968, at University Hall last year, and at Washington last November. None of them can be equated with this most recent disturbance.
Chicago and University Hall shared the large similarity of being radicalizing experiences for many left liberals. Police overreacted with great (and, for them, tactically stupid) bravura. Not only that, but the issues involved at Chicago and Harvard, were, in the first instance, liberal ones, and, in the second, issues that liberals could endorse in theory if not in practice.
The confrontations at the South Vietnamese Embassy and Justice Department after the Moratorium march moved away considerably from Chicago and Harvard (Columbia) in tone and substance. In the Capital, the stated issues of the demonstrators were revolutionary; they could not be supported by McCarthy workers who had been clubbed in Chicago. And, also in Washington, the police were smarter. There were no wholesale overreactions by the men in blue; they were tactically clever.
In Washington one saw the scenario for this kind of confrontation settle into rigidity. It goes like this: Police form ranks to block off a street; demonstrators (in ranks) march up the street until they are a few yards in front of the police; there is a three-minute pause on both sides; the police then advance and lob tear gas canisters; the demonstrators retreat (with cries of "Walk! Walk!"): the demonstrators gradually regroup; and then the whole process repeats itself. This exact sequence of events repeats over and over again until the sheer strength of the gas gradually drives everybody home. Few clubbing result; there are relatively few arrests; there is little radicalization of onlookers.
THIS BATTLE plan, of course, perfectly describes the series of confrontations that took place on Mass Ave, and, later, on Mt. Auburn Street Wednesday night. So much so, in fact, that if you were to walk away from the action for a while and then return, you would know exactly where you were in the sequence as soon as you got back. The formation of the police, the noise level, the activities of the demonstrators, even the glare of the streetlights off of the helmets told you instantly which step in the procedure you were watching. You knew exactly how many minutes you had left before you could expect another gassing.
The overwhelming routineness of the skirmishes made them different from those in Washington. In Cambridge, they were boring. So boring that one had plenty of time to think seriously about the usefulness of such confrontations to the Left. The gassing does not radicalize anyone; the police stay in line: the evening draws to the inevitable stand-off close when the gas-saturation point is reached. You become part of a television show, a rerun.
The political point of these confrontations is that they raise the psychological and financial price of waging the war and exterminating the Panthers. In Washington, these skirmishes were a failure within this context. In Cambridge, they would have been, too-were they not combined with trashing.
The wholesale window-breaking and looting of Wednesday made the night successful. Such activity does raise the price of imperialism and racism. Whether the price goes up for the right people, whether looting breeds repression, whether liberals are alienated in the process-these issues are now being debated over coffee. No matter. Those who are following the tactics of Wednesday night see their course as correct. (And can one blame them? Where have the years of marching gotten us? Who has a plan up his sleeve that he can guarantee will work better to keep Bobby Seale from being executed? The smashing and looting of Wednesday night are desperate measures, but what is left but desperation after every other kind of protest has failed to stop the killing in Asia and at home?)
Yet, the looting and the obvious obsolescence of the police confrontations to the demonstrators were not the only breaks Wednesday night made with Washington. (If they were, the result would have been closer to the Weathermen's days of rage in Chicago.) The other significant fact of what happened here was the make-up of the crowd. In Washington, the demonstrators had been Weathermen, their allied groups and close followers. Here, the ranks included younger teen-agers (the high-school revolutionaries all those books are being written about), many non-students, teeny-bopper girls, and ghetto blacks. Weathermen, NAC people and the like were present, but in the minority.
What this means, of course, is that the Weathermen did know which way the wind was blowing several months ago. They are not to become the isolated violent fringe of the Left. They are rapidly picking up support-perhaps not enough to win anything, not enough to cause a revolution (they have hardly done anything to widen their base, to say the least), but enough to make their presence felt.
On May 1, in New Haven, a Chicago Conspiracy backed demonstration has been scheduled in connection with the trial of Bobby Seale. All these factors-the bankruptcy of the old-style tear gas battles; the widening of support for violence; the new excitement of looting (which, like it or not, proved in the long run to be a successful tactic of the 1965 ghetto riots); the feelings of desperation; the demonstration's direct target (such specificity was lacking here); and New Haven's volatile ghetto-can lead to no other outcome than wholesale violence. Who will shoot first-police, white demonstrators, black demonstrators-is problematic.
Very few people look forward to violence. Very few people want to be killed in that way. But to talk for or against violence as a means to get peace or killing as a means to stop killing or the feasibility of starting a revolution at this time seems a waste of effort now.
A girl, tripped out on mescaline, stood on Mt. Auburn Street Wednesday night listening to friends analyze the events. But her eyes were open, not her ears. She ignored the clacking voices and muttered, "fatalistic...fatalistic...fatalistic." Tripping or not, it wasn't too hard to look around the streets of Cambridge and see what is coming next. Fatal. That's the only word.