Candlelight and cops by
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(89 Stories)

Prompted By Protests

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I just missed the major protests of the 1960s, because I was still in high school, but I was well aware of what was happening and why. Most of my information came from television, but that changed suddenly in the spring of 1970, near the end of my junior year, when the four students at Kent State were killed. That entire week, the school almost shut down, and most students sat outside, doing “teach-ins” and sharing our anxiety. Many teachers were sympathetic.

What was most unnerving? The police presence. While they weren't in riot gear, rows of cops stood their ground, clubs at the ready. Our knees shook.

Although there was no social media, somehow the word got out about a candlelight vigil for the murdered students. My good friends Adriana and Sherry were active in what now would be termed social justice. So that evening, we found ourselves on the Caldwell, New Jersey town square, shyly shuffling toward the center of a vigil, holding candles.

I don’t remember very much about the ceremony, except that people sang. At least Adriana, who had the best voice, did. What was most unnerving? The police presence. While they weren’t in riot gear, rows of cops stood their ground, clubs at the ready. Our knees shook. We were a bunch of middle-class teenage girls, and we couldn’t see why we posed a threat. However, the police weren’t our friends in that era. Fortunately it was indeed a peaceful vigil and we emerged unscathed.

After that I didn’t have any direct involvement in marches and protests during high school or later. (I didn’t do well in crowds even before Covid-19.) But, along with friends Adriana and Sherry, the next year I made phone calls in the evening to get people to support the 18-year-old vote initiative.

When I got to Brandeis in the fall of 1971, things were beginning to calm down on campus, although there was a protest here and there. A major source of rebellion was the “blue box” (or was it a black box?), a device that students used to hack the phone system to make calls throughout the world. Also, there was an increasing black student presence on the campus, which created what felt to me like a surreal environment in this Jewish-focused school.

Even though I don’t recall any specific incidents or issues, the campus was tense, given the Vietnam war and the racial climate. The Jewish students didn’t think I was Jewish enough, whatever that was supposed to mean to them, and the black students seemed hostile to me, although now I can understand why that might be. I hung out with a couple of other “outliers” and was glad to leave the school the next spring.

When I got to Mills the following fall, 1972, it did seem somewhat like a respite from the outside world, although even at UC Berkeley down the road, it was much calmer than in the days of People’s Park. The epicenter of activity on campus involved the black students. This was Oakland, after all, and the Black Panthers were very active in the surrounding neighborhoods, mostly in a positive way, with breakfast programs for underprivileged kids. Men dressed in black would come on campus occasionally, and some of our student leaders were at least peripherally involved in the movement.

Most heartbreaking and a relief at the same time was the Vietnam War’s end in April, 1975, my senior year. The Vietnamese women at Mills decided that they couldn’t go home, and many I know made a life here in the United States. I can’t imagine what might have happened to them in today’s political environment.

It’s healthy (if you’ll pardon the irony of that word) that young people are protesting today. For a couple of years I’ve wondered why we all weren’t in the streets, or at least starting a general strike.

And those scary cops at the vigil I couldn’t forget? In the early 1980s I was driving in a northern California suburb with my then boyfriend’s daughter Kelly and made a U turn in an unfamiliar shopping area. It was safe but illegal, as it turned out, with a No U Turn sign that was partially hidden. A cop roared up on a motorcycle and essentially terrorized us, scaring the heck out of Kelly, citing me, and making me go to traffic school. The instructor at traffic school scratched his head when he read my form (“How fast was vehicle traveling? 5 mph”) and asked me what I was doing there. “Cranky cop,” I thought to myself.

In the 1990s and after I’d thought that the practices of police had improved until my eyes were opened in recent years. In this case I’m grateful for my discomfort and will do what I can, however indirectly, to improve the situation.

My story isn’t really very dramatic, so I’m eager to read more compelling stories from other Retrospect-ers and learn about their direct experiences with protests.

 

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: well written

Comments

  1. Thanx Marian , you say your story may not be dramatic – and in fact neither is the Protests story I am sharing this week – but it’s truthful and it perfectly captures your emotional reactions at the time.

    Brava to you and the team for this timely prompt!

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Kent State was such a seminal moment for so many of us, Marian. I remember feeling shocked that Pigs (that’s what we called them back then — no love lost on either side) would kill protesting kids on a college campus. Now, I understood what blacks had been experiencing forever in this country. I thought we had come a long way when Obama was elected, but I guess not. So sad.

    • Marian says:

      Agreed, Laurie. I had a black workout buddy at my gym in the 1990s who was a policeman, interestingly enough. He’d get stopped by other cops very frequently. How crazy and what a commentary on our society.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Like you, I just missed all the protests at Brandeis (the girls in the room next to me my Freshman year were Black, but we got along quite well, no racial tensions at all). I was too busy trying to figure myself out to pay much attention to the politics on campus. I was proud to cast my first vote for McGovern in 1972, even if his election was doomed. Then I married, I exalted when Nixon resigned, I went to work, life happened.

    Being pulled over by that cop for the illegal U-turn is outrageous. A warning would have sufficed. Can’t believe you were sent to driving school! I think too many cops are guys who were pushed around as kids and this is their way to get back at the world. They have something to prove and are petty tyrants. It is a difficult and, too often, a thankless, dangerous job, so screening for personality traits isn’t what it ought to be.

    • Marian says:

      You’re right, Betsy, and the selection process for cops has completely broken down. They are encouraged to think in a black or white manner (not skin color, everyone is either all good or all bad), so there is no gray. This discourages them to assess a situation and then they can justify their violent reactions.

  4. Mare, I was struck by your comment that the Jewish students didn’t think you were Jewish enough. What is it with us human beings…where does this stuff come from?!? Maybe it’s a vestigial tribal thing…whatever it is, the concept has long outlived its usefulness. We are ALL in this together (unless, in the case of this pandemic, you don’t have money).

    • Marian says:

      You’re right, Barb, it’s so disturbing about our tribalism. I’ve been doing some reading and have found that there is a biological basis for it. Our brains are tuned to what they believe are differences so that we are protected from hostile beings. However, as you say, this trait has outlived its usefulness. The good news is that scientists believe that, with effort, we can unlearn our dysfunctional reactions.

  5. Suzy says:

    Marian, your story may not be dramatic, but it makes a lot of important points. The Kent State shootings got high school kids protesting, and cops with clubs seeming ready to bust heads at any provocation. That’s a good first step. Then tenseness and protests on college campuses, even if you weren’t directly involved. And as Barb says, what’s up with the Jewish kids at Brandeis thinking you weren’t Jewish enough? That’s insane! The Black Panthers you saw at Mills would have been very exciting to me. Finally, you experience firsthand the arbitrariness of cops, when you had to go to traffic school for a safe but illegal U-turn at 5 mph. If you had been a black male, the cop might have shot you!

    • Marian says:

      Agree with all your observations, Suzy. Being tall and blond at Brandeis at the time was politically incorrect. People weren’t into nuances then. The Black Panthers were exciting, even if my understanding of what was happening outside the Mills campus was incomplete. And, although I felt bullied by that cop, in a way I am relieved that he stopped me, a young white woman with a child in the car, rather than a black man. A black man might have ended up being arrested or worse.

  6. John Shutkin says:

    I agree, Marian, that you really make a lot of really important points even if you were not in the midst of protests. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

    One that particularly resonated with me was the one about the police stop. I have often worried that there is a sort of “reverse Darwinism” at play so that those people (typically men) who choose to become police are the ones least psychologically equipped for the job. They are angry bullies more inclined to lash out violently than try to placate a tense situation. I’m sure there are studies of this out there to this effect.

    • Marian says:

      Right you are, John. I wish I could cite specific studies, but it sure seems as if a dominant group of police think their badge means to get the bad guys rather than to serve the community. Then add military style weapons and you get mayhem waiting to happen. It would help if resources went into investing in mental health and other similar experts.

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