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BOOK I: THE COMMUNE


Excerpt from "Chapter 12: Sticks and Stones"
   of Aquarius Rising Book I: The Commune

 

. . .

As he approached the last block of Telegraph Avenue, however, his eyes began to burn and then water. "Tear gas!" he said out loud. He was surprised: there were no clouds of white gas around him such as the ones he had seen on television in other, previous riots. But, even dispersed into invisibility, the gas still had the power to sting and irritate. By the time he reached the end of Telegraph Avenue and paused to scan the campus ahead, the acrid fumes had reached his nose and throat which began to burn with the fury of a mouthful of Jalapeno peppers.

A large crowd was gathered up ahead at the far end of the Student Union. A roar swelled forth from it. "Bizarre!" he thought. "It could be a bunch of football fans cheering a touchdown, or even a horde of hippies oming together." But, in an instant, he knew it was not. Sharp spikes of individual voices driven to their screeching limits rose above the general din and the core feeling in the sound was one of furious anger.

Spying a break in the traffic, Frank sprinted across Bancroft Way and stopped short at the border of the university. Ahead was the mob. He did not want to join it. To his left was the Student Union with its low steps, square columns, and long, glass wall; it did not strike him as an especially safe place to be should the multitude surge in that direction. He considered going around the Union and approaching from the other side, but the terrace there was one story lower than the crowd. "Stupid way to go!" he thought. He looked to his right: there stood Sproul Hall, the administrative center of the university. Its main entrance was at least a story higher than the level he was on. "That'll be the best place to scope this out," he decided, and he began to skirt the plaza to the right.

Almost at once he came face-to-face with a figure in a gas mask. He jumped back in fright, his heart pounding. But the figure only held out a piece of cloth to him. Frank looked again and saw in an instant that this person was not a policeman. At his feet was a bucket half full of water and a plastic bag spilling folded washcloths onto the sidewalk. He nodded for Frank to take the cloth, and Frank did so. It was wet. He held it to his face. It reeked of vinegar, but it seemed to cut the burning. In gratitude, he nodded vigorously at the man, who raised his hand to eye-level in a power-to-the-people, clenched-fist salute. Then he bent over, retrieved another couple of washrags from his bag, dunked them in the bucket, and wrung them out. Keeping the rag over his mouth and nose, Frank dug in his pocket and pulled out the couple of dollars. He offered them to the man in the gas mask, who simply held up his palm in refusal and stepped away to offer a washrag to another person. Frank shoved the money back in his pants and shouted, "Thank you!" The man gave a nod in response, and Frank continued onward.

When he reached the main steps to Sproul Hall, he observed that he was not alone in his idea of using them as a good vantage point: an amorphous assemblage of on-lookers had turned the steps into bleachers for the riot. As fast as curiosity was bringing in newcomers, the tear gas was driving away the ones already there. Here the cloud of gas was eminently thick and visible; it hung like a white mist in the air.

Looking past the mob for the first time, Frank saw that the police had formed a tight line in front of Sather Gate, the metal arch which marked the far end of Sproul Plaza. In their riot helmets and dark padded vests they looked formidable, unearthly, like something out of Star Trek or 1984. With identical gas masks instead of faces, they no longer even appeared human. In contrast to the seething dramatic intensity of the mob, they stood eerily quiet and motionless, more like cold machines than living people. The up-and-down, side-to-side, and slow circular movement of their long, black night sticks in anticipation of combat seemed the only sign remaining of each policeman's individuality.

Frank was revolted. Here was everything he loathed and feared in the human psyche. Calculated, practiced, emotionless brutality by one human being towards another! It was the worst evil we humans are capable of. It was the most potent source of fear, the ultimate cause of all war, the mother of so much human suffering. And here, right in front of him, was a black, multi-limbed incarnation of that primary evil. It was vile. It disgusted and infuriated him. He hated it. In an instant he felt kinship with the mob.

"How can these people be so stupid?!" Frank heard someone say. He jerked his head around to see a short-haired guy with black-rimmed glasses in a white, buttoned-down shirt. The man still used hair oil. "Don't these children have reading to do and papers to write and exams to study for like the rest of us?!" the man continued, talking directly to Frank. "Who do they think they are to threaten this school this way?! I don't care if they want to throw their own lives away, but they've got no right to endanger mine! Immature, selfish brats—that's all they are!"

Stunned by the man's words, Frank turned back to the crowd. Several people behind him said, "Yeah!" and "That's right!" He focused his attention on the crowd this time. They were shouting in anger at the police. The people on the front line of the mob were screaming obscenities and making lewd gestures directly in the face of the police line. They were clearly doing whatever they could to provoke the police into action. From this distance it did look childish and immature, Frank realized. If these people achieved their goal, all they could hope to receive for their efforts were busted heads. It was about as smart as baiting a Doberman pinscher. But, still, he felt their same revulsion at the sight of the hard line of police, and some part of him was thrilled and rejoiced to see ordinary people taking a stand against such monolithic brutishness. As if cued by this last thought, two scruffy longhairs sprang up the steps in front of Frank and turned to survey the crowd. "Far out!" the taller one said with admiration.

"Yeah, this is really groovy!" his companion replied.

"'Groovy?!'" the man behind Frank exploded. "Idiots! Ass-holes!" he roared, and, shoving Frank aside, he advanced on the longhairs. He swung his briefcase at the head of the taller one who saw it coming, ducked, and dashed down the stairs, pulling his friend after him.

"Hey, watch it!" the taller one cried. "What are you, crazy, or something?"

The man with the briefcase stopped on the step below Frank. "Bums! Hippies! Parasitic worms! Goddamn drug addicts! Go back to hell where you belong!" he bellowed with naked hatred. Then he stormed away off the steps to the side towards South Campus.

Frank looked all around: people were turning their attention back to the mob as though nothing had happened. He saw two co-eds in practically identical skirts, sweaters, and teased hair-dos come out of the doors of Sproul Hall. They stopped dead, their eyes wide at the sight before them.

"What's going on?" one of them asked.

A grey-bearded man who was leaning casually against one of the pillars took the handkerchief from his mouth and replied, "Can't you see? It's a student protest. A riot."

"Oh!" Their eyes grew even wider.

"C'mon!" one of them said. "Let's go!" They tried to go back into the building only to find a janitor had locked the door. He shook his head and finger and mouthed the word "Closed!" The two girls looked around wildly. Although Frank would have thought it impossible, their eyes were even wider now. They ran off the steps in the direction of South Campus and were gone.

Frank turned back to the crowd. They had begun to chant together: "Off the Pig! Off the Pig! Off the Pig!" A few rocks and other objects flew out of the crowd at the police line. A bottle smashed to shards at the feet of one of them causing him to jump back involuntarily. Another one was hit in his face shield by a balloon filled with yellow paint. He stepped back out of the line. The front row of protestors cheered and redoubled their gestures of scorn and belittlement. The face-off was building in tension.

Frank unexpectedly got a grip on himself. He realized in an instant that he had been swept away by the drama around him. He was not here to gawk or to join in. He was there because of a compelling fear that Helen was in terrible danger. He needed to find her and get her away from there if he could. But he had no idea where she was. He searched the crowd but could catch no glimpse of her. From what he had heard on the radio, this was probably not the only focus of confrontation on campus. Helen might not even be there. He figured he would just have to march down into the crowd and search her out. Then fear gripped his throat, doubling the pain of the tear gas. He looked on the mob with unmitigated horror: in its own way it was every bit as brutal and evil as the line of police. They were both the same evil, in fact. This was nothing less than a wholly abandoned Saturnalia of hatred. He'd sooner take a walk through the snake pit at the Rattlesnake Villa than step any closer to this hell.

In a flash he knew Helen was there. And then he saw her. She was easy to spot, in fact, because she had turned around and was forcing her way towards the back of the crowd. He saw several people whirl around to run in panic as she pushed past them, but they turned back to the front and closed the gap when they saw it was only one person leaving.

Frank started down the steps on an intercept course when he heard a distinct "Funt!" above the din, and stopped to locate the sound. A projectile was arcing over the crowd from behind the police line. It left a thin trail of white behind it as it fell towards the back of the crowd. "Tear gas!" he thought.

He looked swiftly back to Helen. She had also heard the sound and paused to look back over her shoulder. Frank watched the flying canister descend along its graceful parabolic trajectory and hit Helen squarely on the head. She went down like a bowling pin, disappearing in the loose fringe of people at the back of the crowd.

"No!" Frank screamed, and he took off running . . .

 


 

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