Retorno a 1968
By CHELLIS GLENDINNING
September 9, 2008
"The General Public has no notion
Of what's behind the scenes.
They vote at times with some emotion
But don't know what it means."
– W. H. Auden, 1935
1968. I thank my lucky stars I was in Berkeley.
Every noon I'd wend my way to Sproul Plaza, greet Michael Lerner at
the political table he had fought for during the Free Speech
Movement, grab a yogurt with Marty Schiffenbauer in his shorts and
combat boots -- and get my political education as expounded from a
microphone on the steps. Eldridge Cleaver, Joan Baez, Phil
Ochs, Michael Rossman, Angela Davis, Frank Bardacke, Pete
Camejo, Dolores Huerta – they were our teachers. With predictable
frequency we'd tear-ass down Telegraph Avenue brandishing our
anti-war placards or take on the Oakland Induction Center with
shields made of garbage-can lids, and invariably we'd be met by the
Berkeley Police, the Oakland Police, the National Guard, and/or
the Alameda County Sheriff's Department, nicknamed The Blue Meanies
for their blue-clad counterparts in Yellow Submarine.
I graduated in 1969 with a degree in social sciences, but by both
academic curriculum and in-the-street practicum it was a degree in
social revolution. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, which I figured
meant that I had laid the ground for a career. Indeed I have spent
my life exploring and elaborating on the theme.
The lessons of the movement were many and varied. One of my most
memorable had to do with group mind. The insight came about not in
the formality of social psychology class, but in the upheaval of the
plaza. The summer after People's Park thousands of energized
students from elsewhere came pouring into Berkeley to get their
credentials in social protest. In the presence of their innocence I
saw that, through the years, our homegrown protoplasmic mass had
forged a shared strategy for moving across campus and through the
streets in the face of Flying Wedges and flailing
nightsticks, shotguns and CS gas: we had evolved a way to hold the
line and protect each other at the same time. But these
newcomers: they were disconnected from each other, incoherent in
their sum, given to chaos rather than resistance.
Another lesson was the psychic challenge made by the claustrophobia
felt in a cell made for one, now packed with 100. I dealt with the
feeling of enforced enclosure by marking the three or four steps to
the tiny bathroom as if they constituted a day hike in Tilden
Park, then looking out the crack in the frosted window at the
farthest thing: the barbed wire.
Algeria, Cuba, Columbia, Prague, Paris – these buoyed us to our
best courage. We were outraged at Che's assassination in
Bolivia, and Mao's Little Red Book festooned our book bags along
with the Port Huron Statement, Soul on Ice, and The Wretched of the
Earth. We knew we stood in historic moment amid the decolonization
and liberation movements of the world.
But somehow Mexico City escaped us.
1968. Theirs was a social uprising as populous and anarchistic as
ours. It was as fraught with youthful idealism and factional
fighting as ours. It spilled over onto the streets with the same
flair and resolution. But on the night of 2 October the apartments
surrounding Tlatelolco Square were summarily evacuated, and in the
absence of witnesses 400 student protestors were shot dead by federal
troops, their bodies trucked away and dumped into the Gulf of
Mexico. Hundreds more were arrested and imprisoned for years
afterward. It was classic Latin America/School of the Americas terror.
Looking back, there's little mystery as to why knowledge of the
Mexico City massacre did not hit the airwaves in the U.S. By the
morning of 3 October the bodies were nowhere to be found. The
bloodied sidewalks had been washed clean -- protestors and
non-protestors alike sufficiently silenced -- and the Mexican
government denied it all. Then the corporate media dazzled the world
with its slick kaleidoscope of Mexico City's Olympics. I didn't hear
about Tlatelolco until the mid-'90s when one night in San Francisco's
Mission District I happened upon a film made by one of the survivors.
Indeed, it took Paco Ignacio Taibo II 20 years to mount his nagging
memory for the telling. 68 is his report.
Taibo left the movement soon after Tlatelolco, dazed and empty, as
did so many of his comrades. One of the chapter titlessays it
all: "Everyone Blamed Themselves – Forever." He hid. He
drifted. He married, divorced. He threw himself into meaningless
jobs like writing horoscopes and telenovelas. Eventually he found
his voice, writing over 50 books and winning the prestigious
Bancarella Prize for a biography of Che Guevara.
But it took Taibo decades to excavate the piles of notes he had
kept. And, with them, his memories.
Memory is the central theme of the book. Memory of the University
Student Council taking to the streets. Memory of the sound of
300,000 marching in the Manifestación del Silencio. Of the
V-for-victory sign and the raised fist. Of snitching paper for the
mimeograph machine. Memory of Héctor Gama's bulging eyeballs when
the military vehicles rolled onto the esplanade at the Ciudad
Universitaria. Of David Cortés hammering an armored tank's hood with
a metal pipe – and not making a dent. Memory of the relief at not
being there when it happened. Memory of the guilt at not being there
when it happened.
To my mind the book is not just one of the best on the period; it is
one of the best I have ever read. As hilarious as a weed-induced
laughing fit in the face of an R. Crumb cartoon, as abrupt as a
nightstick in the stomach, elegant in its braiding of words with
silences -- Taibo takes the reader on a seamless journey replete with
colors and smells, political revelations and emotional swings. But
the story of coming of age in an age of brutality is more than a walk
down Memory Lane; it is threaded with the irony that can accompany
adulthood, a state that arrived tragically early for the
author, the direct result of Tlatelolco. Taibo's gift as a human
being is apparent: he lives in a state of wonder -- and so the story
is reported, regaled, and reflected upon with humility.
1968. If you were there and are called to remember -- if you were
not and want to understand -- '68 is the book that will jar your
memory of all things good and horrific.
Chellis Glendinning is the author of six books, including Off the
Map: An Expedition Deep into Empire and the Global Economy and the
forthcoming Luddite.com: A Personal History of Technology. She lives
in the village of Chimayó, in northern New Mexico.