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In 1981, a crazed rich kid shot Ronald Reagan. For many folks in Berkeley it was a dream of revenge come true. After all, it was Reagan who called for a bloodbath in the town after he ordered the National Guard into Berkeley in response to the 1969 Third World Strike at the university and the People’s Park insurrection the same year. It was Reagan and his henchmen who had helped imprison, murder and isolate the Black Panthers and the radical left in the Bay Area. It was Reagan who was partially responsible for the rightwing resurgence in Americaa resurgence that has yet to ease it deadly grasp. As the television screen showed the assassination attempt over and over again, we wondered if the old fascist would make it through. Like our buddy Loren said as we watched, it’s not that he would wish anyone dead; it’s just that he wouldn’t shed any tears if Reagan ended up that way–sooner rather than later.
Berkeley was one place in the country that did not rejoice when Reagan won the presidency. In fact, a spontaneous protest of several thousand people erupted. The protest ended with the man being burned in effigy and an occupation of the administration building at the university. My friend R and I were among forty-five people who refused to leave at closing time and were dragged out by the police. The District Attorney did not prosecute any of us. Instead, he brought us each in for a meeting where he tried to convince us that we should work through the system. After all, he told us, he never really effected change until he quit demonstrating in the streets and went back to school to get his law degree. Then he got to tell us hardcore dropouts and radicals to register to vote.
After watching the reruns of the shooting a couple dozen more times, R, Loren and I headed over to Telegraph Avenue to see what was happening. The word of Reagan’s bout with death had reached the street rather quickly and people were beginning to party. The scene was (in a muted way) slightly reminiscent of those pictures you may have seen of the liberation of Paris in World War II or the streets of Teheran after the Shah was unseated from power. People were openly sharing their beers and other drinks while the police stood around somewhat nervously, wondering how to react. Some punkers in a hearse drove up the street several times honking their horns and shouting, The King is Deadout the windows of their vehicle. Street veterans of the battles of Berkeley in the Sixties and Seventies drank deeply and smiled. Shop owners who shared our opinions beamed. The party went on until dark. Reagan survived, probably because he would have needed a stake driven through his heart to die.
I had become aware over time of how different our lives and ideas were from mainstream America. After Reagans election this distance became even greater. Every time I left the Bay Area the Reagan effect was omnipresent. People actually liked the man despite his complete lack of depth or character. Perhaps, now that I think of it, that is why they liked himbecause he had none of either. The rebirth of anti-Left and ultimately anti-democratic impulses under Reagan were not only tolerated by most US citizens, they were celebrated. Greed and material ownership were heralded as the ultimate realization of the American dream. Freedom was defined solely in terms related to the freedom to manipulate others in the pursuit of profit. If I were more of a religious person, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it was mammon, not God, who ruled America. This, in spite of the commonly held belief that America’s wealth was somehow related to Gods beneficence–a belief perpetrated by the moralistic hypocrites who had helped finance Mr. Reagan’s election (and who peopled his administration).
Another development that was part and parcel of Ronnie Reagan’s “morning in America” was the increasingly desperate scene on the streets. A life that seemed to be a matter of choice for a good number of my fellows when I first hit the street had become a struggle for those of us who remained and those who arrived daily, thanks to the growing unemployment. We were living an American hallucination, although how much of it was someone else’s hallucination and how much of it the result of our own psychedelic-fueled vision will never be determined. Nonetheless, our dream was looking more and more like a nightmare. Somewhere in the country there was an abundance of wealth, but it surely wasn’t on Telegraph Avenue, the transient communities of the nation, its inner city ghettoes, prisons, or the road and train yards. In these places where the very poor gathered, people fought each other over six packs of beer and packages of cigarettes while in the opposite economic sphere, the battles were (like always) over money and politics.
That hallucination has become the everyday reality some twenty years later. Unemployment continues to rise and most of those folks who were on the outside then do not even register in the statistics anymore. The powers of the police, who had too much power, then, are greater than even the most paranoid of us could have envisioned. The Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas that he funded to fight the Soviets have come back to pay their respects. Ronald Reagan’s heir apparent–George Bush–has not only done the old guy one better by stealing the White House, he has much of Reagan’s court in the palace with him. It is a court that believes it has no obligation to the rest of the world, much less this nation. Morning in America? Those guys must have stolen some of those night-vision goggles that the military uses, because it’s been dark around these parts for a while.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org