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Retorno a 1968

“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.

 

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