My Day in the Movement

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May 10 2000 3:00 AM

My Day in the Movement

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In the second semester of my freshman year at the University of Maryland, May 1970 to be exact, everybody was minoring in student unrest whether they wanted to or not. In my case, it was or not. I wasn't political. Prior to the daze of rage that swept campus that spring after the United States invaded Cambodia, Maryland had a reputation as a party school. The tip-off was the motto on the school seal: "Veritas et Coitus." And even though the expansion of the war inspired many Maryland students to seriously worry about what the world was coming to, the anti-war movement gave a lot of others new excuses to listen to rock on big speakers, smoke grass outside with impunity, and to meet the opposite sex.

Soon, a rally was announced: a large demonstration protesting U.S. imperialism, genocide, and Saturday classes. Posters blanketed the campus, and articles dominated the pages of the student newspaper. One radical publicist even went to post a notice on the library door, but the cobwebs jammed his staple gun.

Finally, the fateful day arrived, and the turnout was huge. The protest's organizers announced that they were going to block old U.S. Route 1, the street that runs right in front of the campus in College Park and takes you to the Dairy Queen. Upon hearing this, the governor instantly sprang into action. If any attempt were made to block Route 1, he said he would send in the National Guard. I guess nobody realized how much he liked going to the Dairy Queen. As soon as word of the governor's threat got out, students who the day before wouldn't have dreamed of going to a rally without cheerleaders made their way to the barricades.

Not me, though. As I said, I wasn't very political. I made my way to a pickup basketball game behind the dorm as several hundred state troopers and National Guardsmen faced off against the students on Route 1. The officer in charge, wearing full battle dress, informed the swelling crowd through a bullhorn that, at 1 p.m., the student gathering would be broken up. Meanwhile, back at the basketball court, I took a pass and wheeled to shoot. My ankle collapsed and so did I. As I looked up from the ground, an Army helicopter was buzzing the campus, and there was suddenly tear gas on the wind. It was 1 p.m.

As my court-mates helped me to my feet and waved down a car to take me to the campus infirmary, the law swept across Route 1 and up the campus. On the drive over, we watched the steadily advancing line of soldiers and cops, some of them with German shepherds.

A huge crowd of students converged on our car as it pulled up. As I was ushered into the infirmary, this freshly radicalized mass parted like the Red Sea. Spying my crippled condition, the crowd began shouting in support, "F*ck the Pigs!" I even heard shouts of "Viva la Revolución!"—a sure sign of outside agitators, since I never met anyone at Maryland who passed Spanish. I had been pegged as the first victim of campus fascism, the Che Guevara of College Park. Inside the building, I was rushed into the office of the campus doctor, who was tied up on the phone with his broker, desperately trying to unload some Cambodian rice futures. I couldn't wait for the market to stabilize, so we got back in a car and headed for the real hospital.

The emergency room at Prince George's County General looked like something out of a Life pictorial on Khe Sanh. In the long line leading to the admissions window there were people in uniform with guns, people in handcuffs, and people screaming, bleeding, retching. As the wounded got to the front of the line, Brunhilde, R.N., asked from behind her window how they received their injuries. All the students in front of me were under arrest and the cops with them did all the talking—"This alleged perpetrator was allegedly alleging things about my mother when he tripped and fell." Apparently, Brunhilde felt that the Hippocratic oath had a political component. A lot of injured students were sitting around unattended, but a team of paramedics was feverishly working on a cop's helmet rash. As I approached the head of the line, my ankle's pounding increased, and I kept wishing that I had gotten a haircut the week before.

Finally, my moment came. Brunhilde looked at me through cold steel rims. "OK, what happened to you?" "I got hurt playing basketball." "Right, and that guy over there"—a beefy hand gestured toward a vomiting hippie holding a blood-soaked towel against his scalp—"is having a tension headache. We won't admit you until you tell us what really happened. Next!"

After a very uncomfortable hour of sitting around, the room thinned out a little, and I was at the head of the line again. Finally a bit of luck—Brunhilde was not there! A nice, attractive nurse had taken her place. She believed my story and immediately started to take steps to help me. But because I was under 21, I had to call my next of kin over 21 to authorize X-raying my foot. It took two calls to track him down at the restaurant where he was eating dinner. As I waited for him to come to the phone, I grew a little nervous. You see, my father is a little, well, conservative. In fact, he was eating out to celebrate the Chicago Seven convictions. And the fact that I hadn't called or written home all semester wasn't helping.

The dreaded moment arrived. "Scott, where are you? We heard about the demonstrations and were worried. Your mother insisted that you had enough sense to keep away from things like that, but frankly, I wasn't so sure. I'm glad you called to let us know everything's all right." At this point, I visualized myself crippled for life, or worse, dying from blood poisoning contracted patronizing a back-street radiologist. "Uh, I know it sounds bad, but I got hurt at school this afternoon and, uh, I'm at the emergency room. They—" "You what?" The line went dead. I called back. After swearing on my life that my injury was nonpolitical, I got my father to tell the nurse a little radiation wouldn't hurt. Might even help.

They found out I had a severely sprained ankle and gave me crutches and painkillers and sent me back to the campus, now under military curfew. I was checked back into my dorm by a National Guard sentry. I fell asleep and dreamed I was an insurance salesman during the Eisenhower administration.

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T he next morning, my roommate shook me awake and told me I was wanted on the hall phone. I hobbled out and picked up the phone and begin to speak. My ears were assaulted by a decibel level commonly associated with jet aircraft. It was my next of kin again. Furious. After a bit, the patterns of human speech were faintly detectable. "Did you see this morning's Baltimore Sun?" I had not. But I quickly got hold of one. Emblazoned across the front page was the headline "GUARD PATROLS U. OF M. CAMPUS AS STUDENTS PLAN NEW PROTEST." In the accompanying article was a list of names of those injured in "the violent confrontation." Featured in that list, among the lacerated state troopers and the abraded demonstrators, was a certain clumsy basketball player. It seems that some fledgling Jimmy Olsen had gone to the hospital and figured out that if you were hurt, you must have been involved. Great. I was going to be disowned and probably deported because I can't dribble.

Fortunately, that didn't come to pass. But the incident did leave me with a few lasting core beliefs: Always read newspapers skeptically. And in politics and basketball, avoid moving too sharply left or right.  

Scott Shuger was a Slatesenior writer and the original author of "Today's Papers." He died June 15, 2002.