« on: December 02, 2009, 02:52:46 am »
I don't know that I've ever mentioned it to anyone here, but it's one of my favorite stories. It's the kind of thing where you have to tell it if you've experienced it and when you do you become Shakespeare, your words are carried from your mouth without any control of your own and they form a picture of the night putting to shame the most clear of photographs. I used to work student security at UMass Amherst; the part time job shaped my entire undergraduate career there from how I viewed my peers to how I spent time with my friends. My gig was a supervisor, I would go from building to building across the campus and talk to the people who were signing in guests and make sure it was all going well. UMass Amherst is big, if you didn't know, huge actually. It would take ten of us divided across the place to get to each building three times if we were lucky over a nine hour shift, so we were assigned areas. My area that night, December of 2006, was in Southwest, the party area of the college and on alert for the evening for one simple event happening hundreds of miles away.
Our football team was playing in the NCAA Division 1A finals. One lucky thing about being in a shithole like Southwest on a game night was there being no need for a radio or a television. From the yells echoing across the cracked concrete from drab twenty seven story high rise dorms you knew if we scored, if they scored, if the refs made a bad call. And I listened to it because it spelled how I would spend the remaining seven hours. If we won, the students would party and jubilantly riot. If we lost, the students would party and angrily riot. It was unspoken and palpable from the moment the game was scheduled.
The game drew to a close and I was told to stop making rounds, to just stay put in the central tower, the epicenter of the horror show that part of campus represented. A few drunken students trickled out the doors, dressed in t-shirts and shorts against the winter cold. The trickles conjoined to a stream to a river to an ocean of angry movement and expectant violence. Shortly thereafter the crowd was ordered to disperse by the UMass police department, these guys essentially state police and not your standard college cops. They predictably failed to exit. That's when the smoke came.
I don't know if it was a smoke screen or what, but when people breathed it in they gasped and they choked, they covered their faces with their t-shirts and their eyes were reddened and they rushed for the nearest place away from the smoke they could find. It was my building. Dozens of the smart ones flooded through the doors and they brought the thick grey smoke with them, they rushed past the desk and there was nothing our little security desk could do to stop the tide of bodies. I was yelling at the top of my lungs, which is loud, but with any prolonged burst of my voice like that it would quickly give way from either strain or struggling to breath through the smoke. Whatever I would need to do the rest of the night would need to be done through a hoarse whisper.
Eventually the doors closed and hundres of people still stood outside, yelling and throwing things at the police. The lobby of the building was encased by enormous windows and spectators who just wanted to see what happened next were standing and staring at the event. I couldn't blame them, it was a uniquely terrifying sight to see a line of police, complete with helmets and riot gear, advance on a crowd of raging drunks. I wondered if they all hoped for both sides to annihilate each other quite like I did. But people were digging up chunks of that ugly cement, looking like a petrified granola bar covering the whole area, they were throwing it. I kicked the reluctant onlookers out of their spots and sent them to the upper floors, the box seats. Five minutes later the first window was shattered.
It was a big chunk of that cement tossed through thick glass above our heads. It rained down and clinked upon the floor to be crushed under the hiking boots I wore every day at that job for comfort against all the walking we normally would do. I pocketed a small bit of the concrete that I still keep as a souvenier in my car. More rocks and more glass would follow. You see, we had uniforms, dorky gaudy things like putty colored jackets and maroon security hats. My belt was filled with cell phones and flashlights and radios and keys and for all the lack of weaponry about my person everyone insisted on believing I carried handcuffs or pepper spray. That thin stupid jacket was a bulls eye that night because it wasn't the first time they thought of me as a fascist; me, whose job it was to merely lock the doors and keep the building monitors company at two o'clock in the morning on a Saturday.
None of them ever got me, their eyes too lazily unfocused on the menacing figures of mounted or marching police. There were more of them now, not just UMPD but Massachusetts State Police. They brought their pepperballs and I was amazed at the ability of the weapons to really send people fleeing. The riot had faded and most involved escaped to the safety of friends' rooms after causing over $100,000 in damage, broken glass and smashed book cases, torn up pavement. I ended my night like any other and went back to the security office that we shared with UMPD to exchange tales with the other guys in my area. We went to a 24 hour Dunkin Donuts and talked for a while before returning to Southwest at five in the morning.
More striking than the outfitted police was the desolate ruination of what was supposed to house upcoming minds of society. Windows were shattered on every reachable surface, still smoking piles of rubbish and casings of smoke grenades, a loaf of Wonderbread crushed and toilet paper strewn about, a book case thrown through the door of the cafe. None of us spoke making our way across the center of the mess, unlike the minutes before as we told our stories or the days after when they were the talk of the university.
I'm telling you this Cain because this is the stuff that once affected change. It was the behavior once driven by powerful views and conviction, knowledge that things can't continue along the same path and catalyzed by one too many acts of oppression. But not any longer. Now it's fools upset about a football game, their cause a trivial sports defeat. I like to tell myself that the rage was about so many other things, not the championships, but our criminally rising fees and our increasingly diminished control over the university, that the game just gave us a way to manifest it all. I just don't think I can tell myself those kinds of lies anymore though.