Occupy L.A. Gets a Reprieve, Poet Laureate Gets Clubbed


Robet Hass, once (and future?) Poet Laureate.

This morning's 12:01 deadline for the Los Angeles Police Department to clear Occupy L.A. out of the City Hall area came and went, and the Occupiers are still camped out. 

Reason's Paul Detrick was with the campers throughout the non-ordeal and will have a video up soon.

In recent weeks, relations have been fraying between Occupy L.A. and a police force that seems to be rapidly losing its reputation as America's most brutal and corrupt.

This Reason.tv video shows some of the tensions during a recent march around Downtown L.A.: 

As part of the group on that shoot, I have to say that the cops pretty effectively managed the challenge of maintaining civil peace while allowing a group of protestors to march in public streets. There were some arrests, and a few instances where I didn't appreciate the high-handed manner of the police, but at least on that day, the Occupiers had their march with a minimum of negative impact on local businesses or visitors (who in any event tend to be sparse in one of the least interesting downtowns in America).

This continues the generally positive feeling between the government and the government-loving Occupiers which I noted in a previous post, and which was the subject of another Reason.tv video:


In fact, I think the city of L.A. should be required to put up with the Occupiers indefinitely. Nobody forced the City Council to rush through a resolution in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement in October, and it's not clear the Council was responding to any outcry from constituents. I don't see any way the Council members and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa can square their apparent eagerness to end the Occupation now with their enthusiasm for the Occupation a month ago. They welcomed the unwashed, uninvited guests. Now let them live with that decision until City Hall's last toilet overflows. 

Percy Dovetonsils, our nation's greatest poet laureate.

Up in Berkeley, it's a different story. Former Poet Laureate Robert Hass details how he got manhandled by Berkeley's finest (now there's a phrase I never expected to type) a while back: 

My wife bounced nimbly to her feet. I tripped and almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. Particularly shocking to me — it must be a generational reaction — was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines.

NONE of the police officers invited us to disperse or gave any warning. We couldn't have dispersed if we'd wanted to because the crowd behind us was pushing forward to see what was going on. The descriptor for what I tried to do is "remonstrate." I screamed at the deputy who had knocked down my wife, "You just knocked down my wife, for Christ's sake!" A couple of students had pushed forward in the excitement and the deputies grabbed them, pulled them to the ground and cudgeled them, raising the clubs above their heads and swinging. The line surged. I got whacked hard in the ribs twice and once across the forearm. Some of the deputies used their truncheons as bars and seemed to be trying to use minimum force to get people to move. And then, suddenly, they stopped, on some signal, and reformed their line. Apparently a group of deputies had beaten their way to the Occupy tents and taken them down. They stood, again immobile, clubs held across their chests, eyes carefully meeting no one's eyes, faces impassive. I imagined that their adrenaline was surging as much as mine.

My ribs didn't hurt very badly until the next day and then it hurt to laugh, so I skipped the gym for a couple of mornings, and I was a little disappointed that the bruises weren't slightly more dramatic. It argued either for a kind of restraint or a kind of low cunning in the training of the police. They had hit me hard enough so that I was sore for days, but not hard enough to leave much of a mark. 

I can't say much for the inventiveness of Hass' imagery. Alameda County Sheriff's deputies are described as wearing "Darth Vader armor," and a row of balloons is described as "almost lyrical" – a term that always sounds fancily meaningless when used to describe physical objects. Nor is there much to get excited about in Hass' political diagnoses. (It turns out Reaganomics is to blame.) But I may be too harsh because I'm skeptical of the poet laureate position, which turns a writer into a servant of the state without giving him any actual poetic authority:

[T]he United States doesn't do enough for its national poet. Although the seat has been around since 1937, our instinctively anti-feudal nation resisted the vaguely Dantean title "poet laureate" in favor of "consultant in poetry." In 1986 the post was redubbed "poet laureate consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress"—a title leaden enough to kill the lyrical spirit in every breast.

By any name, the U.S. poet laureate doesn't get much scratch. The compensation package of $35,000 in salary and $5,000 in travel expenses is not funded by taxpayer money. It comes out of a trust fund established in 1936 by the rail and shipping heir Archer M. Huntington. Huntington's original donation of $250,000 in stock has grown at a decent but unspectacular rate: As of 2008 the Huntington Fund, managed by the Bank of New York, was worth $4.6 million. (If you'd like to throw in a few shekels yourself, go to the "Support the Library" link at loc.gov.) Yet the laureate's salary hasn't even kept pace with inflation. The first consultant, Joseph Auslander, made $3,000. That should come to $45,000 in 2009 bucks.

Everything's like that for the American poet laureate. The British laureate gets a "butt of sack" (about 600 bottles of sherry) and is called upon to compose verse for national occasions. (Former laureate Andrew Motion whipped up poems for Queen Elizabeth's 80th birthday and the late Queen Mum's 100th.) The U.S. poet laureate's job, as described by the Library of Congress, is to serve as a "lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans," which sounds dangerously close to having to read unsolicited manuscripts. The laureate's only duty is to give one lecture, during which the Huntington Fund pays for what a Library of Congress spokeswoman calls a "small, cheese-and-crackers reception."

This Quaker leveling instinct applies to tenure as well. In the U.K., laureates hold office for 10 years; they used to hold it for life. The United States, fearful that a poet laureate might amass too much power, term-limits its laureates after only one year.

No doubt in a country where the poet laureate had some teeth, Hass could have sent the cops packing through the sheer power of poetry.