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  • by Robert Abzug

    A faint vertigo can settle in when the events of one’s formative years become ripe for the historian’s gaze. I began to feel that dizziness about “the Sixties” as early as the “Eighties,” when the Reagan era sparked a weird nostalgia among some for the wilder years the preceded it, fed in part by the new world of cable television and its MTV and VH1 looping of the prior era’s most creatively orgiastic moments. The dizziness continues to this day as more sophisticated and distanced academic theories “make sense” of what “really happened.” I am sure many are perceptive and in their own way “right,” yet few evoke more visceral memories of those times. I read a recent review that quoted some lines by philosopher Paul Ricoeur, words that put some order to those feelings.

    Under history, memory and forgetting.
    Under memory and forgetting, life.

    Looking over photographs I had taken during the late 1960s and early 1970s in the supercharged atmosphere of Berkeley, I found particularly compelling in this regard a faded Ektachrome, taken at the fence surrounding People’s Park just south of the Berkeley campus (and two blocks from my apartment) because it jogged my memory about life. Those were my graduate school years, during which I supplemented a meager fellowship stipend by freelancing as a photojournalist. I took and sometimes sold versions of the iconic scenes we associate with that time and place--mass rallies and tear gassings, happily orgiastic hippies, steel-faced cops, and angry radicals. Looking at them today, they point me to history, to memory and forgetting, but not to life as Ricoeur surely meant it.

    The quiet surface allows me to contemplate the weird complexities that percolated just below the big stories of Civil Rights, Vietnam, and the shocks and after shocks of a cultural revolution. The struggle over People’s Park, which involved almost every variety of agitation, celebration and violence, was emblematic of Berkeley (and a story too long for this space). However, the mood here seems bizarrely idyllic: gas-masked Berkeley officer in repose, onlookers calmly chatting, strolling, and perusing the scene. A friend told me that the woman on crutches was the late Josephine Miles, a remarkable poet and teacher and champion of the Park. I doubt that—my memory of Miles is of an older woman—but the idea of poet and cop peacefully crossing paths at the fence makes me wish it were true.
    Almost idyllic. The puzzlement I read in these faces causes me to feel something invisible—the aching anxiety endemic to those times, the sense of no limits, the apocalyptic dread and paradoxical sense of freedom, elbow room beyond anyone’s elbows, the ooze and the frenzy. Bathed in the crystalline light of a lifted morning fog, I gaze at these faces and feel a certain dazed distraction in each as they stand among the ruins and wonder what comes next.
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