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I Got Tear-Gassed by Ronald Reagan

Dean Chavers tells the story of how he was tear gassed at the height of Vietnam protests in the 60s at UC Berkeley.

I never liked Ronald Reagan and still don’t. The fact that he tear-gassed me had a little to do with it. But it wasn't personal. I thought he was a phony and a Johnny-come-lately conservative.

After Reagan had served as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) as a left-wing Democrat, he married his second wife, Nancy Davis. She was from a wealthy family who were all conservative Republicans. In less than a year, Reagan was spouting the Republican line. In his left-wing days, he had friends who were soft on Communism; he turned them in and helped to get them blacklisted.

In 1947, Guild President Ronald Reagan, center, with fellow Guild officers, left to right: 3rd VP George Murphy, 1st VP Gene Kelly and 2nd VP William Holden.

The “Hollywood Ten,” which were eventually about 200 people, were blacklisted in Hollywood for decades. Some of the most talented people in Hollywood could not work in films for years. The initial list included Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Lester Cole, Maurice Rapf, Howard Koch, John Wexley, Harold Buckman, Henry Meyers, Ring Lardner Jr., Harold Salemson, and Theodore Strauss.

Actor Reagan, the president of the SAG, cartoonist Walt Disney, the inventor of Mickey Mouse and the owner of the Disney Studios, and actor Adolphe Menjou testified on the influence of Communism in the film industry as early as 1947. They went before the disreputable House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and ratted out their fellow directors, writers, producers, and actors.

History, of course, has denounced the HUAC as a witch hunt, but it was very real at the time to the people on the blacklist. HUAC, started by the disreputable Martin Dies of Texas, had a bunch of bullies on the committee. They were about as disreputable a group as ever disgraced the U.S. Congress. Ironically, Dies’s sidekick and co-founder of the committee, Samuel Dickstein, was later proved to be a member of the Communist Party. They were supposed to investigate both Communists and the Ku Klux Klan. But they did little investigating of the Klan, claiming it was “an old American institution.”

Gossip columnists like Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper soon began printing the names of people they thought were Communists. Without being able to defend themselves dozens of people found themselves unable to work in the film industry. It was a legal lynching. Reagan was a full supporter of the HUAC from its beginning.

Some of the people on the Hollywood Ten list had to leave the country, either because of threats or because they could not make a living in Hollywood. Others got around the blacklist years later by using aliases or presenting their work under other people’s names. Trumbo, as it turned out, finally got back to work and produced some of Hollywood’s greatest epics.

I was in California when Reagan was getting ready to run for governor. When I came back three years later to stay for 10 years, he was governor nearly the whole time. He had won largely by claiming he would clean up the mess at Berkeley. The worst mess that had happened at Berkeley was when Mario Savio led the “Free Speech” movement starting in 1964. The impertinence of the students was enough to set Reagan off. He also promised to put welfare bums back to work. The two issues got him elected twice.

Mario Savio and members of the Free Speech Movement, circa 1964

He wanted all the protesting students at Berkeley thrown off the campus and disenrolled. When UC President Clark Kerr refused to do it, Reagan fired him. Kerr was fired three weeks after Reagan was sworn in as governor. The Free Speech Movement, it turned out, was a mild protest compared to the protests against the war in Vietnam that started in 1969.

Mario Savio under arrest during his participation in the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkley, circa 1964

Students at Berkeley started protesting the bombing in Cambodia the spring after I got there in 1968. Little did they know, but the bombing in Cambodia was already two years old by that time. We first went in there in late in 1967 or early 1968. I was in the B-52 squadrons from Turner Air Force Base, Georgia, and Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi from 1966 to 1968. I flew 138 missions into South Vietnam, North Vietnam, and Cambodia between 1966 and 1968. We were sworn to top secrecy, of course, and I could not say anything while we were in Nam or at Berkeley about it.

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Mario Savio under arrest during his participation in the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkley, circa 1964

What a shock to me to go from right wing Air Force people to liberal hippies at Berkeley. I watched Jerry Rubin, the Yippie guy, burn his draft card for the tenth time on the steps of Sproul Hall at noon. Abbie Hoffman, his sidekick, also made speeches at noon at Sproul in the fall of 1968. Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther and author of the bestseller Soul on Ice was a Sproul noon speaker, as was Bobby Seale of the Panthers. It was a hippie circus every day. After a few times, I stopped attending. I got a full-time job to support myself, and had no time for campus hijinks.

I did not participate in the anti-bombing protests. But Reagan as governor of California stationed a couple of hundred burly members of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) just south of Eshelman Hall just off the campus.

The main thing that happened to me during the strike was getting pepper gassed. I was going home one day after class past a crew of Ronald Reagan’s finest highway patrolmen. They were shoulder-to-shoulder outside the Student Union building when I passed. I walked across to the other side of the street.

Just as I got into the parking lot someone yelled “Pig!” and the highway patrolmen charged us. I started running and just as I hit the middle of the parking lot, one of the cops threw a pepper gas canister over our heads. It hit right in front of me and exploded into my face. It immediately blinded me, and I fell down. Someone led me on across the street, where an elderly lady was watering her lawn. She irrigated my eyes for the next 10 minutes, and gradually I could see again. That was in the spring of 1969.

Protests against Vietnam in 1969 at the University of California, Berkeley.

But what a horrible thought. I could not see anything at first, and thought I would be permanently blind. What a relief when I could see again! My last physical in the Air Force showed my vision to be 20/5, which is super eyesight. It put me into the top one percent of people as far as vision, the eye examiner technician told me. I wonder if the gassing had anything to do with me needing glasses later.

Does anyone wonder why I still hate Ronald Reagan? He had declared war on Berkeley students for having the audacity to say that the war in Vietnam should stop. Students also said we should have ethnic studies taught on the campuses. His arrogance and cynicism, unfortunately, got him all the way to the White House.

The following year Professor Herb Jacobs took our class of journalism students to Sacramento to attend Reagan’s weekly press conference. After it was over he stopped where we were in the back of the room, and we got to talk to him for five minutes. Tim, our most audacious student reporter, asked him why he had cut student financial aid in his budget.

Reagan said, “Aw, we didn’t cut financial aid. We just cut the rate of growth before it bankrupted us.” Reagan had his hair plastered down as he always did, and some of the pomade had dripped down his sideburns. I was less than impressed with him.

The next thing we knew, Reagan had sent CHP officers and the National Guard in to occupy the whole city of Berkeley. The cause was the so-called People’s Park, which Reagan could not stand. This was the height of arrogance—for hippies to declare that the park belonged to them.

It was on the university campus. Campus radicals and street people had occupied it that spring, and declared it a free zone. On May 16, Reagan sent a contingent of flak-jacketed CHP people, Alameda County deputies, and campus police to re-take the park. They were armed with tear gas launchers, shotguns, and telescopic rifles. They ran all the civilians off, and built an eight-foot fence around the park.

The next day, the student body president called for the liberation of the park at a rally on the campus. For his temerity, he was indicted for inciting a riot. The police force was beefed up first thing in the day, and soon had 600 people in it. They fired into the crowd, blinding one person and killing James Rector. The police wounded an additional 90 people with gunfire and clubs before the end of the day. The cops fired shotgun slugs into the library and other buildings; slugs can cut you in half. The excessive force was never necessary.

Associated Press

An image from the People's Park confrontation taken May 22, 1969.

Reagan lived up to his promise to take Berkeley back from the crazy radicals. It’s too bad they had to kill James Rector in the process. I will never forgive him for that. People’s Park is still an eyesore and a bone of contention even today. It’s a battle between the free spirits and the heavily-armed disciples of Ronald Reagan.

Lucky for us, he could do nothing about our occupation of Alcatraz Island the next fall. That must have stuck in his dried-up craw.

Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship and school improvement program based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. CTD has grants for math and science teaching and for reading improvement this year. It has 150 Native American students on scholarships at colleges all over the U.S., but does not have enough applicants. His next book “The American Indian Dropout,” will be published in the fall of 2013 by Peter Lang Publishers. His e-mail is