i met dolores huerta when she still had her spleen
The event was President George Bush's campaign swing through the Golden $tate, and many Bay Area groups were meeting and greeting him San Francisco-style, with nasty signs and slogans. A bunch of union loyalists were carrying "Dukakis for President" signs and chanting, "We Like Mike!" (One fellow started shouting, "We Like Jesse!" which earned him some dirty looks.) ACT-UP was there with their whistles and shouts of "Shame!" A corps of drummers kept up an incessant racket. Food Not Bombs served up wholesome food to all.
In short, it was a typical response to a visit by an incumbent Republican fat cat.
Bob Stern and I were there as reporters for KPFA News. We didn't expect anything out of the ordinary and so far, this demonstration was business as usual. We went into the lobby of the Sir Francis and found a phone to file a quickie report at the top of the 6:00 News. We felt the eyes of a few dozen secret service agents following our every move. (Bob might have stood out from the well-groomed crowd, with his tie-dyed t-shirt and waist-length hair…)
Then we sauntered back out, and were surveying the demonstrating crowd from the steps of the Sir Francis when we were asked that question:
"Are you with the media?"
Yes, of course we were. So the tall, well-mannered gentleman introduced himself, and then his companion: "This is Dolores Huerta, the Vice President of the United Farm Workers. She'd like to talk to you about George Bush and his campaign." We turned our microphone toward this tiny person, who opened up her mouth and let fly a dozen wonderful reasons not to trust (or vote for) George Bush, barely bothering to take a breath as she concisely and passionately put forth her thoughts.
That day on the campaign trail, George Bush had swung through Dolores's beloved Central Valley -- and Dolores had swung right behind him, listening to all his promises and seeing through all his lies. Bob and I shared a smile. This lady was giving us some great tape.
In a couple of minutes she was done. We thanked her, and she disappeared into the crowd.
Almost immediately, the S.F. police announced that we should all evacuate the exits of the hotel. That made sense. Bob bounded across the street, and I moved down to the sidewalk.
Then, for some reason I still don't understand, the cops decided it was time to clear the sidewalk. Okay. No problem.
Oh, except -- problem. There are people in front of me, officer. I'm trying to clear the sidewalk, really I am, but there are people in front of me. And still, more people were pushing against me. The crowd became so compacted I felt I could lift my feet off the ground and I would have remained upright.
Push. Push. Push.
Eventually I was scraping up against a concrete tree planter. I had nowhere to go, and was still being pushed. As I contemplated my skinned shins I felt a THUD, somebody's elbow HARD in my back. I thought, "Hey man, I know it's crowded but there's no reason to get physical!" I turned to tell the guy behind me just that when I saw that I had been poked hard not by an errant elbow, but by the business end of a billy club.
That's when I lost it. I've never been a particularly impartial reporter, but what I shouted at that moment involved base profanity and allusions to a police state. With a huge burst of adrenaline I leaped over the concrete planter, darted under a barricade, and crossed the street to where Bob Stern was standing.
"Wow, that looked a little hairy," Bob said. "What happened?"
I told him how they had cleared the sidewalk without warning, how I'd been hit with the club, and how, as I jumped over the barrier, I'd heard a woman yelling, screaming with outrage: "HOW COULD YOU HIT HER? HOW COULD YOU HIT HER?!?"
So we knew there was probably an injury. Then word rippled through the crowd that a woman had been taken away in an ambulance. Only later did we learn that the injured woman was Dolores Huerta. She had been beaten so badly that doctors had to remove her spleen.
Imagine that: you meet this dynamic woman, and two minutes later the cops beat the spleen out of her.
The adrenaline rush was still going when I was back home watching the KRON Eleven O'Clock News. Those sneaky bastards. As the cops began their maneuver I had watched them systematically removing TV cameras from the sidewalk area before they began poking the crowd. But Channel 4's cameraman (bless you, dude) snuck back onto the sidewalk while the police were distracted with the crowd. And this one nasty cop got caught on video, doing a number on Dolores Huerta.
And as I watched the news that night, I watched myself. I saw me in my black jacket, with my goofy '88 perm, exactly right next to Dolores Huerta right before she was first struck. I watched myself leaping away in slow-motion as the club descended on her. A lump grew in my throat. That poke on my back … that cop warmed up on me.
But I was too big, physically. Petite Dolores would be such a better target for one's rage.
Or could it be this guy knew who she was, knew what an effective political fighter she was…?
Regardless of that cop's motives, his actions were inhuman.
Dolores recovered and is still talkin' the talk and walkin' the walk. But she's no fool. She got herself a lawyer. And the lawyer gave me a call. And I went to a hotel room to tell her lawyer what I'd seen. He seemed pleased with our conversation.
"The cops were out of control that day," he told me. "Y'wanna see something else?" and he pulled out a videotape and popped it into the VCR.
An African-American woman is walking down the street quietly, doing a little window-shopping. She's clearly not a demonstrator; she seems oblivious to the demonstration at the corner behind her.
A cop runs up behind her, clasps her hands together behind her with one hand, and whips her white knit shirt over her head with the other. She is rendered blind and exposed in one smooth action. He pushes her up against the wall.
She didn't even see him coming. She was utterly ambushed.
Yep, I guess that covers it: "The cops were out of control that day."
The lawyer turned off the TV and popped out the videotape. He had a wry smile as he pointed to the screen where we'd just watched the black woman so rudely and expertly violated. "We're representing her, too," he said.
"Are you with the media?"
If anyone ever asks you that question, whether you're a working reporter or not, take my advice and say YES. Chances are you'll be given access to areas forbidden to mere mortals, or at least meet somebody famous and/or amazing.
It's the question I was asked in September 1988, outside the Sir Francis Drake Hotel on Union Square in San Francisco. The man asking the question was a tall, friendly guy accompanying a tiny, quiet lady. Both wore simple clothes and sincere expressions.