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On Being Busted at Fifty

The same considerations which had led to the repeal of Prohibition early in the following decade, seemed to me to demand a change in the laws controlling the consumption of marijuana in 1967. Certainly I felt this with special urgency as one committed to limiting rather than extending or preserving the possibilities of alienation, hypocrisy, and lawlessness for the young. Moreover, I was convinced that if the University could not provide a forum for the calm and rational discussion of the real issues involved, the debate about the legalization of marijuana would continue on the same depressing level of hysteria and sensationalism on which it had begun. Finally, even if I had disagreed totally with its aims, I would have become faculty adviser to any intellectually respectable group that found as much difficulty as LEMAR was apparently having in persuading someone to take on the responsibility.

As a matter of fact, it depressed and baffled me that a score of applicants for the post of faculty adviser had not already stepped forward; though the student leaders of the organization explained to me that there was real cause for fear on the part of reluctant faculty members that sanctions might in fact be taken against them. But what sanctions, I asked in my innocence, could possibly be taken? A few anonymous letters to the President of the University calling for dismissal? Another indignant “editorial” on TV or in the Press? I began to learn soon enough and in an odd way, when an application I was making for an insurance policy was turned down, though my health was fine and my credit good. The letter from the life insurance company was vague and discreet: “like to be able to grant every request…not always possible…many factors must be taken into consideration…I am sorry indeed…” But private conversations with people involved made it quite clear that at the moment of associating myself with LEMAR I had become to the pious underwriters a “moral risk,” unworthy of being insured.

While I was considering whether my civil rights had in fact been infringed, and whether I should make an appeal to the American Civil Liberties Union—the local head of the narcotics squad (a man more vain and ambitious than articulate) had been attempting to argue down the students in public debates organized by LEMAR, and had ended in baffled rage, crying out, according to the student head of LEMAR who was his interlocuter: “Don’t worry kid—when we get you LEMAR guys, it’s gonna be on something bigger than a little pot-possession,” and “Yeah—there are some of those professors out at U.B.—bearded beatnik Communists. I wouldn’t want any of my kids to go out there, but that’s all right—they’ll be gotten rid of.”

THE ISSUES are clearly drawn—not criminal issues at all in the first instance, but differences of opinion and style felt to be critical enough to be settled by police methods, even if this requires manufacturing a case. After all, what other way is there to cope with an enemy who is bearded (i.e., contemptuous of convention and probably cleanliness as well), and “beat” (i.e., dangerously abberant), and a Communist (i.e., convinced of ideas more liberal than those of the speaker), and—worst of all—a professor (i.e., too smart for his own good, too big for his britches, etc., etc.). Indeed, the case against one bearded professor at least was being “prepared” for quite a while. The statements quoted above were made on April 18 and April 20, and on April 29, the day of the arrest, a spokesman for the police was reported as having said that for ten days my house, watched off and on for “months,” had been under “twenty-four-hour surveillance”—a scrutiny rewarded (according to police statements in the press) by the observation of “many persons, mostly young, going in and out….” All of which seems scarcely remarkable in a household with six children, each equipped with the customary number of friends.

What is remarkable is to live under “surveillance,” a situation in which privacy ceases to exist and any respect for the person and his privileges yields to a desire to “get rid of” someone with dangerous ideas. Slowly I had become aware of the fact that my phone kept fading in and out because it was probably being tapped; that those cars turning around in nearby driveways or parked strategically so that their occupants could peer in my windows, though unmarked, belonged to the police; that the “bread van” haunting our neighborhood contained cops; and that at least one “friend” of my children was a spy.

It was the police themselves who had released to the press (the unseemly desire for publicity overcoming discretion and reticence) the news that this “friend,” a seventeen-year-old girl with a talent for lies, had been coming in and out of our house with a two-way radio—picking up all conversations within her range, no matter how private, and whether conducted by members of my household or casual visitors. She had the habit of disappearing and reappearing with a set of unconvincing and contradictory stories about what exactly had happened to her (she had been in the hospital for a V.D. cure; she had been in jail; she had been confined to an insane asylum; she had been beaten up by incensed old associates)—but always she seemed so lost and homeless and eager for someone to show some signs of concern that it seemed impossible ever to turn her out. For me, the high point—the moment of ultimate indignity—in the whole proceedings came at my last Passover Seder when, just after I had spoken the traditional lines inviting all who were hungry to come in and eat, the “friend” had entered, bearing (we now know) her little electronic listening device, to drink our wine and share our unleavened bread.

The ironies are archetypal to the point of obviousness (one of my sons claims we were thirteen at table, but this I refuse to admit to myself), embarrassingly so. I prefer to reflect on the cops at their listening post (in the bread van?) hearing the ancient prayers: “Not in one generation alone have they risen against us, but in every generation…. This year we are slaves, next year we shall be free!” I cannot resist reporting, however, that at the end of the evening, the electronically equipped “friend” said to me breathlessly, “Oh, Professor, thank you. This is only the second religious ceremony I ever attended in my life.” (My wife has told me since that the first was the lighting of Channukah candles at our house.)

Fair enough, then, that the first really vile note I received after my arrest and the garbled accounts of it in the local newspapers (made worse by a baseless reference to “trafficking in drugs” in the initial release from the University concerning my case) should have struck an anti-Semitic note, reading, “You goddamned Jews will do anything for money.” Though I had not really been aware of the fact, anti-Semitism was already in the air and directed toward the University of which I was a member. (Hate mail from an organization calling itself MAM, or more fully, Mothers Against Myerson, had already begun to refer to Martin Myerson, the President of our University, as “that Red Jew from Berkeley”). It was all there, ready to be released: hostility to the young, fear of education and distrust of the educated, anti-Semitism, anti-Negroism, hatred for “reds” and “pinkos,” panic before those who dressed differently, wore their hair longer, or—worst of all—dissented from current received ideas.

I SHOULD HAVE BEEN PREPARED by my experiences only a few weeks before the police invasion of my home, by some of the responses I got over the telephone when I had agreed to explain the nature and purposes of LEMAR and to comment generally on the culture of the young over one of those three-hour question-and-answer radio programs which appear to bring out all the worst in all the worst elements in any community. The tone of the whole thing was set by the letter of invitation in which the conductor of the program ended by saying that he could not understand why a man so often quoted by Time-Life would agree to act as faculty adviser to LEMAR, or in his terms “would willingly take up the posture of Pied Piper to those young louts….”

Still I was not merely distressed but astonished when, just as I was recovering from being mugged, fingerprinted, misquoted, and televised, I received an anonymous letter purporting to be from “a group of Central Park neighbors,” which began by assuring me that I and my children were “condemned to a ghetto life,” went on to refer to their Negro friends (two of whom were also arrested after the police broke into my house) as “the colored, thieving and prostituting for a ratish living…”; and concluded: “If Myerson doesn’t dispose of you and you leave our neighborhood in a reasonable length of time be assured of total harassment….” What such “total harassment” involves has teased my imagination—though I begin to have a clue or two, since having received only recently a notice that our homeowner’s insurance policy was being canceled out of hand (in the extra-legal world of the insurance companies, all men are presumed guilty until proven innocent), which would mean—unless we can replace it—the loss of our mortgage.

In this context of abject fear and pitiful hatred, the actual arrest, the charges, the legal maneuvering and courtroom appearances seem of minor importance, however annoying and time-consuming they may be. The elements of enticement, entrapment, planting of “evidence,” etc., involved in “the well-prepared case” of the police will be revealed if and when the matter comes to trial (it is now adjourned until September 5), and the charges against my wife and me, my children and their friends are, as they must be, dismissed. Meanwhile it seems proper and appropriate only to repeat a couple of paragraphs from a letter I wrote to Time after they had published an account of the events which seemed to me to verge on slander, a correction which they shortened and slightly altered:

When the police recently broke into my home in Buffalo, after weeks of unseemly surveillance, they did not discover—as your columns erroneously reported—anything remotely resembling a “pot-and-hashish Party.” They found rather my wife, my oldest son, my daughter-in-law and me at the point of setting out for the movies, and another son plus two friends at widely scattered places in a large and rambling house. That second son—absurdly charged with “possession of marijuana”—far from indulging in some wild orgy, happened to be in the process of taking a bath.

The context of your article suggested that university students may have been involved in the events; this is untrue. It further seemed to imply that I was smoking pot. This is also without basis in fact. Neither my wife nor I has ever used or possessed an illegal drug, nor are we charged with this even in the case manufactured by the police. What we are accused of is “maintaining a premise”—i.e., keeping up the mortgage payments and maintaining in good repair our home in which other people are alleged to have been in possession of marijuana.

Beyond this legal considerations forbid my going at the moment, though I suppose two items could be added without indiscretion. First, I was initially surprised and pleased that the cops did not tear my first-floor study apart after they had crashed in on me: I attribute their unlooked-for courtesy either to a lurking respect for professors (they were only really rough—as could have been predicted—with the two Negro boys in the house at the time), or to their being unnerved at finding themselves for once in so grand a neighborhood (one of them could not help exclaiming in awe, “You can bet this is the biggest house I ever seen!”). But I have learned since, alas, that their whole “search” of the premises was a perfunctory sham—except on the third floor, where their young agent had been sent in an hour before the bust to leave a “little present” of marijuana, and where, she had assured them (exiting just five minutes before), it safely reposed. And second, the movie we were headed for was Casino Royale—a spy and pursuit film which, for obvious reasons, we have felt no need to see since.

I do not mean to say that even the courtroom is not penetrated by the hysteria that affects the community; at our original arraignment, for instance, a respectable judge was disturbed enough to lose all sense of decorum and to lecture those attending the proceedings (quite as if he were speaking over the heads of a group of condemned criminals) on the folly of considering a university a place where one learns “through the sweat of marijuana smoke…. They are taught this is not habit-forming. The records indicate otherwise.” There is, finally, little doubt that agencies entrusted with law-enforcement have in Buffalo become instrumental in creating an atmosphere in which not only I, but my wife and children are persecuted and chivvied (largely for the simple fault of being my wife and children), my whole life at home and at school harried—quite as if we were all living in a Nazi or Communist totalitarian state supervised by Thought Police.

Even my children’s friends have had to pay for their friendship, as the police have diligently tried to shore up their shaky case. One of them, as a matter of fact, was arrested before the 29th of April in the company of the same teeny-bopper spy who swore out our warrant; though it remains unclear whether this was a rehearsal for her, or the occasion of recruiting her for “police work.” Since our arrest, there have been a couple more: one of a girl who plays in the same rock-and-roll group as my youngest son—the most shameless frame-up of all, in which, according to her story, the police simply broke down her door, walked into the middle of her living room, plunked down a packet of marijuana on a table, and looking up with a smirk, said, “Hey, see what we found!” More publicized was the second, which involved the arrest in their farmhouse home of what the police called “the operator of an electronic-psychedelic nightclub” and his wife—along with two of my sons and my daughter-in-law who had just come to call.

Quite as interesting to the cops as a “loose substance which will be analyzed to determine if it is marijuana, and several tablets and pills which will also be analyzed” were such other dangerous materials, which they confiscated along with them, as a pack of Tarot cards, some jars of macrobiotic foods, and “a lot of psychedelic literature,” i.e., several copies of a volume of short stories written by “the operator of an electronic-psychedelic night-club.” The local press found even more intriguing and, apparently, damning the exotic furniture of the place (“…there were mattresses on the floor, there were short-legget [sic] tables…candles were burning and there was incense in the room…”) and the garb worn by those arrested (“a long white cotton robe…a kimono…a black and white mini-skirt with black net stockings…”hippie-type” sportswear, including tight-fitting denim trousers…”). That the “tight-fitting denim trousers” were nothing more nor less than garden-variety blue jeans the magic word “psychedelic” concealed from the titillated readers of the Courier-Express; and the adjective “hippie-type” glossed it for others less literate but equally convinced that all who dress differently from themselves are guilty even though ultimately found innocent—especially guilty if devious enough to convince the courts that they are less insidious than their clothes declare them.

YET THIS IS NOT the whole story; for everywhere there is a growing sense (especially as the police in their desperation grow more and more outrageous) that not I and my family, but the police themselves and those backward elements in the community, whose panic and prejudice they strive vainly to enforce, are on trial. The ill-advised remarks of the police court judge at my arraignment, for instance, brought an immediate rebuke and an appeal to the local Bar Association for “appropriate action” from a professor of Law who happened to be present. And my own University has stood by me with a sense that not only my personal freedom but the very atmosphere of freedom on which learning depends is imperiled.

When there was some talk at an earlier stage of the game of “suspending” me pending an investigation, my own department served notice that they would meet no classes unless I could meet mine; the Student Senate voted to strike in sympathy if the need arose, and the Graduate Students Association seconded them. In the end, the President of the University announced that, “on the advice of the Executive Committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and after consultation with the State University attorneys and Chancellor Samuel B. Gould,” no action against me was warranted. The ground for this decision was, he indicated, “the American heritage of fair play in which a man is considered innocent until proved otherwise”; and for the ground as well as the decision, he won the overwhelming support and admiration of his faculty—some of whom, however, were prepared to go just a little further and insist on the principle advocated by the American Association of University Professors: “Violations of the civil or criminal law may subject the faculty member to civilian sanctions, but this fact is irrelevant to the academic community unless the infraction also violates academic standards….”

Meanwhile, letters, phone calls, and telegrams had been pouring in to both President Meyerson and me (for the first forty hours after my arrest I received not a single hostile or malicious message) from the faculties of America’s great colleges and from many schools abroad—all expressing solidarity and the conviction that at stake was the future of a major university and of higher education as well as my personal fate. Even in Buffalo itself I have begun to sense of late a considerable shift of opinion in my favor—not merely on the part of other teachers and those professionals closest to us, like clergymen and psychiatrists, but from every sector of the population; as it becomes clearer and clearer that the unendurably vague charge of “maintaining a premise” (what high school or university would not fall under it?) has been invented to justify the malicious persecution of dissenting opinion.

Needless to say, my awareness of this growing support lifts up my sagging spirits. I have no taste for martyrdom; I do not know how to find pleasure in suffering even for the best of causes; and I find it harder and harder to laugh at even the most truly comic aspects of my situation. But if the Keystone Comedy being played out around me can be turned into an educational venture (education being, hopefully, an antidote to fear itself) which will persuade the most abjectly prejudiced that everyone, even a college professor advocating a change in the law, is entitled to full freedom of speech—then the shameless invasion of my privacy, the vindictive harassment of my family, and the (perhaps inevitable) misrepresentation of all of us in the press will have been worth enduring.

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