Irvin Sam Schonfeld
© Copyright 2023 by Irvin Sam Schonfeld
Båstads riots, 1968. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The movie ended with Zorba and Basil dancing the sirtaki on a beach in Crete, the spirited Greek having just taught the uptight Englishman how to let loose. It was late when I exited the movie theater in the Quartier Latin. Unexpectedly, tear gas cannisters exploded at my feet. It was Quatorze Juillet, 1968, the French National Day, the day that commemorates the storming of the Bastille. It was difficult to breathe. The exiting moviegoers quickly dispersed in different directions. I ran to a side street to get air fresh enough to breathe. The police were chasing down the young demonstrators who tried to revive the massive anti-government protests that had peaked in May.
Between March and May 1968, a movement took hold in which university students protested the ossified class structure of French society and excessive bureaucratic control over their universities. In the United States, students protested America’s involvement in Vietnam and segregation in the South. In Czechoslovakia, students played a role in the liberalization known as the Prague Spring and the resistance to the Soviet invasion that followed. In France, large numbers of blue-collar workers joined the movement started by students, by engaging in wildcat strikes unauthorized by the labor unions. The government of France was no longer functioning. The nation was on the brink but did not cross the threshold into revolutionary change. By late June, the turmoil had largely subsided.
That July 14 National Day triggered renewed life into the student protests. Having unkempt, dirty blond hair and a curly reddish beard, the police targeted me as a protestor. They started beating me with their clubs. Soon the cops corralled me into the open end of a V-shaped funnel made up of two walls of policemen. At the wide end of the funnel, other policemen who drove the demonstrators, me included, into waiting police vans. The policemen repeatedly hit us with their clubs as we were dragooned in the direction of the paddy wagons. I couldn’t see out of my left eye.
The wagons disgorged us at a police station. I was in the middle of a crowd of demonstrators. I briefly left the crowd and walked up to an officer at a desk to say in American-accented French, Je suis un visiteur à Paris. Je viens de sortir d'un cinéma..., when a policeman, unseen, came up behind me and crowned me with his club. With my bell rung so badly, I dizzily retreated into the crowd of rounded-up demonstrators. For a while, I couldn’t hear. Satisfied they had beaten the shit out of so many of us, the police eventually let us go. Dazed, I walked out of the police station into the acrid-smelling streets. With my good eye, I saw a restaurant and I headed inside. Holding the banister tightly, I descended a flight of stairs and entered the WC. I unloaded a mass of vomit into the toilet and looked in the mirror at remained of my face and head. Then I collapsed on the floor. Some Good Samaritan diners saw me and came downstairs. They tried to comfort me. One of them called for an ambulance.
I spent five days in Hôpital Marmottan. I lay on my back, letting the blood drain from my retina. Then, thanks to the intervention of distant cousin, I was transferred to an ophthalmology unit at Hôpital Bichat, where I spent another five days. The anger I felt toward the police officers boiled inside me. Having spoken French much better when I was 20 years old than I do now, when a hospital administrator spoke to me in such a way as to insinuate that my injuries were my own fault, I responded with fury. Mon père était un soldat américain qui a aidé à libérer la France pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale. C'est ainsi que les Français accueillent son fils? Va te faire foutre [My father was an American soldier who helped liberate France during World War II. Is this how the French welcome his son? Go fornicate yourself!]
As I lay on a hospital bed I thought about how much I miss New York. How much I wanted to get out of Paris. I was homesick. In my thoughts, I would privately sing to myself the words to the Bernstein- Comden-Green number:
New York, New York, a wonderful town
Bronx is up and the Battery's down
I also had fantasies of paying back in kind the policemen who bashed my head in. Fantasies that I never acted on. As I lay in bed, I developed an ability to control my anger and feel a little more at ease. During those quiet moments, when my thoughts weren’t focused on revenge or the New York I sorely missed, I came to appreciate an irony connected to my having been a victim of police violence. During protests against the Vietnam War and in support of Civil Rights for African Americans, I was never once injured by a policeman or anyone else. Yet, here I was. In a hospital bed. I wasn’t even a bystander. I had no advance knowledge that a demonstration would take place. I had been at the movies during the demonstration. And I got clobbered and was on the verge of losing an eye. The irony of my condition also made me think of a story by the existentialist writer Albert Camus. The story, from his book L'exil et le royaume [Exile and the Kingdom], was about a teacher named Darou whose intentions were so completely misinterpreted that his life was put at risk. Of course, it was not lost on me that Camus was known for his ideas about the absurd and how much contingency governs our lives. Camus himself died in an absurd accident, in the passenger seat of a fast car driven by his publisher. Reflecting on my injuries, my anger sometimes curdled into despair. I needed to get the anger back. The anger energized me and made me want to get back on my feet.
A couple of months after I got back home, I met a classmate, a young woman who could not have been taller than 5-2. She was also in Paris on July 14. On a walk in the Latin Quarter that evening, she got swept up by the police. A policeman clubbed with such force that he broke her arm. The injury was so severe that her humerus pierced her skin. The senseless police violence makes you think that the students were right to want to throw out that fucking government.
I was also lucky in one special way. At Hôpital Bichat an ophthalmologist named Gilles Blanluet treated me and saved my left eye. I have forever been thankful that he was my doctor—I visited him twice in Paris long after the events of ’68. Finally discharged, I wore a patch over my eye for a week, and then when I was sufficiently recovered, I wore sunglasses during the day lest my pupil let in too much light and bake my retina. My cousin’s friends invited me to join them on family gatherings in the countryside. They made my last days in Paris relatively pleasant. I got my sea legs. I felt strong.
I had been traveling around Europe by train, ferry, bicycle, and thumb, staying in youth hostels, cheap hotels, and the apartments of people I barely knew. I enjoyed my time meeting girls and viewing the Rembrandts and Van Goghs mounted on the walls of grand museums. A little more than 20 days after the events in the Latin Quarter interrupted those travels, I decided not to go home. I got back on the road. I pushed on to southern France and then to Italy. I wanted to see Florence and Rome.
Every day since July 14, 1968, the memory of what happened to me back then crosses my mind. It is not a memory in CinemaScope. The memory doesn’t take up much of my day. It lives unforgotten in a little corner of my mind. Occasionally, a newsworthy event is broadcast that forces the memory of July 14 into a more prominent place in my thoughts. Although the circumstances were different, my viewing the 1991 video of four white police officers repeatedly clubbing Rodney King, a black man, magnified for a period my memories of my own personal nightmare of police violence. In addition, seeing the video of black gang members, during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, pulling Reginald Denny, a white driver, from his truck and beating him with fists, kicks, a hammer, and a cinder block no less affected me. An event following the attack on Reginald Denny reminded me of the Good Samaritans in the restaurant who cared for me and got an ambulance to take me to the hospital. Terri Barnett, Bobby Green Jr., Titus Murphy, and Lei Yuille, four black residents of South Central, Los Angeles, saved Reginald Denny’s life by driving him to the nearest hospital.
Despite my memories of that awful day, I, like Rodney King, reject violence directed at police officers. The January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol Police is to be condemned. I reject unprovoked violence directed at police officers or civilians. It is equally important to salute and learn from the Good Samaritans who pull us out of the wreckage, individuals like Barnett, Green, Murphy, and Yuille as well as the people in the restaurant who helped me get to a hospital, people whose names I never got to know.
I grew up in a working-class family that lived in a Brooklyn housing project in the 1950s. The project was in the least developed corner of the borough. I was a City boy who for fun hunted frogs and snakes in the freshwater swamps and meadows and brought them home to keep as pets. There were even farms in the neighborhood. My friends and I swiped peaches from local orchards. I sadly observed developers obliterate the swamps, meadows, and farms. What remains of the memories of that time and place are encapsulated in my memoirs. This story has haunted me for decades. I have only just begun to recount it.