Around this time last year, I felt pretty settled into Berkeley as an exchange student from London. Needless to say, a semester of Californian sun beats the dreary overcast clouds of England any day, and in the current season of rainfall and gloom, I often find myself wishing I were back. And so, I’ve found myself reflecting on Berkeley a fair bit recently. But, quite unexpectedly, it hasn’t been college life that I’ve been thinking about.
See, it was soon after New Year’s that I arrived in Berkeley, and while I had come armed with an expectancy of displacement (having flown over 8500 kilometers!), I was greeted with a town that was quite eerily quiet. Of course, I soon came to realize that out of term time, everyone was still making the most of their winter vacation elsewhere around the state or country. In this void of the hustle and bustle of UC Berkeley students, however, was actually when I felt Berkeley had perhaps shown its truest colours, far more shades than the bold blue and gold of the Haas Pavilion’s banners. Allow me to explain.
My first Berkeley interaction is one that I remember most vividly. As for most new students settling in, my first day in town was spent picking up the necessary student essentials. With brand new duvet and pillow in arms, I walked down Shattuck Avenue only to hear unbecoming shouts behind me. “Hey lady,” they called. “It sure is a fine evening tonight.” I had initially brushed it off as heckles from a bored individual who had probably spent a little too much time in Remy’s, but the persistence in his voice forced me to stop and turn around. “Hey, hey, that pillow you got there sure looks hella comfy,” he said. I don’t think I am wrong to say that when meeting anyone for first time, you judge by appearance. This man was in a grimy wife beater and lowriding jeans, which were so threadbare they barely resembled an article of clothing fit for wear. “Hey, I bet that it’s amazing to lay down on.” I’m not quite sure how I was supposed to respond, as if any part of this situation was conventional to begin with. Perhaps it was the persistence, coupled with my own sense of bewilderment and his following rhetoric on how owning a pillow was something he could only “dream of,” but I ended up leaving the engagement wishing him a good night, with the pillow left in his care.
Homelessness is far from unfamiliar to a Londoner, but there was no denying that seeing the dominating presence of street people on Shattuck Avenue, in a town that is “on vacation,” is enough to make anyone susceptible to consciously recognizing its signs. So even when the semester was underway, the street people were a feature of Berkeley that still remained a dominant feature of its character. See, my interaction on Shattuck Avenue was the first of many conversations I would have that would eventually become a regular part of my routine.
My walk to class everyday was via People’s Park, which as most will know, is unofficially presided over by the street community, and if there’s anything to be said about it, it really isn’t the spot for socializing nor does it boast much association with the students. Later, I found out that it had been a space created as part of the Free Speech Movement in 1964. The remnants of any politics are perhaps the murals that line the public toilets there, but many of those living here were those at the forefront of the protests in the 60s. I ended up taking a DeCal while at UC Berkeley and had decided to make a film on the park with a classmate who had even got to know the people around People’s Park by name.
One character of People’s Park is very well known by face in Berkeley. He goes by the Hate Man (named Mark Hawthorne at birth), and research into the street people online revealed him to be a prominent and well-respected figure of Berkeley in the past. Our first conversation with him was largely unconventional. He had outright refused to speak to us for a good 10 minutes, after which he stared at us and shouted, “I hate you.” We took this as an invitation to leave but as we turned around to head out of People’s Park, he demanded that we say it back to him. “I hate you,” we replied rather reluctantly. We then introduced ourselves as two students who had been interested in the park and had simply wondered what living there was like. We were invited to sit with Mark and others with him and subsequently shared a conversation about the Bay Area and eventually got talking about their community. We followed up with several visits and conversations in which he told us about the history of Berkeley, his own story of his career as a reporter for the New York Times and his beliefs in free speech. A quick Google search will reveal how much of a celebrity Mark was. Photos of him at the forefront of prominent protests on Telegraph Avenue and Dwight Way are featured across pages and pages of the image search.
The level of conversation had very quickly opened up a side of The Hate Man that now explains his initially abrupt greeting and the name “Hate Man.” Curiosity took over and reaching a point of comfortability I found myself asking why he had asked us to say, “I hate you.” This was proceeded by the appearance of a man who asked Mark for a cigarette. “You paying or you pushing?” he asked. “Pushing,” came the prompt reply. They proceeded to stand up side by side with their shoulders touching. “Push,” Mark prompted. The man started to push his body weight into Mark’s shoulder, and after a minute Mark handed over a cigarette and the transaction had been made. What was this all about?
“At least when they hate they’re not indifferent.”
— Mark Hawthorne, or, The Hate Man
Mark’s philosophy is this: When you hate someone, you have a cause, a reason or rhyme. You can only hate if you have the remotest of care about that person or for their existence. The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference. Mark explained that his marriage had broken down years ago, and instead of hate, his ex-wife had shown pure indifference toward him. “I wanted her to hate me, because at least then I would have known she cared.” His policy of “pushing” encompasses this philosophy. “When you push for something you show me that you really want something, you are willing to exert a level of aggression for something you really want.” If you are indifferent or complacent, “pushing” is simply not worth the reward you’re after.
It was really easy to come away from People’s Park and go about the day in a rather unchanged manner. It was equally easy to not really think much of Mark or his friends, but now upon reflection, this was the exact indifference Mark had told us about. He would rather be hated than be ignored or thought of with indifference. Admittedly it was a more complex thought process than when taken at face value. In the context of a community and its inner homeless community, hatred doesn’t seem like the solution. Yet what it did highlight was that neither were indifference or ignorance. For the politically correct environment that Berkeley is and actively endorses, hatred toward “others” is certainly not commonplace, as it shouldn’t be. Yet, when communities live side by side, and are simply ignored, we have a situation that perhaps poses as many problems as hatred does. Indifference almost seems far crueller than hate at times. Sure, we preserve political correctness and moral standing by rejecting negativity towards other people, communities, viewpoints, yet we fail to recognize the “otherness” in front of us. It is a pure rejection of understanding.
“I hate you,” I thought as I passed People’s Park for my last time leaving Berkeley for good. I remembered Mark saying, “At least when they hate they’re not indifferent.” Even reflecting on it all now, from that very “hate,” stems a very nonindifference: the concern, attention, esteem and compassion that they had drawn out from me. And that is something I never want to become indifferent towards.
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