I didn’t come to Berkeley a pacifist.
I rode the bus past the Nuclear-Free Zone sign on my first day, thinking that I’d really like to be a pacifist. My friends and I have been involved in nonviolent action all over the country. My heroes are those people who transcend violence and have patiently and peacefully sat and spoken until power bent and listened. I deeply appreciate those people in my life and in the world who are out there turning the other cheek, passively resisting, being hauled away in handcuffs while they sing.
But I am not one of them.
I came to Berkeley with a temper that builds up and goes off like a Pacific Rim volcano — which is to say, smoke and ashes often, only occasionally turning villagers into cinders. My heart is full of wrath and always has been. Every day, while I am cheerfully apologizing and behaving like a good citizen, in my mind I am smashing someone’s Adam’s apple with my elbow because he was rude or strangling the kid on BART playing music on his phone at full whining volume.
It is with this wrathful heart that I came to the shooting range.
A range isn’t an easy thing to find in this Nuclear-Free-Speech-Movement Zone. I settled first for the archery range in the Oakland hills. My friends and I took our respective crossbows, compound bows and longbows and spent a gorgeous drizzly day on the deserted range. My violent heart was gladdened every time I sunk an arrow deep into the bundled fibers of the target, breathing into my arrows the frustrations and rage I spare my fellow man.
Bows are catharsis for only my gentlest furies, and we spent a good deal of our time hunting in the bushes for our lost arrows. But what I really wanted was a gun range. An item on my Berkeley Bucket List reads: Find the liberal gun-nuts. I know I’m not the only one, and I had a pretty good idea where to start.
Berkeley boasts a wonderful little military surplus store. The place is run by a delightful old hippie who tells great stories and knew exactly what I was asking for.
“Oh yes. I know them all. The truth is, lots of liberals own guns. I have regular custom from people who quietly and expertly prepare themselves for all possible futures. The difference is that they favor regulation, and they don’t brag about their guns at every possible opportunity. They keep arms because they worry that they might someday have to bear them. We watch the news, too. There are more guns in Berkeley than you might think.”
He told me where to go to shoot for a good price and in peace. Peace might seem like a contradiction in what one seeks at a shooting range, but trust me when I say it is not. It is incredible what strangers will hazard to say to a lone woman with a handgun. I’ve been sexually solicited, religiously proselytized, submitted to sales pitches and asked impertinent and personal questions by people who really ought to look at my target and think twice.
There might be guns in Berkeley, but the nearest place to shoot one is in Oakland. But the military surplus merchant had steered me right; I shot in a stall between a dark-haired woman with flinty eyes in total silence and a dead ringer for Gandalf in tie-dye. They both nodded to me and left me alone, in my perfect enclosed world of earmuffs.
In this muffled world, I take deep even breaths. I stand square in my own town, outside the nonviolent Berkeley bubble. I summon up the rage that threatens to consume me every day, I aim and I fire. It’s very much the same thing I do when I write; the focused explosion is the same, whether by bullet or pen. It is this personal purge that keeps me in line, this outlet that allows my natural violence to find a place to express itself without anyone getting hurt.
I have been educated at UC Berkeley to further tolerance, further peacefulness, and I have been given more and better nonviolent role models. In many ways, I have become a better person. Another item on my bucket list is to participate in a protest on campus, to become part of the chanting throng on Sproul to stand for something I believe in on this historic spot. Here’s hoping a proper cause presents itself between now and May.
But I will not leave UC Berkeley a pacifist. I’m not a prepper; I’m not amassing an arsenal to be ready for the collapse of the civilized world. It’s not that I don’t feel safe; I carry pepper spray (like we were all told to do at CalSo) but have never thought about using it. And it’s not that I don’t believe in the cause of nonviolence; I realize that it is often the only option in the face of brute force and overwhelming odds.
Deep inside me, there is something that always burns, something that is soothed by nothing so much as a deadly weapon in hand. And I’ve found my fellow liberal gun-nuts.
Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].