15 June 2021

The Battle for People's Park, an Only Slightly Fictionalized Account

Creating the park

The following is excerpted from a novel I am writing. This except is from a chapter about the battle for People's Park which took place in Berkeley in May of 1969. It is based largely on my own experiences as well as the memories of others who were there. (See video.)

I’d had two classes in the morning, studied at the library for two hours then headed over to People’s Park where I’d been helping for weeks with everything from putting down sod to tilling new gardens to serving food. I loved the park. It was a haven for a lot of us, but more than that it was an ideal. Located off Telegraph Avenue a few blocks from campus, the property was owned by the university but had fallen into disuse. A businessman named Mike Delacour who had a shop on Telegraph, conceived the idea of turning the land, which occupied the better part of a city block, into a place for concerts and, more importantly, where people could hang out and meet. Word spread and eventually on any given weekend day there would be up to three thousand people working at the park. No one got paid and no one was at all interested in a money. We were there to build something for the community. And there were all sorts who showed up: residents of the neighborhood, hippies, activists, students, professors and the curious. A few grad students in landscape architecture even came by to contribute design ideas. In addition to putting down sod and planting, we put up swings, slides, a sandbox and wading pool. We cooked huge pots of stew, people brought other food, there was booze and grass, people played music. I was involved almost from the beginning and I was amazed at how smoothly everyone worked together, despite the fact that so much of what he did was improvised. It was a form of activism without confrontation, without police, without tear gas, without throwing rocks. The whole vibe was positive and reflected the better aspects of the Telegraph scene. It was like a natural extension of the shops, bookstores, coffee houses, artisans and eclectic mix of people who hung out on the avenue. There was little opposition to what was going on. However, one of my housemates, Benny, and other Marxists, complained at first that workers didn’t need a park, they needed fair wages. Other activists objected to all the energy that was going into it given that the war and draft were still primary issues. But a lot of us felt that the park was a natural supplement to our anti-war efforts. I argued that we were making an important statement by repatriating an area that once belonged to Indians and using it for communal purposes, exactly as the native tribes would have. Benny, like many others, eventually came around to see the park as a positive force that brought people together for something that served the common good. There had been rumors lately that the university was going to take back the park and turn it into a soccer field. Some people saw such a move as inevitable and others claimed that if the university had let us get this far, there’s no way they’d risk the enmity that would come from destroying the park.

Sign from author's collection
Before dinner Benny and I watched the evening news. There were claims that two thousand North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had been killed in three days. Benny said, “if you add up the number of people we’re supposed to have killed over there I bet it would amount to the entire North Vietnamese population twice over.”

“Yeah,” I said, “and while we’re crediting ourselves with killing say a thousand of them, somehow there’s only like five or six U.S. casualties.”

“All lies and bullshit,” Benny said.

The next morning as I was walking to campus my friend, Rennie excitedly approached me.

“David, the pigs have fucked up the park and put a fence around it.”

“Fucked it up how?”

“They bulldozed it.”

“Assholes!” I was livid.

“We knew they were going to do something, but this is beyond what I’d imagined.”

“We can’t let this stand, this is complete bullshit.”

“We have to respond.”

Someone who overheard our conversation told us that the park would be the focus of the day’s noon rally at Sproul. 

As we gathered for the rally the anger was palpable. Around me people were expressing anger, disbelief and confusion, as well as a determination to take action.

The last of the speakers was student body president-elect, Dan Siegel, he captured the zeitgeist of the moment and rallied us when he said: "Now, we have not yet decided exactly what we are going to do. But there are some plans, I have a suggestion, let's go down to the People's Park, because we are the people. But a couple of things, a couple of points I would like to make. If we are to win this thing, it is because we are making it more costly for the University to put up its fence, than it is for them to take down their fence. What we have to do then, is maximize the cost to them, minimize the cost to us. So what that means, is people be careful. Don't let those pigs beat the shit out of you, don't let yourselves get arrested on felonies, go down there and take the park." 

The flood gates were open and en masse we started marching down Telegraph Avenue toward the park, chanting, “we want the park, we want the park!”

I was inspired, alive, adrenaline surging through me. I had no conception, nor even a thought as to what would happen once we reached the park, I was exclusively within each second and each step I took. I was awash in the righteousness of a cause and a determination to act in community with my fellows.

We were within two blocks of Haste Street, where you would turn left to get to the park, when the large police presence became evident. We had been a mellow crowd, then someone turned on a fire hydrant. The cops didn’t hesitate, they shot or threw — I couldn’t tell which — tear gas canisters at us. In response people threw rocks. The scene had changed dramatically in a matter of seconds. A peaceful march had become a battle. 

People screamed, people shouted in anger, people ran, people looked for anything they could find to throw. Many threw the tear gas canisters back. I was in a state of disbelief. They tear down our park and then when we march in peaceful protest they attack us. 

I snapped out of it and was overcome with anger. I joined a cluster of protestors on Haste just below Telegraph and like my compatriots threw anything I could get my hands on at the police. Police! They were truly pigs to me at the moment. I’d never thrown anything at anyone before but picked up a coke bottle and hurled it through the air. Then I found a chunk of brick and tossed that. A canister landed among us and exploded. I ran south down Telegraph.

I looked back and saw a woman in a nurse’s uniform being beaten by cops. I looked forward and saw someone leaning against a car just watching. A cop came up behind him and put him in a chokehold with his nightstick.

There were many types of police: Berkeley City Police, UC campus police. Highway Patrolmen and later, the dreaded Blue Meanies.

We drifted a block further down Telegraph to Dwight Way. A few feet from me someone I knew named Chris was felled by a blast from a shotgun. “They’re shooting birdshot at us!” Someone shouted. A protestor who’d been a medic in Vietnam tended to Chris.

The Blue Meanies had arrived and were shooting at us. This was new. This was an even greater violation. This was a war and we were unarmed. 

There was a malevolence to police actions as if these helmeted monstrosities were alien robots programmed for mayhem.

A girl to my right screamed “fuck you! Fuck you pigs!” With such rage and power that I was shaken at the same time I sympathized with her.

I saw an elderly woman across the street knocked down by a cop. Demonstrators rushed to aide her. A man crossed the street to help. A cop told him to get back. “I’m a doctor, I want to help this woman,” he pleaded. The cop charged him, his baton raised. The doctor was lucky, he escaped. I saw some who weren’t so lucky. Most people who were caught, received beatings, sometimes from more than one officer. 

A jeep drove down the street spraying tear gas. 

Further down the street a police car was upended and set afire, sending thick flumes of black smoke into the air to mix with the white of the tear gas. Berkeley was resembling a battle field. 

Police and protestors were scattered all over the area. Protestors were in groups ranging from a two or three to dozens. The police seemed hell-bent on exacting revenge on everyone for the objects that had been thrown at them. There was a malevolence to their actions as if these helmeted monstrosities were alien robots programmed for mayhem.

I ran back toward campus, then returned to as near as People’s Park as I could. I ran west down Dwight Way then along Dana, then up Bancroft Way then back to campus. I didn’t know where I was going or why. I was filled with rage and confusion and was suffused with energy that had to be exhausted. I saw people who I knew were not involved being shot or shot at. I saw pepper fog machines indiscriminately spraying their foul and hurtful smoke. I saw protestors swearing and throwing rocks and bottles. I saw, to paraphrase Allen Ginsberg, the best minds of my generation destroyed by anger, raging, hysterical, confused. 

I came upon a tall young man who was bleeding from a facial wound. A medic from the Berkeley Free Clinic was tending to his wound. I heard someone say, “I did a tour in Vietnam and in a way this is as bad. At least over there the enemy was from another country.” 

Flyer from author's collection
Back on Telegraph I was filled with impotent rage, watching a girl being dragged along the ground by cops and a protestor being struck repeatedly in the arms and back by another cop. I saw Blue Meanies aiming and firing at people who were running away. I wanted desperately to do something. Something more meaningful and effective than throwing a rock. 

But there was nothing I could do, nothing. Nothing. I reared my head back and emitted a full-throated primal scream.

Hours after beginning a peaceful march down Telegraph, I was spent. Bone weary, hungry, thirsty and permanently embittered. I went home.

Benny and my other housemate, Rupert, were on the sofa relating their versions of the day’s events. I opened a beer and bag of potato chips and joined them. War stories. There was an odd mixture of giddiness and despair in our talk as the adrenaline that had been surging through us gradually began to dissipate.

“This cannot stand,” Benny finally said. “The pigs were as bad today as what people saw in Chicago. You were there, David, what do you think?”

“Chicago was different in a lot of ways but it’s the same basic idea of a police state in which the pigs act with impunity. There were people who were obviously not even involved who were shot.”

“The pigs went buck-ass wild today,” Rupert said. “I’ll never be the same, I’ve never seen anything like it.” Rupert’s usual bravado was gone. It was as if he was suffering from shell shock.

Benny said, “I heard a guy got shot in the stomach on the roof of a building on Telegraph. He was a bystander. Another dude nearby got shot in the eyes and may have been blinded.”

That night fucking Governor Reagan imposed martial law. We heard on the news that there was a curfew from ten at night until six in the morning. And perhaps most chillingly of all was the announcement that: “No person shall conduct or participate in a meeting, assembly, or parade or use a sound or voice amplifier in or upon the public streets or other public place in the city of Berkeley, including the campus of the University of California.”

“They’ve declared war on the people,” Benny said.

“This is truly a police state,” Rupert added.

The next morning it was chilling to have the national guard in Berkeley. Troops stood in formation at downtown intersections. How intimidating it was to see armed soldiers, bayonets at the ready, ammo-filled bandoliers across their chests, trained to follow orders and attack when called upon. Large trucks filled with soldiers rode the streets. We were living in an occupied city. 

They really meant to quash us. The seriousness of the situation was overwhelming. They had already beaten and shot us and now the army was here.

Yet there was no way that we were going to comply with the dictates of our fascist leaders. The people assembled that day at a peaceful noon rally on Sproul Plaza. But the cops eventually forced us deeper into campus. Later we massed in front of city hall. There was no violence by either side. After the events of the day before, it all seemed serene, tranquil — assuming you could ignore the thousands of rifle-bearing national guardsmen in the streets.

I was numb from the previous day’s carnage. I had long ago aligned myself with the far left and against the establishment powers, but today, for the first time, I realized that as much as I disliked them, they hated me. They hated what I stood for and what I represented. I was a threat, an enemy and they’d just as soon see me in jail or dead as walking the streets. But I also felt the power of a community of brethren, people who shared my belief in the park, stopping the war, ending racism, spreading peace and love. I had chosen sides and I knew mine took the righteous path. 

I was so overcome by feelings that night I could do little more than listen to music and flip through magazines. I ended the evening numbly watching television.

I called Ronnie in San Jose and told him what was going on in Berkeley and how I felt. “Now you know what it’s like to be black in this country. You’re scared now, we're scared all the fucking time. Cops always trying to mess with us. Welcome to our world.”

Ronnie’s brutal honesty was revelatory, if not comforting.

James Rector
Two days later we learned that James Rector, who had been shot by the police on what was now being called Bloody Thursday, died. Previously the police had claimed they’d only used relatively harmless birdshot, but the doctors treating Rector removed lethal buckshot. The cops were killers and liars. 

We massed for a rally in Sproul Plaza then began a mostly silent memorial march destined for downtown. We marched under Sather Gate to the Campanile, then turned west toward the city streets. But at Oxford Street, where the campus effectively ended, national guard troops blocked our path. We were forced back toward Sproul. Sather Gate was now blocked by soldiers as was the campus entrance at Bancroft and Telegraph. While people were allowed to enter the plaza, no one could leave. It began to dawn on us that we were trapped. There was growing confusion that was metastasizing into anger and, in some, fear.

Then in the distance we heard a helicopter. Initially this did not strike me as unusual, but as it grew closer we saw that it was coming directly over us. I looked up at it.

Large plumes of tear gas came wafting down from the helicopter. Our own fucking government was spraying us like we were so many insects. 

I’d never been so dumbstruck in my life.

People around me panicked and ran, many screaming. I stood still for a few seconds looking up in utter disbelief before I too sprinted out of the lower plaza. As I did the cops started shooting tear gas canisters at us. Marchers were running helter skelter as if injected with a deadly cocktail of fear and confusion. I managed to keep my cool and decided I was going to run back toward Oxford and get the hell off campus and go home. 

But it wasn’t going to be easy. Police in full riot gear including gas masks were scattered about grabbing and arresting whoever they could nab. By keeping my cool, looking where I was going and taking evasive action, I made it to West Crescent Lawn, a large grassy area that ended at Oxford. Lining the street were cops eight to ten feet apart. I stopped and watched as fleeing protestors were grabbed as they tried to break the line. But I saw an opportunity. I picked a spot between two cops and when someone ran between them and they descended on him I ran through the gap thus created.

I got to Oxford where there were a line of paddy wagons that were quickly filling up. A cop emerging from one of them made a grab for me but I turned and ran up Oxford towards University Avenue never looking back. I didn’t stop running for several blocks, by which time the cop had given up the pursuit. 

I went home where I found Benny and Rupert in animated conversation. Rupert had missed the day’s activities and Benny was filling him in. Benny and I compared experiences. Rupert told us that he’d heard that tear gas had been carried by the day’s breezes all over campus, into neighborhoods and to both a nursery school and junior high. It had sickened many in the area including small children.

Two days later Rupert and I were heading downtown in  another march. It was calm despite the heavy police and national guard presence. But I’d only had a bowl of cereal for breakfast so as we neared Shattuck Avenue I decided I needed to get something to eat. I broke away from the march with plans to rejoin it after having a snack. I ended up going to a place called Top Dog and having a hot dog and soda. A friend of mine was working there and I talked to him for awhile. I headed back down Shattuck Avenue and saw a mass of marchers all crowded into a Bank of America parking lot, surrounded by cops and guardsmen. There was no way to access the group and it soon became evident that they were all being held for arrest. I could see Rupert among the several hundred people so trapped. I stood by helplessly as they were loaded into waiting vans and, as I later learned, driven thirty miles to the county prison in Santa Rita. As it turned out among those arrested were dozens of bystanders who had been out shopping or running errands. I felt both terrible for Rupert and greatly relieved for myself. I went home feeling depressed and defeated. 

“It’s beginning to seem hopeless,” I said to Benny.

“That’s understandable, great struggles are like that with depressing low points. But remember what Marx said: ‘The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.’ We cannot give up or let up, we’ve got to push on.”

I admired Benny’s faith that the people would some day rise and that there would be a real revolution that would cleanse the country of capitalism, but I couldn’t share that optimism. Not now, not today, not with Rupert arrested. Not with soldiers in our streets.

The next day Rupert told us how brutally he and the other arrestees were treated. “When we got off the bus at Santa Rita, I made the mistake of looking around and so was taken aside and forced to remain kneeling for hours. Others who did the same or spoke out of turn suffered the same fate. I saw a kid, probably high school age, dragged by his hair and beaten. Someone else was forced to lean his head against a post while the cops beat on the post. He began bleeding, I’m not sure from where. They were beating people for anything and nothing and cussing at us and threatening more. The lucky ones, who were not beaten, had to lay on the gravely ground for hours, some where hit with nightsticks or even punched for any kind of movement. I have never felt such hatred or fear in my life. There were times I thought I was going to be killed or suffer permanent injury. It wasn’t until ten that night that we were led into the barracks, but we couldn’t sleep because the pigs kept making noise and getting us up to exercise. The sadistic bastards were actually having fun. I was called everything from an ‘asshole’ to a stinking hippie.’”

Benny’s family lawyer had bailed Rupert out.

I’d known Rupert for nearly a year and in that time he had always been implacable. Always grinning, making wisecracks, teasing, I’d never seen him shaken and sullen and dispirited. He was that morning. 

In the coming days there were more rallies and marches, there was an ecological teach-in and on Memorial Day tens of thousands marched peacefully through the streets of Berkeley in support of the park. But the cumulative effect of Rupert’s story, my nearly being arrested as well, the helicopter attack, James Rector’s death and Bloody Thursday had worn me to a nub.

Rupert and Benny tried to coax me into joining the Memorial Day march but I stayed home and studied and sipped tea and listened to classical music on the radio. I even passed up an invitation to a barbecue. I needed a goddamned break.

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