People's Park in Berkeley, California, USA is a park off of Telegraph Avenue, bound by Haste and Bowditch Streets and Dwight Way, near the ersity of California, Berkeley that was created as part of the city's radical activism in the 1960s. It is today a popular hangout among locals with a community garden, a performance stage, a basketball court and the "Free Box" of donated items. It is also the serving spot of East Bay Food Not Bombs and operates as a sanctuary for many of Berkeley's homeless.
The mythology surrounding the park is a major part of local radical culture. A mural near the park painted by Berkeley artist and lawyer Osha Neuman depicts the death of James Rector, a student who died on "Bloody Thursday" (see below).
History[edit | edit source]
Origin of the park[edit | edit source]
In 1956 the University of California earmarked this piece of land for acquisition as part of the University's "Long Range Plan for Expansion." The University did not actually acquire the land until 1967, when it was finally able to raise the $1.3 million necessary to purchase the 2.8 acre plot of land from the residents it displaced using its power of "eminent domain".
Ultimately, the University wanted to build additional student housing, parking and office facilities on the land, however the university expected it would take at least a decade to raise the necessary funds for this project. In the interim, playing fields were needed, and the University moved to prepare the land for that purpose.
The University began to demolish the existing houses and other buildings on the property in November, 1967, and the demolition continued for over a year. By December, 1968, there remained only an empty field, still full of debris, that quickly turned into a muddy, dangerous eye-sore with the advent of winter rains. For months lack of funds prevented the University from doing anything to rectify the situation. Finally, a group of Berkeley citizens decided to take matters into their own hands and put the land to use as a neighborhood park.
On January 20, 1969 People's Park was declared a National Hallucination. On April 18, 1969, The Berkeley Barb, an underground publication, urged Berkeleyans to bring materials to create "the People's Park." That Sunday, April 20, 1969, hundreds of people cleared ground and planted trees, grass and flowers using equipment provided by local landscape architect Jon Read. Walter Cox, a former employee of Read's, arranged for Terry Garthwaite's and Toni Brown's band, "The Joy of Cooking," to provide musical entertainment. Others set up playground equipment and cooked meals, which were provided at no cost to everyone. It was a day of celebration, and over the next several weeks Berkeley citizens of all races, economic backgrounds and creeds joined together to build the park. People's Park was born.
According to Michael Delacour, who is considered the "father of the park," "We wanted a free speech area that wasn't really controlled like Sproul Plaza was. The land was there. It didn't have a fence around it." Those who built People's Park envisioned a gathering place where people from all backgrounds could gather in a beautiful setting, listen to music, learn from one another, and freely express themselves. It embodied the spirit of the earlier 1964 Free Speech Movement.
Unfortunately the birth of People's Park coincided with the University's acquisition of the necessary funds to build playing fields on the land. This put the University on a collision course with the thousands of Berkeley citizens who had contributed materials, money and labor to build the park.
"Bloody Thursday"[edit | edit source]
Governor Ronald Reagan saw the construction of People's Park in ideological terms. Famously intolerant of Americans who peacefully protested the war in Vietnam, whom he viewed as "commie sympathizers," he saw People's Park as a direct leftist challenge to the property rights of the University. He was quoted as saying "If there has to be a bloodbath, then let's get it over with." (San Francisco Chronicle, May 15, 1969)
On May 15, "Bloody Thursday", 250 Highway Patrol and Berkeley police officers invaded the park at 4:45 a.m. and cleared an 8-block area around the site to allow construction of an 8' tall perimeter wire fence. The idea was to keep gardeners out of the park, prevent the planting of more trees, flowers and shrubs, and make sure that no one could water what had already been planted. That afternoon an estimated 3000 people jammed into Sproul Plaza at U.C. Berkeley for a noon rally concerning the fencing-off and proposed destruction of the park. After listening to a few speakers, the mass of people streamed down Telegraph Avenue toward the park shouting "We want the park!"
Arriving at the park, some protestors attempted to tear down the fence, and bottles and rocks were thrown. A major confrontation ensued between law enforcement and the unruly crowd. Initial attempts by 159 Berkeley and UC Berkeley police officers, using tear gas and standard crowd control techniques, were not successful in dispersing those protesting the destruction of the park. More officers were called in from surrounding cities, and Reagan's Chief of Staff, Edwin Meese III, a former district attorney from Alameda County, called in the Alameda County Sherriff's deputies. In keeping with Governor Reagan's "bloodbath" statement, a total of 791 officers felt they had been given carte blanche by state officials: officers obscured their badges to avoid being identified by their victims and headed into the crowds with nightsticks swinging.
Worse, the Alameda County Sherriff's deputies (later dubbed "The Blue Meanies") resorted to using shotguns loaded with buckshot, whose lead pellets are much larger, and thus more lethal, than the birdshot that is occasionally used for crowd control. Shotguns were fired indiscriminately at workers on the roof at the Berkeley Reperatory Theater, permanently blinding one man (Alan Blanchard) and killing another (James Rector). Neither man was a protestor.
At one point, the Alameda County Sherriff's deputies chased people several blocks down Telegraph Ave. as far as Willard Junior High School at Derby Street, firing buckshot into their backs as they fled. Many people, including innnocent bystanders, suffered permanent, disabling injuries.
At least 128 Berkeley citizens sought medical treatment at local hospitals for head injuries and shotgun wounds inflicted by the police. No policemen were hospitalized.
Sheriff Frank Madigan of Alameda County attempted to justify the use of shotguns loaded with lethal buckshot by stating "...the choice was essentially this: to use shotguns--because we didn't have the available manpower--or retreat and abandon the City of Berkeley to the mob."
Governor Ronald Reagan declared a state of emergency in Berkeley and sent in the National Guard. For days, the streets of Berkeley were barricaded as National Guard helicopters sprayed tear gas on anyone who gathered in more than small groups. National Guard troops were stationed in front of Berkeley's empty lots to prevent protestors from planting flowers or trees, and citizens who dared ask questions of National Guard commanders were threatened with violence. A nighttime curfew was established, and anyone who appeared to be on the "wrong side" became fair game for police harassment or brutality. It was absurd, and deadly, theater that mirrored societal divisions during the 1960s over Vietnam, race and other issues.
People's Park Annex[edit | edit source]
One lasting outcome of the battle of People's Park was the establishment of "People's Park Annex" along Hearst Avenue northwest of the University campus, today's Ohlone Park.
Subsequent history[edit | edit source]
In subsequent years, the University has been unable to do anything with the land. In 1979 when the Regents attempted to turn the west end of the park, which was already a parking lot, into a fee lot, more than 200 protestors tore out the asphalt after parking signs had been set in place. Trees and plants were planted where the asphalt had been. The occupation of the park, complete with a bonfire, lasted two months and the local stage saw a visit from Wavy Gravy himself, dressed as a clown.
The People's Café, a house trailer configured and decorated as a café, was mysteriously installed in People's Park one night in 1986. It appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and began serving free food the next morning. Volunteers from the Catholic Worker Movement and elsewhere served approximately 100 breakfasts per day. It lasted a few months, then the University ripped it out early one morning after an inspection by the Berkeley Health Department.
Further riots broke out in 1991 when the University built volleyball courts in the park. Opponents saw the courts as yet another attempt by the University to begin ingesting the park for eventual conversion to other uses. Radical protestors during the 1991 riots included 19-year-old Rosebud Abigail Denovo ("RAD") (born Laura Marie Miller), an activist who had previously been arrested and released after police found bomb making materials and an alleged "hit list" of university officials at a campsite she shared with a boyfriend in the Berkeley hills.
On August 25, 1992, Denovo, armed with a hunting knife and machete, broke into the residence of Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien on the UC Berkeley campus at 5:50 am. She triggered a silent alarm which summoned campus police, who escorted Tien and his wife safely off the premises. The University of California Police Department (UCPD) sent officers into the otherwise empty house and shot and killed Denovo, who had allegedly lunged at an officer with a machete .
The killing triggered further protests since many saw the police entry as unnecessary and contrary to customary police procedure. (Normal procedure when an armed, disturbed person is in a house, but not endangering anyone, is to negotiate with the person from the outside). The officer who shot Denovo had just returned to duty after being wounded himself in a robbery, and he had also previously been the subject of citizen complaints charging excessive force, so the UCPD took further criticism for choosing to send an officer with such a history into the house.
The volleyball courts were dismantled in 1997 after constant vandalism. Today, People's Park is co-managed by community groups and the University.
In October 2005, some park supporters attempted to rebuild the freebox after it had been burned down for the second time in 2 years by persons unknown. At the time supporters came in to rebuild, they were videotaped by police and threatened with arrest if they attempted to rebuild. The supporters started rebuilding anyway, and no arrests were made, although the University returned during the early hours of the morning to destroy what had been built.
References[edit | edit source]
- Berkeley Daily Gazette. "Sheriff Frank Madigan." 30 May 1969.
- California Governor's Office. The "People's Park" - A Report on the Confrontation at Berkeley, California. Submitted to Gov. Ronald Reagan. 1 July 1969.
- Gruen, Gruen and Associates. Southside Student Housing Project Preliminary Environmental Study. Report to UCB Chancellor. Feb. 1974.
- Hauser, Luke (2003) Direct Action: An Historical Novel. Scenes at People's Park - visit www.directaction.org.
- People's Park Handbills. Distributed May-April 1969. Located at the Bancroft Library - University of California, Berkeley.
- Pichirall, Joe. The Daily Californian. Cover Story on People's Park. 16 May 1969.
- "Reagan's Reaction to Riot: Call Park Here 'Excuse'" The Daily Californian. 16 May 1969.
- Statement on People's Park. University of California, Berkeley - Office of Public Information. 30 April 1969.
- Weiss, Norman. The Daily Californian. "People's Park: Then & Now." 17 March 1997.
[edit | edit source]
- People's Park homepage
- What Really Killed Rosebud? By Claire Burch
- Collection of articles in local media about free box
- Funky Nixons - House Band of People's Park
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