As the Decade of the 60s began drawing to a close, contrasts became more pronounced – celebrations became more intense, protests became more violent – it was as if the pendulum of human emotion and experience was swinging faster and faster from extreme to extreme.
In 1969 we had Woodstock countered by Altamont – love-ins countered by Charles Manson – with everything that went on, there seemed to be a polar opposite taking place. In Berkeley, a piece of derelict land owned by the University of California became the scene of a deadly struggle between students, activists and the Police.
A bit of history via Wilipedia:
In 1956, the Regents of the University of California allocated a 2.8-acre (11,000 m2) plot of land containing residences for future development into student housing, parking, and offices as part of the university’s “Long Range Development Plan.” At the time, public funds were lacking to buy the land, and the plan was shelved until June 1967, when the university acquired $1.3 million to acquire the land through the process of eminent domain. The short-term goal was to create athletic fields with student housing being a longer-range goal.
Bulldozers arrived February, 1968 and began demolition of the residences. But the university ran out of development funds, leaving the lot only partially cleared of demolition debris and rubble for 14 months. The muddy site became derelict with abandoned cars.
On April 13, 1969, local merchants and residents held a meeting to discuss possible uses for the derelict site. At the time, student activist Wendy Schlesinger and Michael Delacour (a former defense contractor employee who had become an anti-war activist) had become attached to the area, as they had been using it as a rendez-vous for a secret romantic affair. The two presented a plan for developing the under-utilized, university-owned land into a public park. This plan was approved by the attendees, but not by the university. Stew Albert, a co-founder of the Yippie Party, agreed to write an article for the local counter-culture newspaper, the Berkeley Barb, on the subject of the park, particularly to call for help from local residents.
Michael Delacour stated, “We wanted a free speech area that wasn’t really controlled like Sproul Plaza [the plaza at the south entrance to UC Berkeley] was. It was another place to organize, another place to have a rally. The park was secondary.” The university’s Free Speech microphone was available to all students, with few (if any) restrictions on speech. The construction of the park involved many of the same people and politics as the 1964 Free Speech Movement.
On April 18, 1969, Albert’s article appeared in the Berkeley Barb, and on Sunday, April 20, more than 100 people arrived at the site to begin building the park. Local landscape architect Jon Read and many others contributed trees, flowers, shrubs, and sod. Free food was provided, and community development of the park proceeded. Eventually, about 1,000 people became directly involved, with many more donating money and materials. The park was essentially complete by mid-May.
Frank Bardacke, a participant in the park’s development, stated in a documentary film called Berkeley in the Sixties, “A group of people took some corporate land, owned by the University of California, that was a parking lot and turned it into a park and then said, ‘We’re using the land better than you used it; it’s ours'”.
On April 28, 1969, Berkeley Vice Chancellor Earl Cheit released plans for a sports field to be built on the site. This plan conflicted with the plans of the People’s Park activists. However, Cheit stated that he would take no action without notifying the park builders.
Two days later, on April 30, Cheit allocated control over one quarter of the plot to the park’s builders.
On May 6, Chancellor Heyns met with members of the People’s Park committee, student representatives, and faculty from the College of Environmental Design. He set a time limit of three weeks for this group to produce a plan for the park, and he reiterated his promise that construction would not begin without prior warning.
On May 13, Chancellor Roger W. Heyns notified media via a press release that the University would build a fence around the property and begin construction.
May 15, 1969: “Bloody Thursday”
Map of Berkeley Southside. The green area is People’s Park; the brown patterned area is UC Berkeley property.
Born on April 20, during its first three weeks People’s Park was used by both university students and local residents, and local Telegraph Avenue merchants voiced their appreciation for the community’s efforts to improve the neighborhood. Objections to the expropriation of university property tended to be mild, even among school administrators.
However, Governor Ronald Reagan had been publicly critical of university administrators for tolerating student demonstrations at the Berkeley campus. He had received popular support for his 1966 gubernatorial campaign promise to crack down on what the public perceived as a generally lax attitude at California’s public universities. Reagan called the Berkeley campus “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants.”Reagan considered the creation of the park a direct leftist challenge to the property rights of the university, and he found in it an opportunity to fulfill his campaign promise.
On Thursday, May 15, 1969 at 4:30 a.m., Governor Reagan sent California Highway Patrol and Berkeley police officers into People’s Park, overriding Chancellor Heyns’ May 6 promise that nothing would be done without warning. The officers cleared an 8-block area around the park while a large section of what had been planted was destroyed and an 8-foot (2.4 m)-tall perimeter chain-link wire fence was installed to keep people out and to prevent the planting of more trees, grass, flowers, or shrubs.
The action came at the request of Berkeley’s Republican mayor, Wallace Johnson.It became the impetus for the “most violent confrontation in the university’s history.”
Rally turns to protest
Beginning at noon on May 15, about 3,000 people appeared in Sproul Plaza at nearby UC Berkeley for a rally, the original purpose of which was to discuss the Arab–Israeli conflict. Several people spoke; then, Michael Lerner ceded the Free Speech platform to ASUC Student Body President Dan Siegel because students were concerned about the fencing-off and destruction of the park. Siegel said later that he never intended to precipitate a riot; however, when he shouted “Let’s take the park!,” police turned off the sound system.The crowd responded spontaneously, moving down Telegraph Avenue toward People’s Park chanting, “We want the park!”
Arriving in the early afternoon, protesters were met by the remaining 159 Berkeley and university police officers assigned to guard the fenced-off park site. The protesters opened a fire hydrant, several hundred protesters attempted to tear down the fence and threw bottles, rocks, and bricks at the officers, and then the officers fired tear gas canisters. A major confrontation ensued between police and the crowd, which grew to 4,000. Initial attempts by the police to disperse the protesters were not successful, and more officers were called in from surrounding cities. At least one car was set on fire. A large group of protesters confronted a small group of sheriff’s deputies who turned and ran. The crowd of protesters let out a cheer and briefly chased after them until the sheriff’s deputies ran into a used car facility. The crowd then turned around and ran back to a patrol car which they overturned and set on fire.
The use of shotguns with buckshot
Reagan’s Chief of Staff, Edwin Meese III, a former district attorney from Alameda County, had established a reputation for firm opposition to those protesting the Vietnam War at the Oakland Induction Center and elsewhere. Meese assumed responsibility for the governmental response to the People’s Park protest, and he called in the Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies, which brought the total police presence to 791 officers from various jurisdictions.
Under Meese’s direction, police were permitted to use whatever methods they chose against the crowds, which had swelled to approximately 6,000 people. Officers in full riot gear (helmets, shields, and gas masks) obscured their badges to avoid being identified and headed into the crowds with nightsticks swinging.”
As the protesters retreated, the Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies pursued them several blocks down Telegraph Avenue as far as Willard Junior High School at Derby Street, firing tear gas canisters and “00” buckshot at the crowd’s backs as they fled.
Authorities initially claimed that only birdshot had been used as shotgun ammunition. When physicians provided “00” pellets removed from the wounded as evidence that buckshot had been used, Sheriff Frank Madigan of Alameda County justified 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.”Sheriff Madigan did admit, however, that some of his deputies (many of whom were Vietnam War veterans) had been overly aggressive in their pursuit of the protesters, acting “as though they were Viet Cong.”
“The indiscriminate use of shotguns [was] sheer insanity,” according to Dr. Harry Brean, chief radiologist at Berkeley’s Herrick Hospital.
Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies used shotguns to fire at people sitting on the roof at the Telegraph Repertory Cinema. James Rector, a student, was killed when shot by police. The Alamada County Coroner’s report listed cause of death as “shock and hemorrhage due to multiple shotgun wounds and perforation of the aorta.” The buckshot is the same size as a .38 caliber bullet.Governor Reagan conceded that Rector was probably shot by police but countered that “it’s very naive to assume that you should send anyone into that kind of conflict with a flyswatter.” The University of California Police Department (UCPD) claims Rector threw steel rebar down onto the police; however, according to Time, Rector was a bystander, not a protester.
Carpenter Alan Blanchard was permanently blinded by a load of birdshot directly to his face.
At least 128 Berkeley residents were admitted to local hospitals for head trauma, shotgun wounds, and other serious injuries inflicted by police. The actual number of seriously wounded was likely much higher, because many of the injured did not seek treatment at local hospitals to avoid being arrested. Local medical students and interns organized volunteer mobile first-aid teams to help protestors and bystanders injured by buckshot, nightsticks, or tear gas. One local hospital reported two students wounded with large caliber rifles as well.
News reports at the time of the shooting indicated that 50 were injured, including five police officers. Some local hospital logs indicate that 19 police officers or Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies were treated for minor injuries; none were hospitalized. However, the UCPD claims that 111 police officers were injured, including one California Highway Patrol Officer Albert Bradley, who was knifed in the chest.
To give you an idea of what went on, and to listen to the protests and reactions, here is a one-hour documentary produced by Pacifica Radio Station KPFA in Berkeley from on-the-scene coverage and reporting as it was happening. The documentary, produced in April of 1970 reflected a situation still pretty fresh in people’s minds at the time hence; not a lot of explanation going on as to who the players were or what the issues were – the reason I added the Wikipedia background on the events.
Needless to say, with the current state of gentrification and housing issues going on the Bay Area, the issue of “what to do about People’s Park” has resurfaced. Then, as now, it is a hot-button topic guaranteed to stimulate heated debate.
Whether or not history repeats is another story.
In the meantime, dive back into 1969 for a taste and a glimpse.