The event that finally convinced me that there were other places on earth besides Berkeley was the battle over People’s Park. By that time, I had had just about all I could take. I was making a conscious effort to pull myself away from the worst of the politics, because I really wanted my career. I had gotten into graduate school by the skin of my teeth, in spite of or perhaps because of, my status as a political activist, and what I wanted most in life was the chance to do field work, then teach anthropology. I knew how shaky was my standing in the department and I knew how funding worked. If possible, I wished to avoid calling any more attention to myself from the arch-conservatives on the faculty who controlled admissions and money. When the People’s Park movement happened, I had to be talked into it and it was much harder to talk me into it than it had been to talk me into the antiwar movement.
The importance of the Peoples Park Movement to me lay less in the goals of the movement itself than in the social implications of the response to it. The issue was not so much what “the people” did in commandeering unused land and turning it into a park as it was the disproportionate reaction of the authorities to the idea of such a thing. The facts are as follows:There was a 2.8 acre area of land a block or two from campus that had been, for years, part of a university plan for expansion.23 In 1967, the University bought the land and in February, 1968, it began tearing down buildings and displacing residents.24 I have a dim recollection of knowing people who were thus displaced, students living in rental housing, and of how angry they were about it, given the perpetual shortage of cheap student housing. However, at least one professor was also displaced.25 Once the buildings were gone, the area turned into a desolate vacant lot serving no immediate purpose for anyone, other than those with the temerity to park their cars there. That land, which became People’s Park, in addition to being a few blocks from campus, is also only a block or two from The Ave, which terminates where campus starts. The Ave had, by that time, become increasingly as much a hangout for hippies as it was a traditional hangout for students. It had come to resemble in some ways its hippie counterpart in the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco, complete with teenage runaways, drug dealers and crafts vendors, as well as students.
Through organizing processes of which I was completely unaware, a public meeting was held April 13, 1969, by merchants and residents to discuss possible uses of the vacant lot. Activists Michael Delacour and Wendy Schlesinger came up with the idea to turn the land into a community park and presented it to the attendees, who approved it.26 The university, however, did not. On April 20, 1969, hundreds of people, responding to a call in the Berkeley Barb newspaper, showed up at the vacant lot and had a sort of a work-party—cleaning, clearing and planting under the direction of a local landscape designer.27
I did not see this happening but I heard reports and remember being amazed that such a thing could happen and wondering how long they would get away with it, since no one had obtained any kind of permission from the university or even alerted the university that the event would happen. Work continued on the park at the same time that the university administration began to respond to it. Between April 20 and May 15, the park took shape as “a genuine green space”,28 no action was taken against it and it was enjoyed by all. During this time, plans for building a sports field on the lot were released, control over part of the lot was given to the park’s builders, meetings were held by Chancellor Roger W. Heyns with members of the People’s Park committee, student representatives, and faculty from the College of Environmental Design, and promises were made that the university would not begin implementing its plans without warning.
However, Governor Ronald Reagan had gotten elected in part by promising to crush student dissent in Berkeley, “where a small minority of beatniks, radicals and filthy speech advocates have brought such shame to . . . a great university.”29 For him, this was a golden opportunity to fulfill his campaign promises to clean up UC Berkeley and that, he did.
The timing of the People’s Park movement was and has been questioned and the theory floated that it was a false issue generated by antiwar activists to keep the activist energy from diminishing during the summer, when most students would be gone. This point of view is dramatically presented by Berkeley City Councilman John De Bonis in news footage included in Berkeley in the Sixties.30 Based on the timing argument, philosophy Professor John Searle maintains, in Berkeley in the Sixties, that the People’s Park movement was “extremely cynical.”31 I disagree with him. From my perspective, it was no more cynical than any other movement and far less cynical than the mainstream American political system, which appears to me to be run mostly on cynicism.
I did hear the timing idea stated as an observation in tactical discussions among my anthro friends, specifically from Cowan, who was the most fervent advocate of People’s Park in my world. Cowan observed that People’s Park would have the effect of sustaining the antiwar movement through the summer by giving people something to do. If that was the specific intent of the planners, however, if they invented the issue from nothing whatsoever, I was not aware of it. One article quotes Delacour as saying, “It was another place to organize, another place to have a rally. The park was secondary,” which provides another political thread in the genesis of People’s Park.32
In any case, while tactics may explain the timing, it does not explain the fervor, the spirit and the duration of the People’s Park Movement. I am sure that it is true that some of the leaders were just trying to keep the “revolution” at the forefront of public consciousness, but most of the participants I knew saw it as our chance, perhaps our last chance, to try to heal our society with a loving constructive action rather than destroy it in bloody revolution. It was like a dying plant that uses its last energy to bloom just before its last gasp. Who was cynical were the forces that crushed the plant with a steamroller.
The issue was presented to us by Cowan, who met with some resistance. Part of his argument on the issue came in the form of a leaflet attributed to Frank Bardacke, a historical essay on land ownership using the park as an example.33 The author or authors pointed out that the land had originally belonged to the Indians, a point that went over well among radicals in the anthropology department and this former museum worker, people who knew in intimate detail just exactly what had happened to California Indians. It was when I read Bardacke’s leaflet that I began to get interested in the People’s Park issue.
The gist of the argument was here is a piece of land that is not being used. Here is a bunch of street people who made the park. For the first time in their whole damn lives, they have decided to do something constructive, to go turn a vacant lot into a park. Who gives a shit about the bureaucrats? If they are not going to use this bit of land, then let us use it. In Bardacke’s words in Berkeley in the Sixties:
A group of people took some corporate land owned by the University of California, that was a parking lot, turned it into a park and then said, ‘We’re using the land better than you used it and it’s ours.34
Although I considered it something entirely new and maybe not such a good idea in terms of tactics, it was not difficult to convince me that People’s Park had something to do with countering the spirit of corporate America. I certainly admired the concept of a bunch of people working together—no contractors, no bosses, no red tape—to create for themselves a space in which to be together and, hopefully, love each other. I admired the concept of people who had been doing nothing productive at all collectively producing something useful. In the midst of the gloom produced by the war, I saw it as something maybe a little hopeful.
Had the university and the governor simply kissed off the vacant land, donated it to a non-profit or come to some kind of an arrangement for it to be bought cheap, I am of the opinion that it would have had little direct political impact on anything. It would have ameliorated the problem of loitering on The Ave by hippies and runaways; been of far more social use than one more stupid sports field for the rich, which is what the university at one point claimed it was going to do with it; improved student/administration relations and been highly educational in general, teaching co-operation, responsibility and landscaping to whomsoever ended up maintaining it. But, that is a ridiculous fantasy on my part in the context of both the times and the structure of American culture. What it was, was a direct attack on the concept of private property, in this case the variant of state-owned property run by corporate interests, and nothing, but nothing is more sacred in America than the concept of private property. The repression that came down on our heads in defense of that concept was beyond the power of imagination of anyone I knew who was involved in the People’s Park movement and it was the intensity and hysteria of the response that made the movement important historically.
To the authorities, it did not matter that they were doing nothing with the land, aside from planning a sports field on it that would benefit a tiny segment of the university community and no one else. Our view of the People’s Park movement was that it was a beautiful thing. Even though chaotic and more or less unplanned, it was a spark of creativity and an attempt to make something rather than to break something down. For the authorities to react so heavily to it was an indication, if we needed one, of their attitude toward creativity in general, in addition to the irrational response to a perceived threat to the concept of private property.
It seemed to us that the whole thing demonstrated that it was a lie that UC was an educational institution, if it could not foster people trying to create something good for the public. In the short run, our attitude was irrational, but in the long run, it was the repression that proved even more irrational. There is now in Berkeley on that piece of land a park called People’s Park. It was established and we did, in that sense, win, but all of the blood and pain could have been avoided if there had not been such a violent knee-jerk reaction to a practical, creative, healthy and healing idea.
The Bloody Shirt
The People’s Park issue reached its lowest point with a demo that took up Telegraph Avenue for blocks, culminating in police shootings that killed one, blinded one for life and resulted in countless lesser injuries—shattered legs, perforated lungs, head traumas and shotgun wounds.35 On May 15, before dawn, state and local police bulldozed the park and put up a chainlink fence around it. That day, a regular noon rally intended to discuss a different subject was diverted into discussing the People’s Park instead. No less a personage than Dan Siegal, UC student body president, said, “I have a suggestion. Let us go down to the People’s Park. Because we are the people.”36 I must confess I was startled to hear that suggestion from such a mainstream representative. In fact, I remember everyone near me being first startled, then electrified. The result of the rally was that thousands of people went from campus to the park and began to try to tear down the fence, whereupon the police that had been assigned to guard it, no doubt taken by surprise at the size of the crowd, began to use teargas to break it up.
Protesters threw objects at the police and police fired tear gas canisters back. The crowd grew. Police from nearby cities and the Alameda County Sheriffs were called in. Protesters running away from the sheriffs were shot in the back with .00 buckshot, a claim verified later by the doctors who had removed the shot from the bodies.37 I later heard the rumor that it was a new tool, “rubber bullets,” that were not supposed to seriously hurt you. We were all telling each other, yes, but they did seriously hurt you. The rubber bullet rumor does not appear in any historical source I have seen, though the birdshot and buckshot references appear in many.38
Among the people shot was a man named James Rector, who died from his buckshot wounds. It scares me to think how close I was to that event. John and I had been at the rally on campus and when the call came to take back the park, we moved in that direction along with the crowd. We never made it to the park because we were too far back, so we ended up on The Ave, across the street from the building on the roof of which Rector was shot. It gives me shivers to this day to think I might have been looking right at the man who was shot minutes later. I remember well looking at that roof, where there was a large number of people watching the street.
There were later claims that Rector was throwing rebar from the roof at police. Before he died, according to Rolling Stone, he told his mother that nobody was throwing anything from the roof and that, indeed, there was nothing on the roof to throw.39 According to Rolling Stone, prior to the shooting of Rector, a brick was thrown from a rooftop two blocks away. I am going to state here, unequivocally, that I was looking directly at that roof from across the street minutes before Rector was shot, though not, it is true, immediately before. We watched that roof for at least 15 minutes. If anything had been thrown from it we would have seen it. We did not see anyone throw anything. The people on the roof were spectators, at least while we were watching.
John, the Streetwise, ever my bodyguard at protests, quickly became very uneasy. Looking up and down The Ave, we could see only people, not cops, but the people were rowdy, and the atmosphere was getting more and more chaotic. John said, “There’s something wrong with this one. Let’s get the hell out of here.” I trusted his instincts in such matters pretty much without question, since it was clear to me that he had had far more experience than I in navigating dangerous situations. We pushed our way out of the crowd and hightailed it by side streets back to campus, where we sat down on the fountain in the plaza to await events. Presently, people began to stream onto campus. I spotted one wearing too much red in odd places and said to John, “My God, look at that guy!” John, who may or may not be a Korean War veteran, but is surely the veteran of some kind of war, said, “Shot, he’s been shot. Looks like buckshot!” I stared at him unbelieving, then back at the person in red, approaching us rapidly and shakily from the street. John jumped up to run and help him and I followed, but others got to him first and he was surrounded by people offering first aid.
We were, by then, on the steps of the Student Union, where I had just enough elevation to see the crowds of people running past us onto campus. I spotted several others wearing too much red, but everyone was ambulatory. It was impossible to gauge how serious were the wounds. Then, we were approached on the stairs by a friend with blood streaming down his face, looking both stunned and angry. He did not seem to be aware of or did not care about, the blood on his face until we pointed it out. Dabbing at it with his fingers, then looking at it with a bemused expression, he said, “Oh yeah. I got hit with a billy club. They’re shooting at people.” He bent his head down so that we could inspect the wound and give him a report. It was a cut about an inch long in his scalp, still bleeding. He proceeded deeper into campus.
There was no way to tell if the cops would bring the guns and/or billy clubs and tear gas on campus and there was absolutely nothing happening in the way of leadership. I figured John would be of use if he stayed on the plaza, since he was always the most level-headed person in any emergency scene and knew first aid. I was already slightly in shock, just from the sight of all the blood— shaking, nauseous and faint. I knew I was useless where I was, so I might as well go to Kroeber Hall, where I would not be able to work but might be able to learn what was happening. We agreed that John would escort me back to Kroeber, then return to the plaza and we would meet up later at home.
I had not been long in the Gifford Room, where Billy and the others had also retreated, when Cowan came running in breathless, saying, “They’re shooting people. One guy may be dead. I was on the roof with him.” That was when I learned how close I had been to the carnage. Cowan told us, in a story I was reluctant to believe, that someone near him had obtained Rector’s shirt when the ambulance came, and had grabbed it and gone somewhere, to a meeting? to a group of protesters? to cops? literally “waving the bloody shirt.” It was the first time I had heard that phrase which, it turns out, is an oldtime political phrase meaning “to refer to martyrs to make a political point.” There is no way to verify that story and rumors fly in such situations, but the memory of the story being told is intrinsic to my experience of what came to be called “Bloody Thursday.”
Aside from the death and the blinding, the carnage included 256 arrested and taken to Santa Rita jail,40 110 treated at local hospitals,41 and dozens admitted to hospitals.42 The exact number of the injured may never be known since, as one story indicates, people were afraid they would be arrested if they went to the hospital.43 That night, Reagan called in the National Guard. For 17 days, Berkeley was under martial law, including a curfew, streets into and out of the city blocked, cameras confiscated and a prohibition against more than three people congregating in public. The guard patrolled streets and vacant lots with fixed bayonets.44
I remember the guard being principally on The Ave, but I did have an encounter at an area called the People’s Park Annex. In line with the general philosophy being presented of “Let a Thousand Parks Bloom,” a different vacant lot nearer my apartment had been guerilla-gardened with a view to making it a park and National Guardsmen were stationed there. One day I was visited by a female anthro friend and a group of her friends, all dressed in especially attractive, sexy outfits, stoned, with flowers in their hair. They said there had been stories of women so-dressed taunting the National Guardsmen in a not very nice way and they had decided to try to reverse that policy by going over to the Annex and being truly nice to them. “They’re just young kids,” said my friend, “and don’t want to be doing this. Let’s see if we can make contact with them.” Did I want to go along?
It was not especially my thing, but I trailed along to watch them try this new tactic unfamiliar to me. I see now it was my first experience of flower children. My friend, a beautiful Asian-American woman, walked right up to the National Guard boys who, I seem to remember, had fixed bayonets, but I cannot swear to that. Their guns, anyway, were just inches from her nose. Smiling her dazzling smile, she said, “Where are you from? What are you doing out here? Let’s go swimming instead!” The other women followed her lead, while I stood back amazed and feeling some sympathy for the guardsmen. They were good at their assignment. They ignored the women completely. I was relieved that, indeed, whatever the other women had done, these women did sound sincerely warm. I heard no trace of mockery, though I could not shake the feeling that the poor guys might be experiencing it as mockery. I had never seen anything like it. Surely they had not, either, and God only knows where they had come from. It must have looked like the sirens tempting the argonauts to them. But, then again, maybe not. Whatever works, I thought.
The Annex action exemplifies the view that People’s Park is the exact historical point where the increasing cultural overlap between hippies and political students became a tactical political merging. To try to understand it in a purely factual way is to miss its status as collective symbolic interaction. On that level, it was a drama with a cast of thousands that touched on the most basic principles of each side and was fed by visceral emotions on both sides. The violence of the repression it inspired catapulted me, some of my colleagues in anthropology, and probably a lot more people out of academia and/or the city to live their lives on some entirely different trajectory. It might have been, for me, the first time I went beyond feeling sympathy with the movement that would become the counterculture to speculating whether I, myself, could ever join it.
Attack of the Whirlybird
Five days after Bloody Thursday, Reagan produced his piece de resistance. John met me for lunch at Kroeber Hall and, having heard that there would be a noon rally to honor James Rector, we proceeded to Sproul Plaza, expecting to check it out and then eat somewhere. We had been told that there was no action being planned and that it was a legal rally – one of the very kind that the Free Speech Movement had established as legitimate. We expected it to be fairly routine, if incredibly depressing, but since it was aimed at such a sensitive subject, we were a bit nervous that there might be extra trouble, so when my friend, Lynn, expressed misgivings about attending it alone, John and I told her to go with us.
As we came down beside the north end of Sproul Hall, between Sproul Hall and Sather Gate, what we saw was the back of a line of cops. It was the first time that non-campus police had been on campus like that in advance of any kind of action on the part on the part of the students. Our way was blocked by the line and we could see, looking toward Sather Gate, that inside the part of the line we could see was a packed crowd. I noticed that the police were equipped with gas masks. To get onto the plaza, we would have to go in between the cops, but there seemed to be space to do so.
After a short pause, Lynn and I started to go through so that we could get where we could hear the speakers, but John reached out and grabbed my arm and pulled me back. Lynn kept going. I said what are you doing? He said, “Check it out. The cops are letting people in but they aren’t letting people out.” I saw that it was true. There were people on the plaza trying to come toward us through the line and being stopped, but everyone heading toward the plaza was being let through. I saw Lynn almost at the line and yelled at her to come back, but she did not hear me. I tried to run and grab her but John would not let go of me. I saw her pass on through.
As we remained in our spot and watched, it became clear to us that this was some kind of a plan. The cops were creating an artificial crowd. It was clearly planned in advance, they were making the crowd bigger than it would have been, by blocking all escape routes from the plaza. We could only see one part of it, but it was reasonable to assume that whatever we were looking at was being repeated all over the plaza. Behind Sproul Hall was a backwater, why would they do it here and not everywhere? (Subsequent reports are that the National Guard had indeed blocked off the main entrance to campus by placing a long line of guard up and down Bancroft, blocking all exits.45) I saw Lynn, just on the other side of the police line. She finally realized we were not next to her and turned around. Since she had not heard me over the loudspeakers before, I was vigorously motioning to her to come back out. But it was too late. The police would not let her pass. Shaking myself loose from John, I started walking towards the cops to give them some shit about it as she started to give them some shit about it from the other side.
Just about that time, a huge helicopter came, swept over the crowd and then flew off toward the Berkeley hills. We were all riveted and stood looking at it. I remember thinking it looked kinda familiar. Had I not seen such a helicopter in news footage of the war? Helicopters like that often were shown with gas coming out of them. Everyone near me was watching the mild scuffle going on between Lynn and the cops. But, I kept my eye on the helicopter with grim foreboding. As it turned over the hills and came back towards campus, I was thinking, would they spray us? Would they really? Then I thought with crystal clarity, “if spray comes out of that helicopter, my life will never be the same.”
At that exact moment, I saw the spray starting to come out. I screamed, “Look out, gas!” Everybody outside the line started running away from the plaza. I tried to run and grab Lynn, to pull her through the cop line but John grabbed me before I could get to her and ran me into the building behind Sproul Hall, the business building. I had time to look back and see cops beating people as they tried to break through the line. The panic was spreading through the crowd as people became aware of the spray. Now it was clear why the cops had been equipped with gas masks. Everybody on the outside of the police line was running to try to get away from the gas and everybody on the inside of the police line was trying to get out.
We got into Eschelman Hall before the spray hit us and ran through it, out the far door and back to Kroeber, where we waited in the Gifford Room for Lynn to show up. When she did, she looked like hell. She had been throwing up, since it had been not just tear gas, but nausea gas. She had welts becoming bruises from being manhandled and beaten by the cops. She was in a very bad state, but was immediately surrounded by friends comforting her. We learned that, indeed, the cops had completely surrounded the plaza, blocked all routes out and beaten people who had just been sprayed with nausea gas when they tried to escape. We all felt terrible, as more people arrived in a similar state, but mine was psychological rather than physical. John had saved me from being sprayed and/or beaten, but he had also caused me to abandon my good friend there, which disturbed my conscience for many years, even though there was nothing I could have done about it. It had been a battle and I felt like people must feel when they left their buddies in a battle in wartime.
By that time, the helicopter had sprayed the whole campus and much of the surrounding area. Many of the people in the plaza had been just going to class or lunch and had nothing to do with People’s Park. They started gassing us long before the helicopter was over the plaza – it got into the hospital ventilation system and “tortured people in iron lungs;”46 it burned the skin of swimmers at the pool in Strawberry Canyon, a mile from campus;47 we heard it got the pre-school kids out on their playground, professors emeritus walking with canes and hundreds of people who were nowhere near the rally.
Lynn at least partly forgave me, after I tearfully explained to her what had happened. The gloom in the Gifford Room was unbearable, so the three of us walked to where John had parked our car and drove up to the Rose Garden, one of my favorite off-campus spots in the Berkeley hills, to try and cool out a bit. We were standing up there looking out across the roses and out across the campus, watching the helicopters that were still circling around. I assume that the big one must have left and these were news helicopters. The three of us looked at each other wearily and Lynn said, “I can’t stand this. I can’t keep this up. I’ve got to get out of here.” It was a hell of a statement to make. Lynn had just barely skinned into graduate school like I had and I knew she cared about her career every bit as much as I did. I said, “I think you’re right. I think it’s all over. I don’t think that we can stay here anymore.”
It was a very poignant moment and, as turning points in my life go, an especially memorable one. It was the very moment that I realized just how strong the repression was and that there was no way to fight it. I could see nothing else that I could do but try to get away from it. Within a year, both Lynn and I were gone. At least in our cases, Reagan had done exactly what he meant to do.
A memorial service was held for James Rector on campus May 21 and I attended it. There was a gigantic march of 30,000 people supported even by some sororities on campus. In mid-June, the guard was withdrawn from Berkeley and by the next regents meeting, residents had pulled down the fence unobstructed. The city council leased the land from the university. In the next election, conservative city council members were replaced by leftists.48 I did not participate or follow these events because I was either gone or about to be gone. The helicopter had done it for me. John and I were already planning our departure. We left the day after I turned in my last paper, before finals were even over.
1”Melee Erupts at Berkeley Mass Sit-in,” Chicago Tribune, December 1, 1966, p. 1.
2BBC Home Page. “On This Day” 1950 to 2005, 20 October, 1967.
4Cannon, Terence, “Barricades in Oakland,” The Movement, November 1967, Vol. 3, No. 11,
6Ibid., p. 6.
10Segal, Jeff. “Pop-Art Guerilla Warfare.” The Movement. November 1967, Vol. 3, No. 1, p.7.
11Cannon, op. cit., p.3.
12Segal, op. cit.
15Cannon, op. cit..
17Segal, op. cit.
18BBC, op. cit.
19Segal, op. cit., p. 14.
20Berkeley in the Sixties, transcript, p. 41. Available at http://www.newsreel.org
21Segal, Ibid., p. 7.
22Bob Dylan, “On the Road Again.”
23Picture This: California’s Perspectives on American History website. “Unforgettable Change: 1960s: People’s Park Fights UC Land Use Policy; One Dead, Thousands Tear Gassed.” http://www.picturethis.museum.org
24Brenneman, Richard. “The Bloody Beginnings of People’s Park.” The Berkeley Daily Planet. April 20, 2004. http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2004/06/08_reagan.shtml
25Davis, Sam. “People’s Park: it’s time for a change.” Berkeley Blog, UC Berkeley, September 29, 2015.
27Oakland Museum of California, op. cit.
29Rosenfeld, Seth. “The Governor’s Race.” San Francisco Chronicle, June 9, 2002.
30Berkeley in the Sixties, transcript, op.cit., p. 58.
31Ibid., p. 57.
32Wittmeyer, Alicia. “From Rubble to Refuge.” The Daily Californian, April 26, 2004.
33I say “attributed” because I have a memory of Cowan claiming to have written it, or co-written it. Since my memory is not 100% reliable, I am forced to be fuzzy on the point of authorship of this leaflet.
34Berkeley in the Sixties, transcript, op. cit., p. 56.
35Jeffery Kahn, UC Berkeley News. Web feature. “Ronald Reagan launched political career using the Berkelely campus as a target” June 8, 2004.
36Berkeley in the Sixties, transcript, op. cit., p. 59
37Burks, John, John Grissim, Jr. and Langdon Winner. “The Battle of People’s Park,” Rolling Stone, June 14, 1969.
38cf. Oakland Museum of California, op. cit.; Brenneman, Richard, op. cit.; Burks, John, et. al., ibid.
39Burks, John, et. al., ibid.
41Oakland Museum of California, op. cit.
42Burks, John, et. al., ibid.
43Brenneman, Richard, op. cit.
44Oakland Museum of California, op. cit.
46Macrohistory and the World Timeline website, “The Sixties and Seventies from Berkeley to Woodstock,” http://www.fsmitha.com/h2/ch28B.htm
48Oakland Museum of California, op. cit.
© Jentri Anders, 2016