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Long Live People’s Park

 

In April of 1969, an eclectic bunch of people in Berkeley, California reclaimed a piece of land owned by the University of California, dug up the asphalt parking lot there, tilled the soil, planted trees and plants, put in a swing set and benches and turned it into a park. Black Panthers, street people, elderly women and men, students, children and dogs all joined in to make the park a piece of liberated territory. It became know as People’s Park.

The University, with the urging of then governor Ronnie Reagan, decided to end this endeavor in neighborhood land reclamation. Reagan and the rest of the university’s regents were already ticked off about the Third World Strike that had effectively shut down the Berkeley campus for much of the spring semester. The creation of the park was the last straw. Reagan and the university administration decided to do something. On May 15, 1969 University police took back the park in a pre-dawn raid. They arrested the street people who were sleeping there and sealed off an eight-block area around the park. A construction crew came in and begin to fence off the park’s perimeter. At noon, a rally of over 6000 people was held in Sproul Plaza protesting the police occupation of the park. The rally ended with a march to the park. All hell broke loose once the protesters met up with police from all over the East Bay. Police fired shotguns, killing James Rector and wounding over 100 others. All public assembly was banned and the National Guard was activated. For the next two weeks, a state of insurrection existed in Berkeley. The park remained fenced off. In the years immediately following, the fence around the park became a ready target whenever Berkeley erupted into protest. After a particularly raucous protest in 1972 after Nixon mined the harbor of Haiphong, Vietnam, the fence was torn down for the last time and the city of Berkeley leased the land for a nominal sum and let it be administered by a council of citizens and park habitués-the People’s Park Council. Since that time, the university has attempted to reclaim the park land a half-dozen times or so, only to be met with protest and ultimately backing down.

The park recently celebrated its 34th year as liberated territory. It has not been without its problems, but it has always remained as a symbol and a reality. What follows is a remembrance of a 1979 attack on the park’s existence by the University-an attack that was resisted by community action and solidarity.

Another showdown. For those who were around in 1969 or 1972, it was an eerie deja vu. Some of the same cops and some of the same fighters in the battle for People’s Park were facing off again. The park was a piece of land that the University of California had been attempting to develop since the late Sixties and had been rebuffed by determined community resistance each time. The veterans on both sides were all a little grayer, but the grudges remained. For most of us, though, it was the first major battle. This was a different battle than those daily skirmishes where the cops swaggered through the park spreading their porcine presence. They’d walk over to a group of folks and demand identification, just because they could. If you refused, you went to jail. No questions, just handcuffs. This was counterinsurgency of a certain type.

The University of California had pushed it too far this time. The afternoon before, a couple dozen members of their police force escorted a bulldozer into the park and began removing benches. The morning paper had written about a University administrative plan to start charging for the westend parking lot-the only remaining asphalt in the park. We had heard rumors about this possibility for months yet in the Council’s negotiations with the University they insisted the rumors were lies. More bureaucrats speaking with forked tongues. The bulldozer was phase one. One of the park’s denizens –a big mean guy named Tommy Trashcan — walked over to the dozer and pulled out the ignition wires. I never liked the fellow before or after that act, but at that moment he was my hero. The police attempted to arrest him as more cruisers arrived. After a twenty-minute tussle, Trashcan was in the police van. It was immediately surrounded by a couple dozen folks, who sat on the ground around the van. The cop at the wheel revved his engine and charged through the crowd. After that, somebody went to the tool shed in the bushes at the other end of the lot and brought out a couple of pickaxes. We took turns removing the asphalt in the parking lot piece by piece. After giving us a series of unheeded warnings the cops left, bragging to us that they would win and take the park back.

Before dawn the next morning several hundred enraged citizens hung around in the park and the surrounding sidewalks. The University had installed machines overnight that dispensed tickets at the entrances to the parking lot overnight. Some of us who were hanging out passed out leaflets urging drivers to park elsewhere, some drank an early morning beer, and some sharpened sticks for use in the attack they felt sure was coming. In the parking lot across Haste Street were the police. Maybe a hundred cops milled around drinking coffee, putting on their riot gear and talking on their radios. They were preparing for battle as seriously as those looking for one on our side of the street. The adrenalin levels were high all around.

About half an hour before the University had commanded the new pay parking lot to open, a bus from the Hog Farm commune that they called the Asp drove up. While some of the parks swarthier defenders removed the machines demanding parking fees from the earth, the Asp’s inhabitants began handing out balloons and tying a string of them around the park. Those of us in the park smiled a little, our tenseness eased a bit by the Hog Farmers’ antics. As I watched the officers across the street however, I noticed that their apprehension didn’t seem to change. Indeed, their desire to attack only seemed to be enhanced by the Hog Farmers’ lightheartedness.

As the defining moment approached, Salty, a member of the park’s organizing and maintenance committee, spoke on the phone to the mayor, Communist Party member Gus Newport. The Hog Farmers continued to distribute balloons. Somebody, maybe it was Wavy Gravy, was playing Reveille on a kazoo. While the Farmers were finding plenty of takers among the citizens in the park and those who came to park, they couldn’t even pay one of the cops to take one. Just as the riot squad moved into their attack formation and pulled down the clear plastic visors on their helmets, the mayor drove up. He got out of his car and waved good morning to the park’s defenders. Then he told the police to leave. Since he was the city cops’ boss they did so, cursing, one can be sure, the commie son of a bitch all the way back to their cars. This left a much-reduced force of University police who could do little but observe. Which they did for six weeks.

During those six weeks the parking lot was removed piece by piece and the beginnings of a garden were put in place. The occupation of the park enjoyed tremendous support for the first month. The first couple weeks’ worth of evenings, in fact, turned into big picnics with folks from all around the Bay Area bringing food, beer, pot and music makers. Merriment reigned those nights as people met new friends and hung out with old ones. Professionals with loosened ties on their way home from work joined together with hardened park habitués, musicians, college students and brothers from the streets of Oakland and West Berkeley and began to plant a garden where the parking lot had stood. Local businesses brought donations of plants and building supplies. As time went on, though, the picnics got smaller, and eventually the only people who remained were those who had nowhere else to go. This was mostly a collection of street people, petty criminals who made their living from selling bogus dope to tourists, and hard-core gypsies. Two days after Thanksgiving the cops moved in and sent everyone on their way.

The anger remained, however, as did the garden planted in that former parking lot. Over the next few months a stage was built in the park and those of us who still believed in the park’s essential difference from the rest of America’s “private property” and weren’t too disillusioned for whatever reason, continued a public campaign in the park’s behalf. Concerts were planned, agreements with the university penned, and gardens maintained.

We also started a newspaper called, simply, The People’s Park Press, which served the dual purpose of keeping the larger community informed and the street community involved in its own destiny. Articles ran the gamut from street gossip to analysis of various local and international political realities and were written by park regulars. Everything seemed to be moving forward. The spring began with a couple concerts that came off quite well. Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead played a May gig there, as did a band formed by a couple former members of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Despite some rather disconcerting public sex in one corner of the park, things went smoothly. Not Disney World, but not bad for a bunch of freaks.

It must have been the third or fourth concert of the year when the cops decided to end the fun. A hardcore punk band from across the bay had just begun their second song after a rousing speech calling for dope legalization by a peoples’ lawyer named Joe when the plug was pulled. Literally. A sympathetic businessperson on Telegraph Avenue allowed bands to plug in to his power source via a couple of very long extension cords and the police just yanked them. After they drove away from the scene, the cords were plugged back in and some of the more menacing concertgoers stationed themselves along the wires to protect them from the cops. The officers then threatened the shop owner with a variety of charges if he didn’t unplug the band. To his credit he didn’t. Five minutes later, ten policemen pushed their way past the shop owner to the back of his store, unplugged the cords and cut off the plugs, rendering the cords useless.

The band hurriedly packed up its equipment while those of us in the park grumbled and lit up the joints distributed during Joe’s legalization talk. After most of the band’s equipment was loaded into their van, Joe took the stage. Asking people not to leave, he urged us all to take the party to the streets. As he shouted, fifty or so people wandered a half block down Haste Street to where it intersected Telegraph. Some of us began re-directing traffic while others sat down in the intersection, nervously waiting for whatever came next. Meanwhile, teenagers who came in every weekend from surrounding towns left their aimless wandering up and down the Avenue and joined the swelling crowd in the street. Jackson started playing his guitar and money was collected for beer and weed. The cops were ignored as they tried to clear the streets.

Meanwhile, in the park a half-dozen officers were trying to arrest Joe and a couple of his friends. He managed to slip away from the cops and made it to the party in the street. Excitedly, he told us what was going on. Just as he was finishing, several police vehicles pulled up and emptied themselves of several dozen cops in riot gear. Two of them grabbed Joe and began wrestling him to the ground. All hell broke loose. Bottles and rocks flew, windows were smashed and the police began hitting whomever they could reach. Then just as quickly as it began, the melee ended and the police pulled back. The street party grew and didn’t end until evening when police from Berkeley and Oakland formed themselves into a wedge formation and cleared the streets. The next morning the street cleaners were joined by some of the park’s early risers as they swept up the trash from the day before.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.

He can be reached at: rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu

 

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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