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Attacking the Non-Violent Berkeley Movement in the 1960s

After graduating UC Berkeley in 1968, I returned to Berkeley to visit friends May 1969 when People’s Park was being built.  I had gotten arrested for Free Speech in 1964, and had seen for months how the “mainstream” press had attacked our non-violent Free Speech Movement (FSM). For months my boss told me that she believed the Oakland Tribune newspapers that the leaders of the FSM were Communists.

For months I said the leaders of FSM were civil rights activists except for one Communist—Bettina Aptheker who was a moderating  influence. My months of denials never affected my boss at all.  After I got out of jail, I called my parents the next night, telling them I had been arrested in the sit-in. FSM had run orderly sit-in, giving us instructions to stay out of administration’s offices, which we scrupulously followed. My mother asked, “The LA Times said the people in the sit-in went in and broke into somebody’s office.”

“No, we didn’t,” I said.

Later we heard that a high administration bureaucrat at Berkeley had told that fallacious bit of news to the press who reprinted it until a second high official said, “No, my office was not broken into. I just keep a messy office.”

FSM even had a theory of press bias:  the closer to Berkeley, the more the press lied. After the sit-in we had a student strike to get free speech on campus, which in Letters and Science was 2/3 successful.  The S.F. Chronicle lied about the strike, saying it was unsuccessful. After six months of FSM organizing and after we changed the rules about free speech at UC, we finally read the first U.S. reporter who actually interviewed the leaders of FSM:  Calvin Trillin in “A Letter from Berkeley” published in the New Yorker magazine 3000 miles away. The local “mainstream” press never did. FSM thought that further away the press, the more the press told the truth. The most honest was the London press.

Despite the Berkeley protests being non-violent, the U.S. mass media for five years kept up a barrage of untrue attacks on the Berkeley movement. The negative press affected the police. In our first non-violent anti-war March in 1965 Oakland cops got on the rooftops and pointed shot guns at us. The march leaders turned away from marching into Oakland instead leading the marchers to camp overnight in a Berkeley park where the campers were tear gassed. At the second anti-war march Hell’s Angels attacked the marchers. And so it went with mass media attacks helping elect Governor Reagan in 1966 on a promise to crack down on protestors at Berkeley. Reagan called UC Berkeley “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants.”

Winter and spring 1969 Third World students had a peaceful protest on campus to get black studies, Asian-American studies, Chicano studies, and Native American studies. I had briefly visited Berkeley late January where I saw students of color lead noisy but peaceful parades around campus. The Los Angeles Times reported about the strike how the cops arrested strike leaders with the police clubbing one leader Delgado to the ground and cornering a 2nd leader Macias:  “Both strike leaders were taken into Sproul Hall, apparently unconscious. Four others were arrested in the schuffle (sic). The striking students reformed at Bancroft-Telegraph and clinked arms again. About 30 California Highway Patrolmen formed a wedge and charged into the crowd, chasing the students into the streets.”

By March 3, 1969, over 150 students were arrested, 20 students had been injured and 36 were suspended. The National Guard was called to campus for the first time, but soon Chancellor Heyns conceded to most of the demands of the Third World Liberation Front, which included the establishment of the Department of Ethnic Studies.  UC Berkeley did set up Third World studies classes, and in the 1970s over 240 colleges did the same.

Arriving back in Berkeley May 10, 1969, I stayed at my friend Susan’s apartment on Southside. I immediately heard about the building of People’s Park and walked a few blocks to the park, seeing twenty people planting bushes and flowers.  In 1956, the Regents of the UC had created a Plan to obtain 2.8 acres of land a few blocks south of campus for student housing and parking, but they had no money to buy the land until June 1967. UC sent bulldozers in February, 1968, demolishing old, affordable housing where students had lived, but UC ran out of funds. Rents were escalating rapidly and students had a harder time to find inexpensive housing. UC had left the land as a muddy lot where people dumped their abandoned cars.

At a meeting April 13 local merchants and residents heard student activists Wendy Schlesinger and Michael Delacour present a plan for turning the land into a public park. The attendees approved the plan, but the university did not. A third activist Stew Albert wrote an article calling for help to help build the park that appeared in the Berkeley Barb on April 18. On April 20, over 100 people began to build the park, contributing trees, flowers, shrubs and sod on the site. UC Vice Chancellor Earl Cheit released plans April 28 for a sports field on ¾ of the site, but he said he wouldn’t take action until notifying the park builders. On May 6 UC Chancellor Heyns also said he wouldn’t start building anything until he had notified the people creating the park. I walked into the park May 12, helping to put in more shrubs, seeing that the park was almost finished being built with walkways through the green shrubs and flower bushes.

Though few people from UC objected to the new park, Governor Reagan in his two years governing by spring of 1969 had begun to fulfill his promise to crack down on protestors at Berkeley. Since Reagan thought building of the park was a direct challenge to UC’s property rights, he decided it was time to fulfill his campaign promise. On Thursday, March 15, he sent in the California Highway Patrol and Berkley police to People’s Park, ignoring Chancellor Heyns’ promise of notification before any action was taken. The police destroyed most of flowers, shrubs, and tress that had been planted, erecting an 8-foot-tall chain-link wire fence around the park.

That morning I went to see a male friend up at the Free Church on Southside. Susan had told me what had happened at People’s Park, but I had braved many previous struggles, and set off. At the Free Church, my friend said, “You should go back to your friend Susan’s house because hell is going to break out here later today.” I did as he suggested, returning to Susan’s home.

Susan and I listened all afternoon and evening to KPFA, the alternative radio station. We heard at the noon rally at Sproul Plaza about 3,000 people showed up, hearing to student body president Dan Siegal talk  about how the police had surrounded People’s Park. The crowd followed Siegel down Telegraph Avenue chanting, “We want the park!” We heard they were met by 159 Berkeley and university cops guarding the fenced-off site. Several hundred tried to tear down the fence. A few threw bottles and rocks at the police, who responded by throwing tear gas at the crowd. We listened to the KPFA reporter reporting from Telegraph Avenue request an immediate donation to the radio station so they can buy a gas mask for him.

Reagan’s right-wing Chief of Staff Edwin Meese II called in Alameda County Sherriff’s deputies until a total of 791 cops surrounded the park. Meese told the police they could use whatever methods they wanted. When the protesters retreated, the Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies pursued them several blocks down Telegraph Avenue. We listened on the radio to the KFPF reporter telling us the cops threw tear gas canisters at protestors. As the crowd fled, the police fired birdshot and shotguns using “00” buckshot at the people’s backs.

We listened to the report that Alameda County Sherriff’s deputies fired shotguns at people sitting on the roof of the Telegraph Repertory Cinema.  The reporter announced police shot and killed James Rector, a student bystander and not a protester, and they blinded for life carpenter Alan Blanchard when the police by shot birdshot into his face. We listened to the report that 128 Berkeley residents were admitted to local hospitals for head trauma, and shotgun wounds. Many of the injured were too afraid to show up at local hospitals where they were feared they would be arrested.  Local medical students and interns organized volunteer mobile first-aid teams to help protestors and bystanders who were injured. I was in shock by the end of the day.

That evening Governor Reagan declared a state of emergency in Berkeley and sent in 2,700 National Guard to patrol the city, declaring a nightly curfew. The police shut off all freeway entrances. No one would drive into the city at night. Next day I walked to campus seeing a line of National Guard in Sproul Plaza. I walked around them to the Terrace cafeteria.

Wherever you were by evening curfew, you stayed because you didn’t want to be arrested for breaking curfew. That night at Susan’s apartment, Susan, I, her roommates and a few neighbors listened to the radio for updates and shared wine and cake. The next day I walked to campus, circling around the National Guard again.

The last horrible event I witnessed was on May 20, 1969, when National Guard helicopters flew over the campus, spewing out air borne tear gas that dispersed over all of Berkeley, sending children to hospitals. Governor Reagan had gassed the whole town. I wanted to go home and flew home the next day.

We had been a non-violent movement for nine years but the “mainstream” press had almost never interviewed us and had set us up to be attacked. Yes, at People’s Park in the heat of moment a few very upset people threw rocks and bottles at the police, which they shouldn’t The U.S. mass media lied about non-violent movement of the 1960s, and these lies had  dreadful consequences when during People’s Park James Rector was killed and Alan Blanchard blinded. So far I have read “liberal” media attack antifa again and again, but I haven’t read one writer who has bothered to interview members or leaders of antifa.  And I can still think of James Recto and of Alan Blanchard.

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