Fifty years ago this May, the streets south of the University of California in Berkeley were teeming with National Guard soldiers, California Highway Patrol cops, Alameda County sheriffs and cops from Berkeley, Oakland and other surrounding towns. Tear gas was being discharged in vast volumes by these forces of law and order. Police were shooting shotguns and other weapons and blood was being spilled. A young man was murdered by police. These same cops were also arresting residents without cause, tossing them into paddywagons and sending them to the county jail. There, those arrested were beaten and otherwise brutalized by the prison guards, many who seemed to take great delight in their sadism.
It was all about a piece of land. A vacant lot that residents decided to turn into a park. A park popularly known even today as People’s Park. An action that became a line in the sand for the forces of reaction led by then Governor Ronald Reagan—who had coasted to election by demonizing antiwar students, longhaired hippies and African-Americans in general. After months of an again, off again protests in support of the May 1968 rebellion in France, against the war in Vietnam and in support of the Third World Student Strike at UC Berkeley, the building of a park on property nominally owned by the University of California would be the catalyst that caused the State to shoot and kill white youth. In my mind, it still boils down to the challenge to the idea of private property the Park represented that caused the bloody reaction by those forces hired to protect that property.
Since that bloody May in 1969, there have been other confrontations between the University of California over the park. Two of them—one in 1979 and one in 1991—were more consequential than others. In 1991, a young defender of the park was killed by police when she entered the university chancellor’s residence. The Autumn 1979 confrontation was considerably less violent than the one in 1991, perhaps because Gus Newport, the mayor of Berkeley at the time, was neither a Democrat or a Republican (he was a member of the Communist Party USA), and had his own battles with the arrogant and elitist University administration. In fact, Newport pulled Berkeley City police back from confronting the Park’s defenders on the very first day of the 1979 confrontation. That left only university police, who contented themselves with photographing us while we tore up a parking lot in the park and planted trees where cars had once parked. (The Slingshot Collective and Terri Compost published a book titled People’s Park, Still Blooming that covered the 1979 and 1991 confrontations well.)
A couple weeks ago, Berkeley residents celebrated the Park’s Fiftieth anniversary with music and (now legal) marijuana. No riots occurred. However, hanging over the entire event is a new threat from the University to build housing on that land. The rationale for this is pretty much the same as it always has been: students need housing and the park is a haven for criminals. In what seems to be a rather cynical allowance for the ongoing crisis of homelessness created by ongoing gentrification, the University has told the media and liberal apologists for the destruction of the park that they will also build facilities to help the homeless who hang out in the park. Given the University’s history, I doubt their sincerity when it comes to that promise.
To coincide with the anniversary of People’s Park, Berkeley’s Heyday Press just published a resplendent text commemorating the birth of the park fifty years ago. Simply titled The Battle for People’s Park, Berkeley 1969, the book is a beautiful collection of photographs, memories and reflection. The author/editor Tom Dalzell has created a masterful work that successfully captures the chronology of events with recollections by participants and numerous photographs. Cops, protesters, innocent bystanders, public officials and media who reported on the 1969 events are all included in Dalzell’s work. The foreword by one-time SDS president Todd Gitlin is representative of many others his age who were politically involved at the time. In other words, it is slightly wistful but ultimately fatalistic. Steve Wasserman, the publisher, adds his own reflections at the end. Wasserman, who was a Berkeley high school radical and participated in the People’s Park insurrection, sounds even more fatalistic than Gitlin.
This book is a masterwork of history. By presenting photographs of the leaflets, the police actions and the park builders/defenders in amongst the page after page of recollections and commentary, Dalzell has created a book essential to understanding the hopes and fears of the period known as the Sixties. Furthermore, he has done so in a manner that is more than just a good read. The Battle of People’s Park, Berkeley 1969 is an aesthetically pleasing and intellectually satisfying work equally at home on the bookshelves of a serious historian, an old hippie or a curious youngster.