Ronald Reagan, Redwoods and People’s Park

Where is Ronald Reagan now that the Regents at the University of California need him? Long gone, of course, to the Republican Party Heaven, while veterans of People’s Park, including Stew Albert, who came up with the original idea, along with some of his fellow conspirators, now live in the pages of legend. Some veterans who are still alive helped tear down the fence erected recently by UC Berkeley, which after all these years, still doesn’t get it. As long as there’s a campus with feisty students and true blue alumni, like Steve Wasserman and Harvey Smith to name just two—as long as there are tie-dyed T-shirts, and cell phones that seem ready made to draw a crowd instantly— there will be protests against the University’s plans to efface all memory of the mini-utopia that irked Governor Reagan.

That kind of erasure of the past is what the Russians have done and still do in places like Babi Yar in Ukraine. Perhaps that’s an extreme comparison, but People’s Park invites extremes: radical slogans and cries, dramatic actions and memorable murals like the one on the wall outside Amoeba Records which Osha Neumann and Brian Thiele painted not long after the aroma of teargas faded from the streets of the place that for a time was known worldwide as “Bezerkeley.” Neumann’s recent piece on the Park which was published in Berkeleyside was a model of wisdom, Sixties style. “It is realistic to be unrealistic,” he wrote. “The impossible visions are the ones most worth fighting for.”

I wasn’t in Berkeley in ’69, but rather in New York helping to disrupt academic life, along with undergrads like Mark Rudd, at Columbia, my alma mater, though I was also a mild-mannered professor teaching literature. I’m not going to go there now, not going to unpack my memories of long ago.

If there’s one thing that really irks me right now, aside from those who deny climate change and want to deny democracy, it’s the veterans of the 1960s who are eager to toot their own horns and make themselves in retrospect into heroes of the revolution. Write about the past but don’t live on your own laurels, please. Yeah, yeah, I agree, Berkeley needs open space. The parcel where the park once thrived is a near-perfect location, not for a highrise but for picnics, basketball, music, poetry, and sharing a joint. Please no wallowing in nostalgia.

While the University doesn’t understand that the site of People’s Park deserves to be open space for all the people, some of the veterans from Berkeley long ago don’t understand that many of us would rather not hear about their exploits in 1969, when they thought that the whole world was watching them and still think they’re the center of global attention. Berkeley turned heads around, but so did other campuses that stood at the center of protest.

I won’t name names. That would be impolite. If there’s one thing I learned from my days on the barricades it’s that manners matter, though sometimes they have to be shelved. Especially if and when a bulldozer comes at you and you have to give it a symbolic finger and utter a four-letter word.

 The most telling image that I’ve seen of People’s Park today, after the fences went up and were torn down, is the one that shows a bouquet of purple flowers laid across the stump of a redwood tree. Perhaps it’s not as powerful as the image of a protester at the Pentagon in 1967 inserting a flower in the muzzle of a rifle, but it comes awfully close. It doesn’t need a caption or an explanatory text. It speaks for itself. The medium is the message, as student radicals from Berkeley to Chicago, Madison, New York and Boston insisted long ago.

I still don’t understand how UC Berkeley, which is known as a site of knowledge, gave the green light to guys with chainsaws to cut down trees. But perhaps someone at the Regents or in a high-rise was inspired by our 40th president who once said famously, “When you’ve seen one redwood tree, you’ve seen them all.” 

What now? How about a series of teach-ins in which all sides are aired and everyone gets to vote: Berkeley citizens, students, faculty, administrators, staff members and the workers who keep the institution up and running. In case you don’t remember, it’s called democracy.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.