Another Day at People’s Park

Photo: Jeanne Hansen.

To the eye of a tourist from another city, the plot of land in Berkeley, California that’s known as People’s Park might look like a hurricane hit it. The trunks of huge trees are scattered about. Piles of wood chips litter the property and trash and garbage are nearly everywhere. Those who live here sleep in tents. Some of the campers are defenders of the park. 

None of the wonton destruction is the work of nature gone wild. Rather, it is the work of the Regents at the University of California who have their own plans for the historic plot that was listed this year on the National Register of Historic Places. History is taught on campus, but apparently not honored by the Regents.

Of course, the members of the Regents themselves didn’t dirty their own hands and aren’t directly responsible for the trunks of trees on the ground, the wood chips in huge mounds and the trash and garbage. But the Regents gave the green light to the men with chainsaws and heavy machinery who erected a chain link fence around the lot and then created chaos. For the Regents, the worse the better. As an eyesore, the lot persuades some citizens to say forget about the Park. Build, build, build.  

Berkeleyites with a sense of history and with a vision of the future look at the mess and see potential and promise not a disaster. They have skin in the game and have been involved in the fight against the Regents for years and even decades. What they want now and have long wanted is open space in a densely populated neighborhood that is in dire need of a park where citizens can wander freely, sit down and have a picnic, bask in the sun and enjoy a corner of the Great Outdoors in an urban setting. 

On a recent Friday, after a long absence, I returned to People’s Park with a friend who is a photographer and who brought cameras with her and took pictures. When I told her that I didn’t believe anything the Regents said and that I thought that the University of California was hypocritical, she said, “But isn’t it an institution of great learning and innovative scholarship with wonderful professors who turn out generation after generation of graduates who contribute to the well-being of society?”  I understood her point of view. I had spent much of my life in academia at a branch of the California State University system.

“Cal,” as everyone calls the University of California at Berkeley, does have a record of academic excellence. But it also has blood on its hands, and a long standing refusal to recognize and abide by the wishes of the community. It has also abdicated all responsibility to care for the land, the trees, and the historical legacy of the lot. In 1969, James Rector was shot and killed when then Governor Ronald Reagan dispatched the National Guard to Berkeley to confront the “dirty hippies” who wanted to create a mini-utopia where they could enjoy peace and love, and maybe smoke some dope.  

Dirty hippies are still around. So are old activists, plus today’s undergrads. They rallied recently after men with hard hats on their heads erected a chain link fence, cut down beautiful, ancient trees, and made a mess. The hippies, the veterans and the young students—more than a thousand of them—tore down the fence and sabotaged the machinery so more damage could not be inflicted.

Photo: Jeanne Hansen.

Protesters made art and created a wild and wonderful garden in one corner where I saw flowers, including blooming roses and nostrums, as well as fledgling shrubs and trees reaching for the sun. Protesters also wrote slogans and drew graffiti that said things like “People’s Park, 53 Years of Resistance,”  “UC Has Blood on their hands,” “Cops Eat Poop” and “Keep Our Park Beautiful and Safe.” There were peace signs and drawings of symbolic human hearts. 

When I told Joe Liesner from Food Not Bombs, and a longtime activist, that when I looked at the park I saw gloom and doom, he said, “I’m not gloomy. We’ve held them off, we’ve raised a lot of money and we’re stronger than ever before.” Harvey Smith, a Cal grad, and an expert on the New Deal in Berkeley, described the Regents as a “moral failure” because it has done nothing to address the problem of the homeless in the Park and nothing to end the selling and buying of drugs. Deadly fentenyl is available.

When I told Smith that one website describes People’s Park as “permanently closed,” he shook his head and said, “It doesn’t look permanently closed to me.” Indeed, it didn’t look that way to me. Smith went on, “The university doesn’t need this specific site. It is the least appropriate and the most controversial. There are other more advantageous sites.” 

Liesner, who had arrived at the park on bicycle, added “Like Kent State and Jackson State, this place is emblematic of a movement that was truly democratic, and anti-racist and that’s part of the modern ecological movement.” Liesner added that “by cutting down the redwoods in the Fred Cody Memorial Grove, the University had violated the National Historic Preservation Act” and that “our fear is that they could keep on violating it.”

Activists like Smith and Liesner and their friends and comrades are ready to move again at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, the future of the Park is in the courts. Judges in black robes will likely decide what’s next. 

Someone handed me a copy of the October 2022 newsletter “Pepper Spray Times,” edited by “Grace Underpressure” and with contributors with names like “Juan Nathan Undergod” and “Fanny DeFlames” and the slogan on the masthead that reads, “You can kick the ass of the rich. It’s just such a big ass that it takes a long time.”  Yes Berkeley is still Bezerkeley and wonderfully so.

One of the gardeners who had just planted a baby persimmon tree, told me “we can cross out fingers and keep on hoping and also get rid of the machines. It’s not a real park with all these tractors and bulldozers here.” 

Liesner reminded me of Jill Lepore’s essay about Kent State, Jackson State and People’s Park that asked if the nation had ever really left a “bitterly divided era.” It did not seem so. The nation was still bitterly divided and so was Berkeley, one of the birthplaces of the Sixties.

If my initial impression was one of gloom and doom, it wasn’t my parting impression. I gazed at the flowers in bloom, the graffiti and the slogans and the expressions on the faces of Joe Liesner and Harvey Smith and took my leave with a sense of hope.  

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