1969 -- The battle over People's Park, the invasion of Berkeley by the National Guard, teargas and death

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Leslye Russell, A spokesperson for campus employees union AFSCME Local 1695 speaks on Sproul Plaza just before ASUC President Dan Siegel, at left, speaks about the fencing of People's Park and says "Lets Take The Park," The police turn off the sound system and most of the crowd heads for the Park

The university's neglected parcel

At the time of the People's Park controversy, California had a conservative Governor, former actor Ronald Reagan, who had made a 1966 campaign promise to crack down on what the public saw as a "lax attitude" at California's public universities.  Reagan had called the Berkeley campus "a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants."  He saw the ad hoc building of the park on university land as an opportunity to fulfill his promise.

 

The plot of land that became the center of a pitched battle between a loose coalition of radical, hippie, anarchist and environmental activists and a massed force of Bay Area police was a three acre, derelict. empty lot owned by the university, located a few blocks south of Sather Gate.

The university's plan for the property

 

When the property was purchased by the university in 1967, through the process of eminent domain, it was occupied by large, older residences that were allegedly in disrepair.  The university's plan was to create temporary athletic fields, with student housing being a long-range goal.  The houses were demolished in February, 1968.  The university ran out of development funds, leaving the lot an eyesore full of demolition debris and abandoned cars for over a year.

 

The idea for a "People's Park"

 

A meeting of local merchants and residents was held on April 13, 1969, in which a plan was formulated to turn the run-down dirt lot into a public park.  The idea of a park was the brainchild of Michael Delacour and Wendy Schlesinger, two local activists who had used the property for romantic trysts   The plan was not presented to the university.  Instead, Stew Albert, a co-founder of the Yippie Party, issued an appeal in the local counter-culture paper, the Berkeley Barb, for locals to come to the property and help create a park.

The response to the Barb article was overwhelming.  All-told, about 1,000 people became directly involved, donating their time, money and materials.  The park was essentially complete by mid-May.

 

Delacour later stated "We wanted a free speech area that wasn't really controlled like Sproul Plaza was.  It was another place to organize, another place to have a rally.  The park was secondary."  This statement appears somewhat disingenuous in retrospect, because the university's Free Speech microphone on Sproul Plaza was available to all students, with few restrictions on the content of speech.  Because of that fact and because so many of the Park's builders were non-students, it was apparent that the Park was not a response to the needs of the UC Berkeley students, but instead was a means of demonstrating the moral authority of "the people" over the University's and the City of Berkeley's "power structure."

Provocative tactics

 

Frank Bardacke, a participant in the park's development, had announced that "We're using the land better than you used it; it's ours."  Much of the support for the park came as a reaction to the University's "redevelopment" plans for areas around the campus, plans which were cast in the old urban planning mode that looked at older housing as "blight" and saw no need to determine and take into account the needs of the community in general for parks, gathering places and affordable housing.  The confiscation and development of the university parcel by a rainbow of diverse community interests was seen narrowly by the Regents and the Governor as an illegal provocation that would have to be dealt with quickly and forcefully.  ​

The university hides its plans to take back the property

 

The university's response to the community's building of the park was to release plans on April 29, 1969 for a sports field to be constructed on the site.  UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor Earl Cheit stated that he would take no action toward that end without notifying the park's builders. Unexpectedly, Cheit also allocated control of one quarter of the lot to the park builders.  Later events proved that Cheits' apparent "concessions" were a smokescreen designed hide the University's plans to forcefully and abruptly take back the University's property.

Continuing the deception, on May 6, UC Berkeley Chancellor Heyns met with members of the People's Park committee and student and faculty representatives.   He gave this group three weeks to produce a plan for the Park, giving the impression that the University wanted to give the university community input into the disposition of the land.

Further encouragement for a park on the property came from Telegraph Avenue merchants, who had voiced their appreciation for the efforts to bring a park and its unique features (including a community garden) into the south of campus community.   Objections to the expropriation of university property were mild, even among some administrators.  Prospects for a possibly permanent park on at least a part of the parcel appeared to be favorable.

 

Then, Just one week later, On May 13, Heyns notified the media that the University would immediately build a fence around the property and begin construction of a sports field.

Reagan intervenes and the park is fenced off

 

On Thursday, May 15, at 4:30 AM, Governor Reagan sent California Highway Patrol and Berkeley police officers into People's Park.  The officers ripped out a large part of what had been planted and an 8-foot tall chain-link began being erected to keep people out and to prevent the replanting of trees, flowers, and shrubs.  This action came at the request of Berkeley's Republican mayor, Wallace Johnson.  It became, according to the Oakland Museum of Art's main publication, the impetus for the "most violent confrontation in the university"s history."

 

The attempt to recapture People's Park for "the people"

 

Beginning at noon on Thursday, May 15, about 3,000 people appeared in Sproul Plaza for a rally, which had previously been scheduled to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Early on, the Free Speech microphone was turned over to Student Body President Dan Siegel, because people were incensed about the abrupt destruction and fencing off of the park.

When Siegel shouted "Let's take the park," police turned off the sound system.  The crowd responded spontaneously, moving down Telegraph Avenue toward People's Park, chanting "We want the park."  The crowd, now grown to 4,000, took over Telegraph Avenue, overwhelming the 159 Berkeley and university police officers guarding the fenced-off site.  Initial police attempts to disperse the protesters failed and more officers were called in from surrounding cities, bringing the total to 791 uniforms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A deadly police riot

 

The crowd chased off the officers guarding the fenced-off park and a Berkeley police car was overturned and set on fire.  By then the crowd had swelled to about 6,000 people.  Officers in full riot gear (helmets, shields, tear gas masks and canisters) covered their identification badges and waded into the crowds with nightsticks swinging.  Sheriff's deputies pursued the retreating protesters down Telegraph Avenue for about a mile past the park site, firing tear gas canisters and shotgun buckshot at their backs as they fled.  Later, Sheriff Madigan justified the use of lethal buckshot by stating, "The choice was essentially this: to use shotguns -- because we didn't have the available manpower -- or retreat and abandon the City of Berkeley to the mob."

 

At one point in the police sweep of Telegraph Avenue, a Sheriff's deputy fired his shotgun, loaded with .38 caliber buckshot, at people sitting on the roof at the Telegraph Repertory Cinema.   James Rector was killed.  Alan Blanchard was permanently blinded.   As a result of the police use of force on Telegraph, at least 128 Berkeley residents were reportedly admitted to local hospitals for head trauma, shotgun wounds and other serious injuries.  Local medical students and interns organized volunteer first-aid teams to treat the wounded.  At least 19 police officers were treated for minor injuries.  Reportedly, none were hospitalized.  The UCPD said that 111 police officers were injured. 

Reagan calls in the National Guard

 

That evening, Governor Reagan declared a state of emergency in Berkeley and sent in 2,700 National Guard troops.  Beginning on Friday, May 16, the streets of Berkeley were patrolled by National Guardsmen, who broke up even small demonstrations with teargas.  Reagan's defense of what became a weeks-long military invasion and harsh police riot tactics, was to say "Once the dogs of war have been unleashed, you must expect things will happen, and that people, being human, will make mistakes on both sides." 

During the National Guard occupation, about 250 pro-People's Park, anti-police violence demonstrators were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly.  Bail was set at $800 (about $6,000 in today's dollars).  The Faculty's Academic Senate voted overwhelmingly to have the park become the centerpiece of an experiment in community-generated design.  In a vote which included about half of the student population, UC Berkeley students voted  6 to 1 in favor of keeping the park as a community project.

 

On the fourth day of their occupation a National Guard helicopter flew over the Berkeley campus, dispensing airborne teargas that winds dispersed throughout the city, reportedly sending school children miles away to hospitals.  Governor Reagan conceded that this might have been a "tactical mistake."

Berkeley unites behind the protesters and against police and military violence

 

On May 30, 1969, approximately 30% of Berkeley's 100,000 residents marched without incident past fenced-off People's Park to protest Governor Reagan's occupation of their city, the death of James Rector, the blinding of Alan Blanchard and the many injuries inflicted by police.  Nevertheless the troops remained, breaking up further assemblies of more than four people.  In early summer, troops in downtown Berkeley surrounded several thousand protesters and bystanders, emptying businesses, restaurants and retail stores of their owners and customers and arrested many of them.

The Regents affirm their plans for the People's Park property and the activists rebuild the park

 

On June 20, 1969, the Regents voted to turn the People's Park site into a soccer field  and parking lot and the 8-foot- high chain link around the vacant lot remained.

In May 1972, an outraged crowd tore down the chain-link fence after President Richard Nixon announced his intention to mine North Vietnam's main port.  The Berkeley City Council voted to attempt to lease the park site from the university.  Meanwhile, members of the Berkeley community rebuilt the park with donated labor and materials.  This time the University did not retaliate. 

Ten years later, the university tries again

 

In 1979, the university moved to convert the west end of the park, which was already an informal, no-cost  parking lot, into a fee lot for students and faculty.  This part of the park was the location of the recently constructed People's Stage, meant to be a permanent bandstand.  Park supporters believed that the university's main purpose in attempting to convert the parking lot was the destruction of the People's Stage, in order to suppress free speech and music in the south of campus area.

The park is defended and the university gives in

 

Once again, its supporters responded to a threat to destroy People's Park.  The asphalt in the parking lot was broken up and used to barricade the park.  This forceful reaction to the university's plan led to negotiations between the People's Park Council and the university.  The university eventually capitulated, and park volunteers transformed the parking lot into a community garden, which, together with the rebuilt park, remain to this day. As of this writing, UC Berkeley has floated plans to build a 16-story housing complex at People's Park.  The complex could house as many as 1,200 students and 125 community members who need supportive housing.  This time, Cal is seeking public comment on its plans for the site.   

 

  

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A crowd of several thousand advances down Telegraph toward the Park.  A group of Berkeley and University Police will attempt to block them.

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The police guard the park while an 8' high chain link fence is constructed to keep people from entering and replanting.

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The police turn on fire hydrants in an attempt to stop the crowd advancing down Telegraph Avenue toward the Park.

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I guess the sign makes the new chain-link fence official:  KEEP OUT!

Police have torn up the Park and its landscaping, but the bulldozer alarm remains, untended.

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Police in full riot-gear stand ready to defend university property (note the new chain-link fence posts in the background).

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Advancing protesters start throwing rocks and rubble at police and are met with teargas projectiles.

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Police throw rocks and rubble back where they came from.

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Police fire numerous teargas-spewing canisters to disperse the crowd heading for People's Park.

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San Francisco responds to the call for reinforcements.  They come prepared for anything.

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A street warrior, face covered with a bandana, throws a live teargas canister back in the direction of police.

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Unoccupied Berkeley police cars became targets for rocks and bricks thrown by demonstrators on Telegraph Avenue.

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Some demonstrators  manage to turn a Berkeley police car over and set fire to it. 

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A Sherrif's deputy fires his shotgun, loaded with lethal .38 caliber buckshot, at people observing Telegraph Avenue from the roof of the Telegraph Repertory Cinema.  James Rector is killed and Repertory employee Alan Blanchard is permanently blinded.   Other people on the roof attempt to help a dying Rector, shown lying at the peak of the roof.

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Police riot gear, including an old-fashioned- looking revolver

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Cops chase protesters back on to the campus, while an injured person is carried,  to safety.

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Two Sheriffs deputies, sans helmets, carry off a young woman who is apparently injured.

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A California Highway Patrol helicopter flies over the crowd, helping to coordinate the police action.

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Police give chase.

Teargas creates a weird, unchoreographed dance in Sproul Plaza.

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As evening falls, Telegraph is barricaded with whatever can be found.

Pete Camejo, Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) leader, makes an impromptu speech behind the barricades

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Telegraph Avenue was barricaded with whatever was handy for temporary expropriation. 

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The crowd of demonstrators, onlookers and street people turned Telegraph Avenue into a late night pedestrian mall.

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The next day, Friday, May 16, 1969,  2,700 National Guard troops respond to Governor Reagan's Executive Order and begin to patrol the City's streets with rifles and bayonets, starting with the downtown Shattuck Avenue area.

National Guard troops in downtown Berkeley, adjacent to the UC Berkeley campus, but nowhere near People's Park on Telegraph Avenue

At the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Avenue.  The National Guard troops handled their loaded rifles with fixed bayonets as if for the first time, apparently la bit short on training.

Friday, May 16, 1969, the first day of the occupation.  An anti-National Guard crowd peacefully takes back the downtown.  This is University Avenue where it crosses Shattuck Avenue

Downtown Berkeley: fixed bayonets against non-existent crowds

Alien invasion

Underneath all that gear, mostly 18-year-olds, just out of high school