People's Park : Berkeley, California :

A 2.8 acre park/garden/communal soap box/historical landmark located between Haste, Bowditch and Dwight streets. It's one block east of Telegraph and a few block southeast from Cal's Sproul Plaza.

In 1967, the University of California, Berkeley bought this 2.8 acres with part of a 1.3 million dollar land purchase grant that it had been awarded ten years earlier for the establishment of University buildings, lots, playing fields, etc. At the time of its purchase, the land was occupied by over a hundred students living in brownshingle and stucco homes. The students were initially told that they could remain on the property until June of 1968; the end of the school year. But in March of that year, eviction notices were sent out and nearly the entire block of houses was bulldozed to the ground.

After clearing the block of the resident hippies, the University neglected to build on the property, perhaps due to lack of funds. For over a year the muddy lot was a magnet for garbage, junk cars, stray animals plus their bodily expulsions, festering puddles of stagnant muck and other putridities. Some residents, growing tired of the eyesore and concerned about health and safety, decided turn the lot into a more acceptable space. A meeting to decide what to do was held in a downtown dress shop called Red Square. Several people showed up and brainstormed over what the lot could be converted into. It was decided that a community park would be best and an ad was placed in a local newsletter, the Berkeley Barb, inviting anyone and everyone to come down to the lot the next Sunday to help out. That day, April 20th, 1969, around two hundred people including faculty members, students and graduates, community members and "street people" showed up at the lot. They brought with them tools, play equipment, plants, food and drink. This was the beginning of People's Park.

For nearly a month, volunteers old and young worked on improving the park. Donations were collected and with it, larger equipment like bulldozers and trucks were rented. Sod was bought and a lawn was put in. A pond was dug. A playground was set up. Trees and gardens were planted. People came both to help out and to socialize. Free music and food were abundant. Tents were even set up as some people actually moved into the park and began living as well as working there. Here is a journal excerpt written by a woman who was there:
First, groups of men and women worked close to the ground, unearthing chunks of concrete, and brick sections. These were pieces of the dead brownshingle houses. They would dig these out with their hands, or in the case of stubborn pieces, the mighty pickaxe. Both boys and girls worked equally well at the digging. They dragged around cardboard cartons to put the chunks in. Then, like clockwork, other antworker teams would trundle on by with the three or four comic wheelbarrows we had scraped up somewhere. None of them worked perfectly, so it was a real challenge to keep them on a straight course to the dumping site, which was a hollow area chosen expressly for landfill. The extracting teams would dump their cartons into the wheelbarrow teams. The two teams would come from opposite ends of the lot, meet in the center, each doing their haul. Then each would go back to their voluntary task. The next time the wheelbarrow came by, they might exchange roles, just for the fun of it. From around the corner, the prize possession of the day emerged. It was the sod truck. The back was completely loaded with what must have been ten tons of bright green nature... all rolled up. We screamed with joy as the truck precariously pulled into the lot. It seemed about to tip over as it drove over the curb. But everybody rushed there anyway. A few twelve year old guys leaped on the flatbed back and began tossing out the individual forty pound rolls of sod even before there was anybody below to catch them. Right in the middle of anarchist, polarized, confused Berkeley, people got themselves together instantly, without any director. We formed a sod chain, to unload the truck in the most efficient way possible. Young and old, clean and dirty, lined up together and began rocking back and forth as the next person closest to the truck passed down each bouncing bundle of green joy. Someone began singing Martha and the Vandellas' song Dancing in the Streets. Everybody rocked even harder. First you turn to the left, and sway to the rhythm of catching the hefty bundle. Then, turn on your heel and whip the weight of the sod around to give you momentum and velocity. Then you wink and smile to the person on your right and comradely lay your burden on them. They smile uncomplainingly as some moist dirt sticks to their chin. It's all over in split seconds... The heavy weight hits you and then it's gone on to the next person.
Okay.. she got a little corny there, (bouncing bundles of green joy?) but you get the general idea, I think. Everyone was there working together for the benefit of the community. Everyone there was having a good time.

Well, University officials were not having such a good time. All of those volunteers who had replaced the muddy lot with a people's park had, after all, never obtained permission to do so. They were essentially trespassing on University property; building on land that they didn't own. The University took a sudden interest in the development of the land and announced that further work on the park should halt as community input was collected on what sort of shape this development should take. On May 6th The University Chancellor held a meeting with some student politicians, members of the College Environmental Design and some people who had been appointed as a People's Park committee. He gave them three weeks to come up with a plan for the park space that would be subject to review by the Board of Regents and promised that no University construction would begin without prior warning. Around this time, flyers and leaflets began circulating, urging people to stand up and fight for the preservation of People's Park. Some pledged "war if the University begins to move against the park."

On May 13th, a week after that meeting, the Chancellor (who happened, now, to be out of town) issued a press release stating that the University was going to "put up a fence to reestablish the conveniently forgotten fact that the field is indeed the University's," and that "the University is now prepared to proceed with site development. This property...belongs to the Regents of the University of California and will not be available to unauthorized persons."

At about 3 to 4:00 a.m. on May 14th, 250 police officers arrived at the park and ordered the people sleeping there to leave. Three people refused to budge and were arrested. Plants were torn out, equipment was removed. An eight foot chain link cyclone fence was erected around the park perimeter and police remained posted as guards. The next morning, a rally was organized in Cal's Sproul Plaza. Thousands of people came to protest the seizure of the park. Microphones were set up and there were several people speaking. Police cut the mics during the middle of student body president Dan Siegel's speech. He had just said, "I have a suggestion. Let's go down to the People's Park-"* when the power was killed and the rest of his speech was cut short. With those words, the thousands began marching down Telegraph Avenue toward the fenced off park. They crowded around the fence, singing and sticking flowers in the chain links. The gathering soon turned into a riot though, as some of the people began to throw rocks at the police. Officers retaliated by shooting at people with their birdshot loaded rifles. When they ran out of birdshot, they fired buckshot. The fighting continued throughout the day with civilians throwing rocks, sticks and bottles at police officers who were shooting and dispersing tear gas. At 9:00 p.m. governor Ronald Reagan called in the National Guard. Three battalions of the 49th brigade enforced a curfew and ban on all public assembly. By the end of that day (dubbed 'Bloody Thursday") over a hundred people had been arrested or gone to hospital for injuries. A police officer had been stabbed, a man blinded, and James Rector, who was watching the melee from the roof Gramma's Bookstore, had been fatally shot.

*Some reports say that he actually said "Let's take back the park." Doesn't sound like it, though, on the video recording of the rally. As a result of that speech, Siegel was later tried for inciting a riot. He was acquitted

Over the next few days the protests and riots continued. The number of injuries and arrests multiplied. A state of emergency was declared and troops occupied the city 24/7. 9,000 people traveled to Sacramento, the state capitol to protest the park seizure. The streets of Berkeley continued to be the locus for impromptu battles between soldiers and civilians. Several People's Park "annexes" began turning up in other lots around the city; trees and flowers were planted by park supporters and were just as quickly torn down by troops and police officers. Thousands of rioters were arrested. In a march down Shattuck Avenue, a few hundred people were simultaneously arrested and carted off to Santa Rita Prison where they were reportedly 'mistreated' by the arresting deputies. The Sheriff at the time is quoted as saying that his deputies "have the idea that these prisoners should be treated like the Viet Cong," and that he intended to reprimand several officers.

During one of the many protests, a peaceful one this time, a few thousand people gathered again in Sproul Plaza as a protest/vigil for Rector. Officers soon surrounded the crowd, allowing people to enter the plaza but not to leave. Helicopters arrived and began dropping nausea and tear gas on the protestors, many of which were clubbed as they tried to run away. The gas spread throughout the city, affecting nearby residents and school kids.

Increasingly apparent was the fact that the majority of the community and the Cal student body (not just a faction of anti-establishment hippies) were in favor of keeping the park. A campus election was held in which one of the issues was what should be done with the People's Park property. That referendum produced a more than 90% vote in favor of saving the park. The Mayor of Berkeley suggested that the University let the city lease the property as a neighborhood park. The College Environmental Design committee asked that the park be maintained under their sponsorship. Appeals by faculty, staff, students and civic groups were made to the City Council which, swayed by the public outcry, urged the University to keep People's Park a park. But ultimately the final decision was up to the Regents who maintained that the Park was University property and, refusing to yield to the majority, announced their plans to turn the park into a soccer field/parking lot. Governor Reagan was also against the preservation of the park. The following is a snippet of a conference between Reagan and faculty members:

Those people told you for days in advance that if the University sought to go ahead with that construction on that property, that they were going to physically destroy the University. Now why did you-

Faculty Member:
Now Governor, there were offers to negotiate many times.

Negotiate? What is to negotiate? What is- Don't you- Wait a minute. On that issue don't you simply explain to these students that the University has a piece of property that it bought for future construction of the campus and it was now going ahead with the plan? What do you mean negotiate?

Faculty Member:
Governor Reagan, the time has passed when the University can just ride roughshod over the desires of the majority of its student body-

Well if it just-

Faculty Member:
The University is a public institution-

That's right-

Faculty member:
It's an important institution-

But the-

Faculty Member:
-to all of its own community and for the community of Berkeley that live around it.

All of it began the first time some of you who know better - and are old enough to know better - let young people think that they had the right to choose the laws they would obey as long as they were doing it in the name of social protest.

With that, Reagan left the room.

Over time, the civil unrest over People's Park petered out. The lot remained fenced in and unused for years at a time. Periodically, there were flare-ups and people would congregate and tear down the fences (which the U. would later reinstall) and stage ineffectual protests.

Throughout the 70's and 80's the Park was subject to various half-assed proposals and implementations. At one point a basketball court was built, but it was boycotted and left unused for the most part. After a few months, some people protesting the invasion of Cambodia came along and ripped up the court. Perhaps I am missing some intricate aspects or the theories behind effective political demonstration but I am failing to grasp how destroying a basketball court in the middle of Berkeley, California was going to somehow have an influence on Cambodian politics. Go figure.

In 1972 a City Council plan to lease the Park property was approved by the Regents. Some gardening, put into place by a group called the People's Park Council, was allowed in the east end of the property while the rest of the site remained an open grassy lot. In 1975, the UC Chancellor indicated that he was willing to sell the property to the city but in the same year, Regents announced that they planned to build housing on it. The housing plan was never followed through with and people starting using the empty space as a free informal parking lot. In 1979 the University decided to try and make some $ off of the parking trend. They laid asphalt and charged people a fee for parking. A bunch of protestors promptly showed up with pickaxes and tore up all the asphalt. The University then decided that maybe the pay parking thing wasn't such a good idea after all and didn't try to reimplement it. They did, however, seek a court injunction to keep protesters from occupying the lot at night. In 1981 UC Police began advising students to stay away from the park because of the increasing crime and drug use in it. The People's Park Council asked the UC's permission to have a concert in the park but were denied.

The Berkeley Landmark Planning Commission declared the Park a landmark in 1984. The next year, some community members installed benches in the park and planted some trees, both of which were subsequently removed by University cops and grounds crew. In 1986 religious groups started using the park as a place to serve free food to the homeless. A "free box" was built. In 1987 the People's Park Council succeeded in securing the legal right to have amplified free concerts in the park.

1991 saw the agreement between the University and the City of Berkeley to manage the park jointly. The partnership was outlined a five-year contract. Later that year, some million dollar UC volleyball courts were erected. Irate citizens rioted for eleven days (over volleyball courts!) supposedly afraid that the courts were only the beginning of the University's trying to seize control of the park. In 1996, when the joint partnership agreement was to expire, the Chancellor agreed to leave that Park open space for the public as long as the City agreed to clean it up and make it danger-free. In 1997 the volleyball courts, which everybody hated, were removed. The City now manages the park but the University retains the property rights.

The park now is... really nice actually. I was there earlier this week doing some homework. The east end is full of flower and vegetable gardens tended by various people from the community. Some folks live there near the trees on either end. The free box is still there for anyone to donate things that they don't need to anyone who does need them. Near the free box are the "Free Speech Stage," (which is just a wooden platform where bands sometimes play and where speakers address crowds from) and the Free Speech Bulletin Board (nothing was posted there when I looked :( - except for a People's Park Committee Schedule.) The whole middle of the park is a pretty big span of really soft grass. There's play equipment and picnic benches nestled between paths and clearings in the trees (all of which are gorgeous.) There is even a tire swing, which is damn cool. On the north side of the park, there are basketball courts. There were about 20 guys playing there when I went the other day. The public restrooms to the west of the courts are painted all in murals, and on the inside, someone has written the history of the park for everyone to read.

I was watching this tape called Berkeley in the 60's and on it they have a segment about People's Park. There's this one part where a guy is getting interviewed by the news. This was right after the park had been seized and fenced off for the first time. He was asked about all the protests that were going on; I guess the question was something like, 'Do you really think you're having any influence here?' or 'Do you really think that you're going to take back the park?' He answered, "We'll get peoples park back eventually. There's no doubt about that. Everybody who's ever done any hitchhiking in their life knows that basically we can't lose. When you sit out there and hitchhike, you see in the front seat there's the parents. And they kinda give you this real scared, uh.. contemptuous look as they drive by you. But then in the back seat, as they're going away you see all the kids and they're going-" (he throws up the peace sign, waving his arms about like a happy monkey.) "We got the kids on our side and we can't lose. We just can't lose."
I think about that guy now, and I think about the park now. And it's a beautiful place. And I think: he was absolutely right.