Power to the People – People’s Park – Berkeley- 1969
People’s Park in Berkeley, California, USA is a park off Telegraph Avenue, bounded by Haste and Bowditch Streets and Dwight Way, near the University of California, Berkeley. The park was created during the radical political activism of the late 1960s.
Today People’s Park serves as a free public park. Although accessible to members of the larger community, the park serves mainly as a daytime sanctuary for Berkeley’s large homeless population who, along with others, take advantage of meals offered by East Bay Food Not Bombs. Public restrooms are available, and the park offers innovative demonstration gardens, including organic community gardening beds and areas landscaped with California native plants, all of which were user-developed by volunteer gardeners. Many students make regular use of the basketball courts. A wider audience is attracted by occasional rallies, concerts, and hip-hop events conducted at the People’s Stage, a wooden bandstand designed and built on the western end of the park by volunteers organized by the People’s Park Council. Nearby residents and those who attempt to use the park for recreational purposes sometimes experience conflict with the more aggressive homeless denizens of People’s Park. 
The mythology surrounding the park is an important part of local culture. The surrounding South Campus neighborhood was the scene of a major confrontation between student protestors and law enforcement during May, 1969. A mural near the park, painted by Berkeley artist and lawyer Osha Neumann, depicts the shooting of James Rector, a student who died from shotgun wounds inflicted by law enforcement on May 15, 1969.
 Origin of the park
In 1956 the Regents of the University of California earmarked a 2.8-acre (11,000 m2) plot of land containing residences for future development into student housing, parking and offices as part of the University’s “Long Range Plan for Expansion.” At the time funds were lacking to purchase the land, and the plan was shelved until June 1967, when the University acquired $1.3 million to take the land through the process of eminent domain. After taking control of the land, neighbourhood residents were evicted, and demolition of the existing homes began.
By 1967 the University had altered its plan; the new plan was to build student parking lot and a playing field on the land. Demolition of the existing residences took over a year, and the University ran out of development funds, leaving the lot only partially cleared of demolition debris and rubble. It remained in this state for over a year, and as winter began the muddy site became derelict with abandoned cars.
On April 13, 1969, local merchants and residents held a meeting to discuss possible uses for the derelict site. Michael Delacour presented a plan for developing the under-utilized University-owned land into a public park. This plan was approved by those attending the meeting, but not by the University. Stew Albert, a co-founder of the Yippie Party, agreed to write an article for the local counter-culture newspaper, the Berkeley Barb, on the subject of the park, particularly to call for help from local residents.
Michael Delacour 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.” The University’s Free Speech microphone was available to all students, with few if any restrictions on free speech. The construction of the People’s Park involved many of the same people and politics as the 1964 Free Speech Movement.
On April 18, 1969, Albert’s article appeared in the Berkeley Barb, and on Sunday, April 20, 1969 over 100 people arrived at the site to begin building the park. Local landscape architect Jon Read and many others contributed trees, flowers, shrubs, and sod. Free food was provided and community development of the park proceeded. Eventually, approximately 1000 people became directly involved, with many more donating money and materials. The park was essentially complete by mid-May.
Frank Bardacke, a participant in the park’s development, stated in a documentary film called Berkeley in the Sixties, “A group of people took some corporate land, owned by the University of California, that was a parking lot and turned it into a park and then said, ‘We’re using the land better than you used it; it’s ours’”.
On April 28, 1969, Berkeley Vice Chancellor Earl Cheit released plans for a sports field to be built on the site. This plan conflicted with the plans of the People’s Park activists. However, Vice Chancellor Cheit stated that he would take no action without notifying the park builders. Two days later, on April 30, he decided to allocate control over one quarter of the plot to the Park’s builders. On May 6, 1969, Chancellor Heyns held a meeting with members of the People’s Park committee, student representatives, and faculty from the College of Environmental Design. He set a time limit of three weeks for this group to produce a plan for the park, and he reiterated his promise that construction would not begin without prior warning.
 “Bloody Thursday” and its aftermath
During its first three weeks, People’s Park was enjoyed and appreciated by University students and local residents alike. Telegraph Ave. merchants were particularly appreciative of the community’s efforts to improve the neighborhood. Objections to the expropriation of University property tended to be mild, even among school administrators.
Governor Ronald Reagan had been publicly critical of University administrators for tolerating student demonstrations at the Berkeley campus, and he had received enormous popular support for his 1966 gubernatorial campaign promise to crack down on what was perceived as the generally lax attitude at California’s public universities. Reagan called the Berkeley campus “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters and sex deviants.”
Reagan considered the creation of the park a direct leftist challenge to the property rights of the University, and he found in it an opportunity to make good on his campaign promise.
Governor Reagan overrode Chancellor Heyns’ May 6, 1969 promise that nothing would be done without warning, and on Thursday, May 15, 1969 at 4:45 a.m., he sent 250 California Highway Patrol and Berkeley police officers into People’s Park. The officers cleared an 8-block area around the park while a large section of what had been planted was destroyed and an 8-foot (2.4 m) tall perimeter chain-link wire fence was installed to keep people out and to prevent the planting of more trees, grass, flowers and shrubs.
Beginning at noon, approximately 3,000 people appeared in Sproul Plaza at nearby U.C. Berkeley for a rally, the original purpose of which was to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict. Several people spoke, then Michael Lerner ceded the Free Speech platform to ASUC Student Body President Dan Siegel because students were concerned about the fencing-off and destruction of the park. Siegel said later that he never intended to precipitate a riot; however when he shouted “Let’s take the park!,” police turned off the sound system. This angered some people, and the crowd responded spontaneously, moving down Telegraph Avenue toward People’s Park chanting “We want the park!”
Arriving in the early afternoon, the protesters were met by the remaining 159 Berkeley and University police officers assigned to guard the fenced-off park site. The protesters opened a fire hydrant, the officers fired tear gas canisters, some protesters attempted to tear down the fence, and bottles, rocks, and bricks were thrown. A major confrontation ensued between law enforcement and the crowd. Initial attempts by the police to disperse the protesters were not successful, so more officers were called in from surrounding cities.
At least one car was set on fire.
Reagan’s Chief of Staff, Edwin Meese III, a former district attorney from Alameda County, had established a reputation for firm opposition to those protesting the Vietnam War at the Oakland Induction Center and elsewhere. Meese assumed responsibility for the governmental response to the People’s Park protest, and he called in the Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies, which brought the total police presence to 791 officers from various jurisdictions.
Under Meese’s direction, the police were permitted to use whatever methods they chose against the crowds, which had swelled to approximately 6,000 people. Officers in full riot gear (helmets, shields and gas masks) obscured their badges to avoid being identified and headed into the crowds with nightsticks swinging.
The most aggressive were the Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies —later dubbed “The Blue Meanies”—who resorted to using shotguns loaded with “00″ buckshot. “00″ buckshot consists of lead pellets that are much larger, and thus more lethal, than the birdshot that is occasionally used for crowd control.
After people on the roof of an adjacent building threw bricks at the police, the Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies used shotguns to fire “00″ buckshot at people sitting on the roof at the Telegraph Repertory Cinema, fatally wounding student James Rector and permanently blinding carpenter Alan Blanchard. According to Time Magazine, Rector was a bystander, not a protestor. The University of California Police Department (UCPD) claims Rector threw steel rebar down onto the police, however that claim has never been substantiated. The Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies fired at bystanders on roofs even as they were leaving.
As the protesters retreated, the Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies chased them several blocks down Telegraph Avenue as far as Willard Junior High School at Derby Street, firing tear gas canisters and “00″ buckshot into their backs as they fled. At least one tear gas canister landed on the school grounds. Many people, including innocent bystanders, suffered permanent injuries, some with as many as a hundred lead pellet wounds in their scalps, necks, backs, buttocks and thighs. One man, John Willard, lived for years in intractable pain with lead pellets lodged near his spine.
At least 128 Berkeley residents were admitted to local hospitals for head trauma, shotgun wounds, and other serious injuries inflicted by law enforcement. The actual number of seriously wounded was likely much higher, because many of the injured did not seek treatment at local hospitals to avoid being arrested. Many more protesters and bystanders were treated for minor injuries. Local hospital logs show that 19 police officers or Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies were treated for minor injuries; none were hospitalized. However, the UCPD claims that 111 police officers were injured, including one who was knifed in the chest.
The authorities initially claimed that only birdshot had been used as shotgun ammunition. When physicians provided “00″ pellets removed from the wounded as evidence that buckshot had been used, Sheriff Frank Madigan of Alameda County justified the use of shotguns loaded with 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.” Sheriff Madigan did admit, however, that some of his deputies (many of whom were Vietnam War veterans) had been overly aggressive in their pursuit of the protestors, “as though they were Viet Cong.”
Governor Reagan declared a state of emergency in Berkeley and sent in 2,700 National Guard troops— ironically some Guardsmen were students called to active duty. The Berkeley City Council voted 8-1 against the decision to occupy their city, however this vote was ignored. For two weeks the streets of Berkeley were barricaded with rolls of barbed wire, and freedom of assembly was denied as National Guardsmen sent tear gas canisters skittling along the street toward any group of more than two people together.
On Wednesday, May 21, 1969, a midday memorial was held for student James Rector at Sproul Plaza on the University campus. Rector had suffered massive internal injuries from his shotgun wounds, finally dying at Herrick Hospital on May 19. In his honor, several thousand people peacefully assembled to listen to speakers remembering his life. Without warning, National Guard troops surrounded Sproul Plaza, donned their gas masks, and pointed their bayonets inward, while helicopters dropped CS gas directly on the trapped crowd. No escape was possible, and the gas caused acute respiratory distress, disorientation, temporary blindness and vomiting. Many people, including children and the elderly, were injured during the ensuing panic. The gas was so intense that breezes carried it into Cowell Memorial Hospital, endangering patients, interrupting operations and incapacitating nurses. Students at nearby Jefferson and Franklin elementary schools were also affected.
During the Peoples Park incident, National Guard troops were stationed in front of Berkeley’s empty lots to prevent protestors from planting flowers, shrubs or trees. Young hippie women taunted and teased the troops, on one occasion handing out marijuana-laced brownies and lemonade spiked with LSD. A few stripped to the waist and danced for the young recruits, who tried to hide their smiles from superiors. Initially, Guardsmen were occasionally seen walking hand in hand with young Berkeley women, and they often expressed sympathy with the protesters. After about a week, however, local National Guardsmen were sent home and replaced with National Guardsmen from the more conservative Orange County south of Los Angeles; this “fixed” this problem in the view of the governor’s office. Citizens who dared ask questions of National Guard commanders, or engage them in debate, were threatened with violence.
A curfew was established, and protestors jumped fences after dark to plant flowers in the guarded lots. Guardsmen destroyed the flowers each morning. Some protestors, their faces hidden with scarves, challenged police and National Guard troops. Hundreds were arrested, and Berkeley citizens who found it necessary to venture out during curfew hours risked police harassment and beatings. Berkeley city police officers were discovered to be parking several blocks away from the Annex park, removing their badges/identification and donning grotesque Halloween type maskes (ironically including pig faces) to go inflict violence upon citizens they found in the park annex.
Flower Children vs.The Establishment; these differing perspectives mirrored widespread 1960s societal tensions that tended to flow along generational lines regarding the war in Vietnam, race relations, sexual mores, women’s rights, traditional modes of authority, experimentation with psychedelic drugs and opposing interpretations of The American Dream.
In a University referendum held soon after, the U.C. Berkeley students themselves voted 12,719 to 2,175 in favor of keeping the park.
On May 30, 1969, 30,000 Berkeley citizens (out of a population of 100,000) secured a Berkeley city permit and marched without incident past barricaded 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 law enforcement. Young girls slid flowers down the muzzles of bayoneted National Guard rifles, and a small airplane flew over the city trailing a banner that read, “Let A Thousand Parks Bloom.”
Almost a year after ‘Bloody Thursday’ and the death of James Rector, addressing the California Council of Growers at Yosemite, Reagan defended his actions, saying: “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” Less than a month later, on May 4, 1970, similar violence erupted at Kent State University, killing four students and seriously wounding nine.
No police officers, Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies or National Guardsmen were disciplined for their actions in the Bloody Thursday incident.