Book investigates ‘What Really Killed Rosebud’

By Sari Friedman Special to the Daily Planet
Thursday March 01, 2001

Free speech… People’s rights…. Anarchy rules….  

Few people expressed these principles more demonstratively than the iconic Rosebud Abigail Denovo, the tormented homeless 19-year- old People’s Park resident who was fatally shot by an Oakland police officer on Aug. 25, 1992, after she illegally entered the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s residence, machete in hand. 

“What Really Killed Rosebud?,” a new book by Claire Burch, documentary filmmaker and East Bay homeless rights activist, investigates Rosebud’s short life and untimely death and gives a multifaceted view into her character.  

Was Rosebud Abigail Denovo – who’d changed her name from Laura Miller so her initials would spell the word “RAD” – fighting injustice and greed?  

Or was she a mentally ill and dangerous troublemaker who posed a threat to herself and others? 

Several chapters contain interviews with Rosebud’s friends and lovers, who speak evocatively of their appreciation for this 5-foot-1, 105 pound, blue eyed, brown haired, fierce, energetic and often angry activist.  

She’s remembered as articulate, opinionated and intelligent.  

Her friends’ grief is brought home to the reader by cold-blooded reportage from autopsy reports. 

What Really Killed Rosebud? Were the police impatient and disrespectful? Did they kill a young woman in order to protect the chancellor’s home furnishings? Did they send in a jittery officer – freshly back on the force after being shot five times by a burglar on his last case – on purpose to wipe Rosebud out?  

Or was Rosebud on a suicide mission, despondent over facing a court date for sentencing on a previous offense, seeking martyrdom by adding yet another act of near-futile resistance to a history of near-futile revolts against authority.  

One thing is certain: Rosebud’s short life was rough. Institutionalized in a psychiatric ward in childhood, she’d moved into an adulthood in which she couldn’t be certain of sleeping through the night.  

Homeless shelters were dicey, there were rumors she’d been raped, and when she slept outdoors she was often wakened in the early hours by a police officer’s flashlight shining in her face and curt orders: “Get moving, Denovo!”  

The officer who shot Denovo claimed he acted in self-defense. 

Rosebud’s friends felt regret that they hadn’t rushed to her defense. 

As with any legend, there are unanswered questions. 

The truth about Rosebud’s last moments will probably never be known. 

But Rosebud’s fight to provide a haven for the homeless in People’s Park, and to homeless rights, is broadly acknowledged. People’s Park – bordered by Telegraph Avenue, Bowditch Street, Dwight Way and Haste Street – has long been at the center of the struggle between people’s and institutional rights. 

A chronology at the close of Burch’s book describes the controversy over People’s Park, which started in 1957 when residents were evicted and houses demolished in order to make room for a UC Berkeley dormitory – which was never built. Eventually, the lot became an eyesore.  

But in 1969 – when locals planted flowers and put in a playground – UC Berkeley put up a fence and “No Trespassing” signs and then the real trouble began. People’s Park was at the center of riots against the Vietnam War.  

A “state of emergency” was called, and shotguns were fired. Over a hundred demonstrators were wounded, including Allen Blanchard who was permanently blinded, and James Rector who was killed.  

Does Rosebud’s spirit keep watch over the tamped down grass and the damp, worn, pawed-over donations in the “free box?” What will happen to small bedraggled People’s Park? And what will happen to the legacy that Rosebud and other protesters left behind?