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Annual celebration honors struggles of People’s Park

By Jonathan Kiefer Special to the Daily Planet
Tuesday May 01, 2001

At around this time of year in 1969, leaflets appeared on the streets of Berkeley bearing the words: “We are building a park on the land. We will take care of it and guard it, in the spirit of the Costanoan Indians. When the University comes with its land title we will tell them: ‘Your land title is covered with blood. We won’t touch it. Your people ripped off the land from the Indians a long time ago. If you want it back now, you will have to fight for it again.’ ” 

The space in question, a small block of Haste Street near Telegraph Avenue, had recently been purchased, and its buildings razed, by the University of California, which intended to use it for an athletic field. In response, students and activists answered the leaflet’s call, building, planting, and staking a shared claim in the vacant space. As predicted, the university did come, and so did the fight. To refute the people’s claim and enforce its own legal one, the university bulldozed the area and fenced it in. Riots ensued. One died and several people were injured. 

But People’s Park was born. On Sunday, 32 years after its birth, its supporters and self-appointed stewards held its annual anniversary celebration. 

“Can you feel it in your feet?” shouted Terri Compost, a community garden volunteer and one of the event’s organizers. 

“We got our grass back.” On stage and absorbing occasional cheers, she continued, speaking to the steadily growing crowd, “I’m really grateful you all are here today. This is an active place. Today and often…This park is still alive.” 

And so it was. The throng had put the space to good use, gathering, enjoying a pleasant weekend afternoon, recreating, playing with each other or the animals in a portable petting zoo, making some noise, dancing. Access came through a gauntlet of Haste Street outposts: pipes for sale, leaflets and bumper stickers, foodstuffs and anniversary souvenirs. Half of the block was sectioned off for skateboarding – an incline of well-traveled pavement, ramps and quarterpipes. The skateboarders, and many among their attentive audience, seemed aloof to the weighty legacy of People’s Park, more interested in the exhilaration of stunts that defy gravity and fear. But of course the park has seen its share of such stunts as well. 

Across the knoll, displayed photos modulated from black and white scenes of unrest – National Guard troops assembling en masse or independently wrestling people to the ground; demonstrators fleeing clouds of tear gas – to more recent color shots of people dancing and hugging. Visitors studied the pictures, identifying themselves or their kin and reminiscing. 

“It’s important to know where we’ve come from,” said Harold Adler, a photographer whose work appeared on the wall. “These kinds of things can happen. We can take nothing and make it into something. This was just a big muddy hole until people decided to do something and make it beautiful.” 

“This is legacy,” he said. “This is what Berkeley has to be proud of. It should never ever change. It should always stay a park.” 

Meanwhile, on stage, the duties of master of ceremonies had been transferred to Berkeley icon Wavy Gravy, who described himself as an “activist, clown, frozen desert and temple of accumulated error.” He went on to introduce the event’s special guests, a full roster of musicians and activists, which included Rebecca Riots, the Shelley Doty X-tet, and La Tigressa, among others. Song subjects ranged from the park itself to other political causes, related only by a common interest in shared social protest. 

“There is no energy crisis!” one woman shouted. “There’s energy right here.” 

“When people gather, they get to know each other and see what they can do,” said Elisa Smith. Her organization, Food Not Bombs, has enjoyed a strong presence in People’s Park since another, less violent but notably contentious row with the university in 1991, when “there was a need to feed all the people that were out to support the park.” 

“Today is like a reunion and a birthday party,” she said. But for a place like People’s Park, a simple birthday party is not enough. Attending such an event means being reminded that Palestine needs freeing, that Bush needs impeaching, that the city has imposed unreasonable restrictions on the use of medical marijuana, that voting is mandatory but not enough and you should also sign a petition or two, at least, that clothing is optional. 

Mysteriously, or perhaps inevitably – for no other reason than actually being the right place at the right time – People’s Park became a space around which battle lines were drawn, and was forever embroidered into the political, as well as physical, landscape. Regardless of its fate, the park’s status as a focus of civic protest is permanent. 

Still owned by the University of California, People’s Park is clearly an emblem of, among other things, the delicate relationship between a strong-willed university and the strong-willed community in which it is enfolded. 

As is true of many American places, a passing wayfarer might not initially deduce the turbulent history of People’s Park. That is the irony, and, according to the organizers of the park’s annual birthday party, the point: free and peaceful access to their precious public space is the hard won privilege of tireless political advocacy.