The Bloody Beginnings of People’s Park

Tuesday April 20, 2004

A recently-revealed account of the founding of People’s Park, the south-of-campus former political battleground which celebrates its 35th birthday today as the archetype of ‘60s radicalism, alleges that it actually came into being not as an anti-war or free-space protest but because two lovers wanted a place to carry on their secret tryst. 

As Wendy Schlesinger tells it, she was 20 years old at the time and living with one man while she carried on a tryst with another man who was living with another woman over the Red Square, a dress collective located where Bongo Burger is now on Dwight Way just east of Telegraph. 

When Schlesinger’s secret lover, Michael Delacour, suggested the two create a space where they could meet, they settled on the muddy half block east of the shop, littered with abandoned cars and trash after the university tore down a collection of homes and small apartments to make way for development. 

“I said okay, so we printed up flyers and I raised most of the money and did all the speech-making,” Schlesinger said of the early days in trying to turn the neglected square block into a park. “It wasn’t a political act till later.” 

After a brief protest against delving into his past love life—“Do you really want to write that kind of a story?”—Delacour reluctantly confirmed his former lover’s story, though he said other, more political factors were also involved. 

For a half century or so, the site they chose—the half-block east of Telegraph Avenue bordered by Bowditch Street between Dwight Way and Haste Street—was much like other residential areas close to the UC Berkeley campus, a collection of 40 or some homes and small apartments. But the property’s fate had been sealed a decade earlier, when UC Regents on June 22, 1957, appropriated $1.3 million to purchase land south of the campus—including the site Schlesinger and Delacour picked. 

The university finally evicted the tenants and brought in the bulldozers in February, 1968, razing the buildings and leaving a scarred landscape behind. But for the next 14 months, the property remained a dusty weed-filled eyesore littered with abandoned cars because the school lacked funds to build on it. 

“I got invited to a meeting at the Red Square on April 13. Michael Delacour presented the idea of building a park, and different people laid out the plans,” said Stew Albert, founder—with spouse Judy Gumbo—of the Youth International Party, aka Yippies. “I was given the assignment of writing a story for the Berkeley Barb, which appeared on April 18, 1969, as a call for one and all to one to bring building materials to the lot so they could build a community park. I signed it as Robin Hood’s Park Commissioner. The Barb story appeared on April 19, and the next morning between 100 and 200 people showed up. The next weekend we had something like a thousand. It was all spontaneous, and there wasn’t much of a central authority.”  

At Delacour’s suggestion, he and landscaper John Reed had driven up to a sod farm in Vallejo, buying turf that volunteers laid on ground they had cleared and prepared. 

Then, on April 28, UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor Earl F. Cheit announced that construction would soon begin at the site for an intramural soccer field, though he promised he would notify park supporters before construction. Cheit repeated the promise two days later, and said park advocates would have creative control over a quarter of the plot. 

The other shoe dropped on May 13, when the office of Chancellor Roger W. Heyns announced in a press release that the university would begin construction on the field after erecting a fence around the park “to reestablish the conveniently forgotten fact that the field is indeed the university’s.” 

At 3 a.m. on May14, Berkeley Police and university workers surrounded the park with 51 “no trespassing” signs. Park supporters responded by organizing protests and naming an 11-member committee to negotiate with the university. 

The next day went down in Berkeley history as “Bloody Thursday.” 

Grace Christie and Jill Hutchby were working in their shop at Dwight and Telegraph, Berkeley Stamp Co. & Collectibles, where they supplemented their stock of postage stamps and other collectibles with buttons they turned out on a machine that a member of the Grateful Dead had taught them to operate. The two business owners were used to protests on Telegraph, and a friend had built them wooden panels to hang over their shop windows when things got dangerous outside. 

But May 15 was different. 

“We saw terrible things that day,” Christie recalled, “and the worst violence came from the ‘Blue Meanies’”—deputies of the Alameda County Sheriff's Department so nicknamed for the turquoise blue jump suits they wore when working crowd control. 

San Francisco television reporter Belva Davis recalled one of her own encounters with the Blue Meanies in a June 28, 1992 interview for the Washington Press Club Foundation’s Oral History Project. 

Davis, who covered events in Berkeley during the mid-1960’s, told interviewer Shirley Biagi, “I guess if I were ever afraid, my biggest fear always was of the police. Especially when I was dealing with the Alameda County Sheriff's Department, I was always afraid. ... [T]hey were so vicious. They were really, really vicious.” 

What started as a march by thousands of protesters quickly turned ugly, with police and deputies firing tear gas and protesters responding with bottles and rocks. 

Hutchby and Christie turned their store into a first aid center, keeping a supply of wet cloths for people who stumbled in with eyes blistering from the gas. 

“When it was over, we took them out through the back so they could leave by the alley,” Hutchby said. “And then one kid came in with shotgun pellet wounds in his legs. He begged us for help and he said ‘They’re arresting us at the hospital’,” Christie recalled. The two patched him us they best they could and escorted him out through the back. A merchant we knew went out during a calm period, and when he was walking back into his store, they shot him in the back with birdshot. He eventually moved out of Berkeley.” 

But Hutchby saw something else that day, images she has worked hard to banish from memory. Across from her shop, bystanders had climbed the fire escape to watch the confrontation from the roof of the building at 2509-13 Telegraph Ave.—now the home of Krishna Copy and other merchants. 

“They were told by the cops to get away from the roof, and they had turned to leave when one of the Blue Meanies raised his shotgun and fired,” Christie said. “I didn’t see the shooting, but Jill did. Our friend George Pauly was struck by buckshot, but he survived. Another man, James Rector, later died.” 

Rector, a San Jose man, had been visiting in Berkeley that day, and had climbed up on the roof to watch the action unfolding on the streets below.  

Another man—Berkeley artist Allan Blanchard—was permanently blinded in the shooting, and many others were wounded. 

Minutes after the shooting, when Christie saw a sheriff’s deputy raise his shotgun and take aim on students on another roof, she tried to race out the door. “I wanted to pull his shotgun down so I could deflect his shot,” she said. 

Fortunately, Hutchby grabbed her. “Can you imagine what they would’ve done to her if she’d grabbed the shotgun?” 

Massive protests followed the shootings, and Gov. Ronald Reagan called in the National Guard, which deployed along Telegraph side streets behind barbed wire barricades. 

Through it all, Christie was taking pictures. “We were told early on not to give our film to developers here in Berkeley because it would all come back blank. Sure enough, the thing we gave to a local developer came out blank.” 

But the rest of her photos survived, creating a unique legacy. 

Another photographer shooting during those hectic days was an electrical engineering junior who was supporting himself by working in a television repair shop on Telegraph. 

“I was shooting [pictures] for myself. I witnessed one of the [police] shootings, and I almost got shot myself. It turned out that there was one officer who did all the shootings,” said Allan Alcorn, now of Portola Valley. “There were a bunch of Blue Meanies running a pepper gas machine next to an overturned police car, and students were throwing rocks. Then this Blue Meanie aimed his shotgun and fired right at a student. When he turned the shotgun my way, I did a real fast 50-yard dash.” 

Alcorn later wound up testifying against the officer. 

“I was there at the beginning of the park, and it was a real fun kind of place. It wasn’t any kind of structured event. People just did it,” he recalled. 

After graduation, Alcorn went on to found the Atari Corporation, where he created Pong, the first-mass marketed computer game, and—as an historical aside—hired a young Reed College dropout named Steve Jobs to write games for him. 

The May violence came to an end on Memorial Day when Cody’s Books owners Fred and Pat Cody spearheaded a mass reconciliation meeting attended by thousands of students and activists. 

The following year, after Stew Albert’s protest involvement landed him in Santa Rita jail for an unpleasant two months, he decided to run for Alameda County Sheriff against John Madigan. He carried the city of Berkeley and captured 65,000 votes. 

The struggle over the park didn’t end. Riots again erupted on July 13, 1991 when the university sent in bulldozers to clear the way for a volleyball court—which was finally removed six years later.  

Today, the university still retains title over the park, though there’s an ongoing effort to raise the cash needed to buy the grounds. 

Albert now lives in Oregon, though he appeared in Berkeley recently to read from his just-published memoir, Who The Hell is Stew Albert, published by Red Hen Press. 

Now semi-retired and a venture capitalist, Alcorn hasn’t abandoned all the radicalism of his youth. “I wear an ‘I Hate Bush’ button, and I won several hundred bucks off of conservative friends betting that no weapons of mass destruction would turn up in Iraq. 

Schlesinger and Delacour are long separated. Now in business, she also heads the Gardens on Wheels Association and is active in the movement to preserve the Gill Tract. Retired, the perennial Berkeley City Council candidate Delacour now lives in Oakland. 

“I learned that leadership has a price,” Schlesinger said. “The park started as an act of love, but someone got killed and others got injured, and that’s on my conscience to this day.” 

Christie and Hutchby share an apartment on Hillegass Avenue, just across Dwight from People’s Park.