When young psychiatrist Neal Blumenfeld read that students had staged a protest at Sproul Plaza, he drove his Triumph TR-3 sports car as close as he could get to the campus, then walked over for a first-hand look.
Within days of that 1964 protest he’d been ousted from his part-time consultancy with the Berkeley Police Department and had established himself as what Free Speech Movement leaders described as “the movement shrink.”
His activism’s never wavered in the years since, and most recently he’s been in the news as the leader of the movement to landmark and preserve the Sisterna Tract Historic District in West Berkeley.
Blumenfeld earned his M.D. from San Francisco State in 1956, and completed his psychiatric studies five years later. Interested in the emerging field of community mental health, he signed on with Berkeley Mental Health a year later.
“I did education and consultation, and when I heard that the Berkeley Police Department wanted someone for five hours a week, I volunteered,” he said.
Berkeley Police were known in psychiatric circles for working with mental health professionals.
“What they mainly wanted was for me to evaluate police officer candidates. I was already dubious, because I thought the best way to do it was to have a long probationary period, but they weren’t interested,” Blumenfeld said.
A social democrat—“my mother told me I should go back to the U.S.S.R.”—Blumenfeld had been part of Friends of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and had walked picket lines with the Congress of Racial Equality in San Francisco.
“On my way to the campus that day, I was not expecting anything serious, but when I got there I found that the students were absolutely riveting.”
Then he learned that UC administrators had called out a massive police presence from jurisdictions across the Bay Area.
“They were hiding behind the buildings, so I asked where the Berkeley Police Department was,” he said. “I found them massed behind Sproul Hall, all decked out in their war paint. I could see that they were really tense.”
Blumenfeld sought out one of the field commanders. “I said ‘I know you’re angry, but I’ve been listening to the students and you really ought to send someone over to listen.’”
Berkeley had a good reputation for reasonable treatment of civil rights demonstrations, and Blumenfeld thought that if they really paid attention to what the students were saying, they’d realize how reasonable their concerns were.
“The lieutenant just took me by the arm and said, ‘Doc, you’d better get out of here.’”
But the more Blumenfeld listened, the more involved he became. No longer an observer, he was now a participant, meeting with FSM leaders and talking strategy.
None of which went unnoticed by the BPD.
“Capt. Jewel Ross was a good officer, an old-time Irish policeman, and he called me into his office, closed the door, and said, ‘Doctor, don’t you know that the communists are preparing to take over this country?’” Blumenfeld recalled.
Soon after, he learned that his services were no longer need by the BPD.
Blumenfeld wrote for FSM broadsides and participated in key meetings as the movement was making a segue into the anti-Vietnam war cause.
“Jerry Rubin”—later a defendant in the “Chicago Seven” trial—“was asking me if it was too early to organize an anti-war movement,” Blumenfeld said. “I said yes. Fortunately, he didn’t listen to me.”
That year’s Vietnam Day in Berkeley brought out a throng of 10,000.
Blumenfeld would be there for the People’s Park protests, and he worked closely with members of the Black Panther Party.
Like so many others caught up in the events of 40 years ago, Blumenfeld has remained deeply committed to the values embodied in the movement.
In later years he would become involved in Central American issues, including trips to Nicaragua and Cuba through Global Exchange.
His fight to preserve the Sisterna Tract is simply the latest episode in a decades’ old commitment. ?