People’s Park, Berkeley By STEPHEN McNEIL

Friday December 24, 2004

An advertising plane flying a banner passed over Berkeley. In the streets below, throngs of people turned their faces upward and smiled with delight as they read: LET A THOUSAND PARKS BLOOM. It was Memorial Day 1969 in Berkeley, California, where People’s Park—a patch of sunny garden and shaded lawn—had just six weeks earlier been a vacant lot of rubble and mud.  

In April 1969, the idea for a park came up at a quiet meeting between a handful of people wishing to improve an eyesore on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. The group soon grew into a loosely organized committee that was determined to build a “Power to the People Park.” Word spread, and within weeks the idea had moved beyond the Berkeley campus and into the community. 

So on one spring morning hundreds of people from all walks of life gathered on a block of land to create a neighborhood park. The land, which had been purchased by the university for dormitory construction, had been vacant for some time. Those who gathered ripped up concrete, hauled out stumps, filled in swampy puddles, and shoveled debris. 

They planted flowers, trees, and shrubs, and they laid sod. For days they worked side by side-old and young, merchants, students and residents-lending their muscle and their hearts to the creation of green, open space. And on April 20, 1969, People’s Park was born.  

The Berkeley community enjoyed the park for three weeks, picnicking on the lawns and napping under the trees. But in the early morning hours of May 15, the university enlisted 100 California Highway Patrolmen to erect a cyclone fence around the park. “No trespassing” signs were hung along the fence. The move engendered an immediate and angry response. 

By midday a huge crowd had gathered to protest the action, and an impassioned call was put out to reclaim the park. An estimated 3,000 people poured into the streets surrounding People’s Park where a violent conflict ensued between students, neighbors, and the police. The times were already fraught with civil strife, and the battle over People’s Park caught the attention of the media. Headlines splashed across the nation, with disturbing images of tear gas, flames, bricks, and fury. 

The unrest lasted for several days until then Gov. Ronald Reagan sent in 2,000 National Guard troops to quell the disturbance. In the end one person was blinded, another was killed, and some 120 people were injured. The Guard kept an armed presence in the area for the weeks that followed. 

When area Friends and local American Friends Service Community (AFSC) staff heard of plans for a much larger People’s Park protest march to be held on Memorial Day, they became deeply concerned about the potential for more violence. With the Quakers’ long history of peaceful protest and nonviolent resistance, AFSC staff and Friends knew there was a role for them in the upcoming march. Norman Goerlich, an AFSC fundraiser, attended the planning meetings where he and others worked with march organizers, “trying to teach people to be monitors and to squelch any uprisings or problems surrounding people… educating these groups.” 

At one point in the planning, someone mentioned the idea of having flowers to pass around and spread here and there among marchers. A local shop owner known to students as “Mother Earth” offered to handle the purchase of 30,000 daisies if money could be found. Norman immediately picked up on this. He had two loyal Service Committee donors, elderly sisters, who he felt might put up the cash. As he relates, “.. I went down to my little old ladies in San Jose and they gave me $3,000 for the daisies.” 

As the day approached and word spread, the projected number of participants grew into tens of thousands. Terry Foss, an AFSC intern at the time and now AFSC staff photographer, recalls that the Service Committee and local Friends organized a candlelight vigil the night before in order to set the stage for what they hoped would be a peaceful protest. The next day Terry helped to staff a first aid clinic in the Friends meetinghouse in Berkeley, in case there were injuries. The National Guard rolled in with bayoneted rifles and tear gas. The demonstrators swelled to 30,000, armed with peace signs and daisies. But thanks to trained “peace marshals” patrolling the crowd, and organizers well educated in the strategies of peaceful demonstration, Memorial Day in People’s Park came off without a hitch. Terry and his fellow clinic staffers had no casualties. Not a single tear gas canister was tossed. The following day, stories began appearing across the country with photographs of daisies on fences, soldiers returning peace signs from their trucks, and protesters chatting with the National Guard—a striking contrast to the earlier pictures of violent confrontation. Norman tells us, “It was quite an accomplishment, what happened that time. And it was peaceful.” 

In the following weeks, the Berkeley City Council backed away from its support of the university plans, urging the Board of Regents to preserve the park. People’s Park has remained a park, although it has also been controversial throughout the years, with some of the original issues yet unresolved. But when we recall the history of the ‘60s, amid the snapshots of violent unrest we also remember the images of daisies hanging on barbed wire fences, or popping out of military helmets and rifle barrels. Like gardens growing out of rubble, they are reminders of the persistent spirit of peace and the quiet work of Friends.