Public Comment

The Untold History of People’s Park

By Reverend Paul Sawyer
Thursday April 16, 2009 - 06:41:00 PM

Many of us are familiar with the Free Speech Movement on the Berkeley campus in 1964 that followed the Loyalty Oath Struggle of the 1950s, which cost the University of California 68 of its finest professors and teachers, who refused to sign it. The community movement to build People’s Park followed immediately after the drawn-out yet ultimately successful struggle to create ethnic studies programs both at the university and at San Francisco State College in the fall of 1968. The image of President Samuel Hayakawa tearing out the wiring on one of the movement’s loudspeaker trucks on the San Francisco campus at that time is still indelibly burned into the brains of those alive at the time. 

The context of the uprising of students across the whole nation—north, east, south and west; colleges and high schools—surging out of classrooms and campuses to protest the devastating Vietnam war is still vividly remembered in the 1960s history books. So ubiquitous was the upsurge of campus protest energy that the Nixon administration held a top-level conference of its leaders in Miami in April 1969 to decide what to do to bring order to the campuses. They realized that the spreading uprisings on campuses was hindering the pursuit of their war policies in Vietnam. The conduct of the war itself was being threatened by these campus upheavals.  

Berkeley was one of the most significant theaters of action for this justice and peace movement, and People’s Park was the newest challenge of all to the establishment’s system of law and order. As most people know, many Berkeley residents challenged the university’s control of a large block of vacant land where a community of older valuable houses, loosely identified as a “hippie’ area,” was bought and torn down by the university to displace this near-campus community. The University Regents, made up of “well-to-do” folks, appeared to believe that this area—“ridden with drugs, sex, rock and roll; activists and student hanger-ons”—was a turn-off to respectable parents of potential students. The regents voted to take it by eminent domain for future dorms. Yet they took so much time to implement that plan that the area became a free-for-all mud parking lot during its long vacancy. Beginning in the spring of 1969, activist shopowners, poets, students and citizens of our most active city of Berkeley started to build an incredibly attractive park and meeting place for its citizens on that central piece of land. It was one big party of workers and gatherers, parents and kids expressing a hunger for gathering together in the construction of a park, rather than the destruction of a militarized society. It was a little too much for the puritanical warriors of the mainstream bureaucratic culture to stomach. So the “power elite,” supported and goaded on by opportunistic politicians like Governor Reagan and the Nixon bunch, tried to make political hay by arousing the stressed-out, fearful public against the “spoiled” Berkeley students and radicals, which became a set-up target for free-floating public rage that had been stirred up by prolonged wars and egged on by the vested media and their demagogues. 

Kissinger, Mitchell, Kleindienst, Rehnquist, Agnew, and Nixon himself were all present at the Miami conference of April 1969 and decided to begin with a propaganda attack on “the student radicals.” William Rehnquist, future Supreme Court Chief Justice, called the students “criminal ideologues” and a slew of speakers from the administration, bolstered by Billy Graham, Bob Hope and other party followers, were sent all across the country to make speeches vilifying the activists on the campuses. This was such a threat to freedom on the campuses that several prominent presidents of universities, such as Nathan Pusey of Harvard, had to counter with a defense of students and the necessity for freedom of expression on campuses. The Nixon regime proceeded to send Vice President Agnew to Sacramento to advise Governor Reagan on making a concerted suppression and attack on Berkeley students, People’s Park and Berkeley citizens, part of a city-wide consensus movement that was building a park and gathering place—all right in the shadow of this widely influential campus—and becoming a hotbed of activists working for justice and peace in the world. The rest is well-known history, even though most people are to this day unaware that People’s Park was chosen as the first target of attack by the Nixon regime to injure and suppress the student antiwar movement in a series of violent planned attacks. The campaign culminated a year later in the Kent State massacre and the soon-to-follow—yet little-publicized because the victims were African-Americans—the Jackson State massacre that killed and wounded even more persons. Though the students went back to classes in the fall after the People’s Park assault by Reagan, the National Guard and the TAC squad of Alameda District Attorney Edward Meese on May 19th, 1969, the Kent State massacre of spring 1970 had the opposite effect, supercharging the movement of students and others all across the country against these murders and the expansion of the Vietnam war, a secret surge at first into Cambodia and Laos and the whole of Indochina. It was the beginning of a long drawn-out ending to a nearly 30-year-long war that ended at last in 1975. 

The Founders Forum of People’s Park will hold a 40-year anniversary celebration of this significant ongoing event and victory along this nonviolent path to peace and park-making that has long challenged the U.S. Imperium—which for two generations and many more has spewed devastation and death around the world, most notably now in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East. Friday April 24, beginning at 4:30 p.m. at the Ashkenaz Dance Center at San Pablo and Gilman, many of the legendary leaders of the People’s Park movement will gather with poets, musicians, and other revolutionary artists and activists to assess where we now stand and intend to put our energies to complete this revolution, long underway, to bring authentic democracy—“of, for and by the people”—the world over in this 21st century. The celebration will continue late into the evening, with dancing, poetry, and song. The bands include Marimba Pacifica, Wire Graffitti, the Funky Nixons; poets Julia Vinograd, John Simon and Jack Hirschman will be among the featured artists. Wavy Gravy will be the M.C. Tickets are $15, suggested donation, and are available at Ashkenaz and at Subway Guitars at Cedar and Grant streets. Celebrations will follow on Saturday and Sunday at People’s Park. Everyone is welcome in this spring renewal of our revolution. .  


Pasadena resident Reverend Paul Sawyer was a minister at Berkeley Unitarian Universalist from 1968 to 1994.