The Battle for People's Park

Review by Gar Smith
Thursday October 17, 2019 - 09:54:00 PM
The early days of People's Park
The early days of People's Park

The Battle for People's Park: Berkeley 1969 is an awesome compendium, commemorating the founding, desecration, and resurrection of a plot of land that became known around the world as People's Park. This new book is a handsome and hefty collection of historic photos, personal testimonies, poems, and press accounts that fills 371 heart-pumping, gut-wrenching pages.

Berkeley's Heyday Books is the perfect publisher for this hardbound picture-book whose publication coincides with the 50th anniversary of the founding of People's Park. Tom Dalzell (whose long-running Quirky Berkeley column appears in Berkeleyside) is the perfect ringmaster to preside over this spectacular high-wire act of "people's journalism." 

This is a whopping hulk of a book, weighing in at just under five pounds. (Warning: If you try to read this sitting down with the book in your lap, be advised that it might cut off blood circulation to your legs. Useful tip: If you wish, you can also use the book as part of a home weight-training program.) 

Producing any book can be a major undertaking but producing a commemorative book like this is a special challenge. A standard book is like a highway. It sets off in one direction and moves steadily forward, each page paved with words. Sure, there will be stops and intersections along the way ("chapters") and there might be a U-turn or two ("flashbacks"), but otherwise it's fairly straightforward undertaking. 

A commemorative book, however, is more complex. Instead of roaring out on a literary highway headed towards a predetermined destination, the editor of a commemorative edition needs to have everything packed in advance and, instead of plowing down a long stretch of asphalt at 60 mph, has to slow down and proceed in slow increments—mostly, two pages at a time. 

This is because the book contains a wild assortment of text and graphics and there's only so much room available when you're laying out a book two-pages-at-a-time. So editing and designing this project was less like "paving a road" and more like slowly landscaping a garden—page by page. A typical "double-truck" (two-page) layout might feature a half-dozen short written recollections (drawn from hundreds of words culled from the personal files of activists, students, neighbors, reporters, and politicians), frequently topped with a framing, editorial commentary, occasionally garnished with a large pull-quote, and topped off with one or several striking photographs. 

If the videocamera had never been invented, this is the way Ken Burns might have presented the story of People's Park. Hundreds of participants are quoted and hundreds of iconic photos are featured. All these elements combine to revive the memories of this transformative experiment in "people's power" and the calamitous push-back when political forces intervened in an attempt to crush the proletarian "land grab"—by sending in armed cops, county sheriffs, and eventually the National Guard to flood the streets teargas and riddle unarmed demonstrators with buckshot. 

I was working on the staff of the Berkeley Barb at the time and remember when Stew Albert (writing anonymously under the pseudonym, "Robin Hood's Park Commissioner") stopped by to deliver a "Hear Ye, Hear Ye!" announcement inviting folks to assemble at the university's muddy, junk-strewn site on April 20, 1969 and repossess the land. "Hear Ye, Hear Ye," it read: "a park will be built between Dwight and Haste . . . . Nobody supervises and the trip belongs to whoever dreams." 

The photos capture it all: the joy of creating the park, designed in-the-moment and built-from-scratch by the people themselves; the shock as Allan Blanchard was shot in the face and blinded; the horror as James Rector's blood slowly spilled out on a rooftop overlooking Telegraph Avenue—after he was gunned down by an Oakland sheriff who was named but never put on trial. 

Rector's shooting was captured by freelance photographer Nacio Jan Brown who (unlike most press photographers of the day) had packed his 35mm camera with color film. The book features two pages of never-before-seen photos of Rector writhing in agony. After he died later in a hospital, then-governor Ronald Reagan attempted to justify Rector's murder by calling Berkeley "a haven for communist sympathizers" and falsely claiming police had found bomb-making materials in the trunk of Rector's car. 

During a book event at UC's School of Journalism, Heyday publisher Steve Wasserman responded to UC Berkeley's recent announcement of plans to replace the park with housing. "This is sacred ground. Blood was spilled," Wasserman protested. And it stands as a monument to a signal moment in the nation's history, marking "the first time that police turned their weapons on white children." 

It was also the first time that an American city was subjected to an airborne assault by the US Army, which sent a low-flying helicopter over Sproul Plaza to release a cloud of tear gas over a large crowd of students below. The students had been ringed in by a circle of soldiers armed with bayonets. Unable to escape, the students knew that something bad was about to happen when they saw the troops suddenly donning gas masks—but no one expected a helicopter. 

Al least 30 students and citizens were shot by police on Bloody Thursday. One of the wounded was Donovan Rundle, memorably photographed flashing the peace sign as he lay on a stretcher, severely wounded. 

Rundle, who has undergone endless operations over the years and has been permanently disabled, provided a moving, five-page recollection for the book. "I felt like I'd been hit in the gut with a sledgehammer," Rundle recalled. "I am still carrying lead in me." 

At the J-School event, Heyday's Wasserman chided Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin for being in the pocket of developers who stand to profit from the destruction of the park and the construction of housing. Noting that the mayor's father "worked with Cesar Chavez," Wasserman added: "He should be ashamed." 

The UC Regents and Berkeley's Chancellor need to confront and consider the messages on display in this powerful collection of photos and prose. The University's elite are threatening to destroy a park that people built, risked their lives to protect, and have occupied for a half-century. UC should be ashamed. 

On a Personal Note 

I was one of the post-FSM activists who lost my home when UC ordered the demolition of the houses in the Dwight/Haste/Telly neighborhood. As Stew Alpert put it in his "Hear Ye! Hear Ye!" broadside, UC "tore down a lot of beautiful houses to build a swamp." 

It was no coincidence that one of the houses targeted for demolition contained a den of "off-campus agitators," including Free Speech Movement vets and civil rights activists. The residence came complete with a phone bank, meeting rooms, and printing machines (which, in those days, meant hand-cranked mimeographs). 

The university justified the removal of the neighborhood by claiming it was a "scene of hippie concentration and rising crime." The University showed no interest in putting the land to any future use. The goal was removal. 

The Birth of a Park 

On that first day, when people started gathering on the blighted block, I looked around at the junk and jumble on the abandoned parcel and heard someone pun: "Well, it looks like we've got a LOT to do." 

Soon, scores of volunteers began clearing the site of trash and the wrecks of abandoned cars. Some planted flowers while others busied themselves setting up a playground for neighborhood children. 

One lasting memory of that first day was the moment when activist/writer/architect John Read drove onto the lot in a pickup loaded with of rolls of green sod. Volunteers immediately swarmed the truck and started carrying off sections of living groundcover on their shoulders. When they began to unroll them on the barren ground, it was magical—like applying fresh paint to an old, battered cabinet. Suddenly, the landscape was transformed. Carpets of grass now ran from one weathered tree to another, uniting the previously solitary trunks into a reborn landscape of vibrant, green Nature. 

Week after week, we dug and planted, built furniture and cooked free meals. People came from all over the Bay Area to work on the park. One afternoon, I was joined by two young men from Oregon who said they were driving to LA when they heard about the park and decided to stop and join the work crew. We all grabbed picks and shovels and got busy—working shoulder-to-shoulder with a band of young kids from Oakland on one side and a Nobel Prize-winning UC professor on the other. 

So how could something so innocent and galvanizing as a public park become a target for such disproportionate violence? 

From the beginning, I suspected that the ferocity of the repression was rooted in a devastating political revelation: Individuals working collectively could be a more effective force for achieving positive public goals than the well-paid factotums of city government. 

At the time, there had been a good deal of impatience over the City's poor management of other parks in the South Campus area. Residents were repeatedly told that the city was doing the best they could, to clean, improve, and maintain these open spaces. City officials explained that slow, incremental attempts to improve the situation were all we could expect in the "real world." 

The creation of Peoples Park was a game-changing social and political revelation. The lessons were stunning. Forget the "powers-that-be." People's Park demonstrated that the power of everyday folk could accomplish more in a day than all the politicians, boards, and employees of city government had been able to accomplish in a year. And all without a budget. 

The message was revelatory and revolutionary: We don't have to go to the city to beg for help; Noblesse oblige is dead; We can bloody well take charge and solve community problems using our own heads and our own two hands. 

I subsequently wrote an article citing Thomas Jefferson's rule of "usufructuary rights" to argue that the people of Berkeley might have a legitimate, legal claim to ownership of the park. It was Jefferson's argument that anyone who put abandoned land to productive use thereby gained title to the reclaimed land. 

The Battle for People's Park: Berkeley 1969 is a massive undertaking and a grand accomplishment. Readers can spend days wending their way through this superb historical document. Every page holds a reward. 

And for those who wish to continue their exploration of the park's birth and legacy, a cornucopia of articles can be found in the Berkeley Barb Archives—a nearly complete collection of the Underground Weekly that was scanned by Reveal Digital in honor of the Barb's 50th Anniversary. The archives include both visual and text scans of every available issue so it's possible to search for topics, authors and complete articles.