People's Park in Berkeley, California, US, is a park located off Telegraph Avenue, bounded by Haste and Bowditch streets and Dwight Way, near the University of California, Berkeley. The park was created during the radical political activism of the late 1960s.
Today, People's Park is a free public park. Although open to all, it is mainly a daytime sanctuary for Berkeley's large homeless population who, along with others, receive meals from East Bay Food Not Bombs. Public toilets are available, and the park offers demonstration gardens, including organic community gardening beds and areas landscaped with California native plants, all of which were created by volunteer gardeners. Students use the basketball courts. A wider audience is attracted by occasional rallies, concerts, and hip-hop events conducted at the People's Stage, a wooden bandstand designed and built on the western end of the park by volunteers organized by the People's Park Council. Nearby residents, and those who try to use the park for recreation, sometimes experience conflict with the more aggressive homeless people.
The local Southside neighborhood was the scene of a major confrontation between student protesters and police in May 1969. A mural near the park, painted by Berkeley artist O'Brien Thiele and lawyer/artist Osha Neumann, depicts the shooting of James Rector, a student who died from shotgun wounds inflicted by the police on May 15, 1969.
Early history to May 1969
In 1956, the Regents of the University of California allocated a 2.8-acre (11,000 m2) plot of land containing residences for future development into student housing, parking, and offices as part of the university's "Long Range Development Plan." At the time, public funds were lacking to buy the land, and the plan was shelved until June 1967, when the university acquired $1.3 million to take the land through the process of eminent domain. After taking control of the land, neighborhood residents were evicted and demolition of homes began.
By 1967, the university had altered its plan; the new plan was to build a student parking lot and a playing field on the land. Demolition of the residences took more than a year, and the university ran out of development funds, leaving the lot only partially cleared of demolition debris and rubble. It remained in this state for over a year, and as winter began the muddy site became derelict with abandoned cars.
On April 13, 1969, local merchants and residents held a meeting to discuss possible uses for the derelict site. Michael Delacour presented a plan for developing the under-utilized, university-owned land into a public park. This plan was approved by the attendees, but not by the university. Stew Albert, a co-founder of the Yippie Party, agreed to write an article for the local counter-culture newspaper, the Berkeley Barb, on the subject of the park, particularly to call for help from local residents.
Michael Delacour stated, "We wanted a free speech area that wasn't really controlled like Sproul Plaza [the plaza at the south entrance to UC Berkeley] was. It was another place to organize, another place to have a rally. The park was secondary." The university's Free Speech microphone was available to all students, with few (if any) restrictions on speech. The construction of the park involved many of the same people and politics as the 1964 Free Speech Movement.
On April 18, 1969, Albert's article appeared in the Berkeley Barb, and on Sunday, April 20, over 100 people arrived at the site to begin building the park. Local landscape architect Jon Read and many others contributed trees, flowers, shrubs, and sod. Free food was provided, and community development of the park proceeded. Eventually, about 1,000 people became directly involved, with many more donating money and materials. The park was essentially complete by mid-May.
Frank Bardacke, a participant in the park's development, stated in a documentary film called Berkeley in the Sixties, "A group of people took some corporate land, owned by the University of California, that was a parking lot and turned it into a park and then said, 'We're using the land better than you used it; it's ours'".
On April 28, 1969, Berkeley Vice Chancellor Earl Cheit released plans for a sports field to be built on the site. This plan conflicted with the plans of the People's Park activists. However, Cheit stated that he would take no action without notifying the park builders. Two days later, on April 30, he allocated control over one quarter of the plot to the park's builders. On May 6, Chancellor Heyns held a meeting with members of the People's Park committee, student representatives, and faculty from the College of Environmental Design. He set a time limit of three weeks for this group to produce a plan for the park, and he reiterated his promise that construction would not begin without prior warning.
May 15, 1969: "Bloody Thursday"
During its first three weeks, People's Park was used by both university students and local residents, and local Telegraph Avenue merchants voiced their appreciation for the community's efforts to improve the neighborhood. Objections to the expropriation of university property tended to be mild, even among school administrators.
Governor Ronald Reagan had been publicly critical of university administrators for tolerating student demonstrations at the Berkeley campus, and he had received enormous popular support for his 1966 gubernatorial campaign promise to crack down on what the public perceived as a generally lax attitude at California's public universities. Reagan called the Berkeley campus "a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants." Reagan considered the creation of the park a direct leftist challenge to the property rights of the university, and he found in it an opportunity to fulfill his campaign promise.
Governor Reagan overrode Chancellor Heyns' May 6 promise that nothing would be done without warning, and on Thursday, May 15, 1969 at 4:30 a.m., he sent 300 California Highway Patrol and Berkeley police officers into People's Park. The officers cleared an 8-block area around the park while a large section of what had been planted was destroyed and an 8-foot (2.4 m)-tall perimeter chain-link wire fence was installed to keep people out and to prevent the planting of more trees, grass, flowers, or shrubs.
Beginning at noon, about 3,000 people appeared in Sproul Plaza at nearby UC Berkeley for a rally, the original purpose of which was to discuss the Arab–Israeli conflict. Several people spoke; then, Michael Lerner ceded the Free Speech platform to ASUC Student Body President Dan Siegel because students were concerned about the fencing-off and destruction of the park. Siegel said later that he never intended to precipitate a riot; however, when he shouted "Let's take the park!," police turned off the sound system. The crowd responded spontaneously, moving down Telegraph Avenue toward People's Park chanting, "We want the park!"
Arriving in the early afternoon, the protesters were met by the remaining 159 Berkeley and university police officers assigned to guard the fenced-off park site. The protesters opened a fire hydrant, the officers fired tear gas canisters, some protesters attempted to tear down the fence, and bottles, rocks, and bricks were thrown. A major confrontation ensued between police and the crowd. Initial attempts by the police to disperse the protesters were not successful, and more officers were called in from surrounding cities. At least one car was set on fire.
Reagan's Chief of Staff, Edwin Meese III, a former district attorney from Alameda County, had established a reputation for firm opposition to those protesting the Vietnam War at the Oakland Induction Center and elsewhere. Meese assumed responsibility for the governmental response to the People's Park protest, and he called in the Alameda County Sheriff's deputies, which brought the total police presence to 791 officers from various jurisdictions. Under Meese's direction, the police were permitted to use whatever methods they chose against the crowds, which had swelled to approximately 6,000 people. Officers in full riot gear (helmets, shields, and gas masks) obscured their badges to avoid being identified and headed into the crowds with nightsticks swinging."
Alameda County Sheriff's deputies used shotguns to fire at people sitting on the roof at the Telegraph Repertory Cinema. James Rector, a student, was fatally wounded by a police shotgun loaded with "00" buckshot. Carpenter Alan Blanchard was permanently blinded by a load of birdshot directly to his face. The University of California Police Department (UCPD) claims Rector threw steel rebar down onto the police; however, according to Time Magazine, Rector was a bystander, not a protester. As the protesters retreated, the Alameda County Sheriff's deputies pursued them several blocks down Telegraph Avenue as far as Willard Junior High School at Derby Street, firing tear gas canisters and "00" buckshot at the crowd's backs as they fled.
At least 128 Berkeley residents were admitted to local hospitals for head trauma, shotgun wounds, and other serious injuries inflicted by police. The actual number of seriously wounded was likely much higher, because many of the injured did not seek treatment at local hospitals to avoid being arrested. Local medical students and interns organized volunteer mobile first-aid teams to assist the many protestors and bystanders injured with buckshot, nightsticks, or tear gas. One local hospital reported two students wounded with large caliber rifles as well, while other local hospital logs show that 19 police officers or Alameda County Sheriff's deputies were treated for minor injuries; none were hospitalized. However, the UCPD claims that 111 police officers were injured, including one who was knifed in the chest.
Authorities initially claimed that only birdshot had been used as shotgun ammunition. When physicians provided "00" pellets removed from the wounded as evidence that buckshot had been used, Sheriff Frank Madigan of Alameda County justified the use of shotguns loaded with lethal buckshot by stating, "The choice was essentially this: to use shotguns—because we didn't have the available manpower—or retreat and abandon the City of Berkeley to the mob." Sheriff Madigan did admit, however, that some of his deputies (many of whom were Vietnam War veterans) had been overly aggressive in their pursuit of the protesters, acting "as though they were Viet Cong."
Governor Reagan declared a state of emergency in Berkeley and sent in 2,700 National Guard troops. The Berkeley City Council symbolically voted 8–1 against the decision. For two weeks, the streets of Berkeley were patrolled by National Guardsmen, who broke up even small demonstrations with teargas. On Wednesday, May 21, 1969, a midday memorial was held for student James Rector at Sproul Plaza on the university campus, with several thousand people attending.
During the People's Park incident, National Guard troops were stationed in front of Berkeley's empty lots to prevent protesters from planting flowers, shrubs, or trees. Young hippie women taunted and teased the troops, on one occasion handing out marijuana-laced brownies and lemonade spiked with LSD. Some protesters, their faces hidden with scarves, challenged police and National Guard troops. Hundreds were arrested, and Berkeley citizens who ventured out during curfew hours risked police harassment and beatings. Berkeley city police officers were discovered to be parking several blocks away from the Annex park, removing their badges and donning grotesque Halloween-type masks (including pig faces) to attack citizens they found in the park annex." Law enforcement would soon introduce a new form of crowd control with pepper gas, in its first use on American soil after being tested on the fields of Vietnam. The editorial offices of Berkeley Tribe were sprayed with pepper gas and had tear gas canisters fired into the offices, injuring underground press staff.
On May 30, 1969, 30,000 Berkeley citizens (out of a population of 100,000) secured a city permit and marched without incident past the barricaded People's Park to protest Governor Reagan's occupation of their city, the death of James Rector, the blinding of Alan Blanchard, and the many injuries inflicted by police. Young girls slid flowers down the muzzles of bayoneted National Guard rifles, and a small airplane flew over the city trailing a banner that read, "Let A Thousand Parks Bloom." But over the next few weeks, National Guard troops broke up any assemblies of more than four persons who congregated for any purpose on the streets of Berkeley, day or night. In the early summer, troops deployed in downtown Berkeley surrounded several thousand protestors and bystanders, emptying business, restaurants, and retail outlets of their owners and customers, and arresting them en masse. On May 20, 1969, National Guard helicopters flew over the campus, dispensing airborne teargas that errant winds dispersed over the entire City, sending schoolchildren miles away to hospitals.
In an address before the California Council of Growers on April 7, 1970, almost a year after "Bloody Thursday" and the death of James Rector, Governor Reagan defended his decision to use the California National Guard to quell Berkeley protests: "If it takes a bloodbath, let's get it over with. No more appeasement." Berkeley Tribe editors decided to issue this quote in large type on the cover of its next edition.
The May 1969 confrontation in People's Park grew out of the counterculture of the 1960s, pitting flower children against the Establishment. Among the student protests of the late 1960s, the People's Park confrontation came after the 1968 protests at Columbia University and the Democratic National Convention, but before the Kent State killings and the burning of a branch of Bank of America in Isla Vista. Unlike other student protests of the late 1960s, most of which were at least partly in opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, the initial protests at People's Park were mostly in response to a local disagreement about land use.
After the peaceful march in support of People's Park on May 30, 1969, the university decided to keep the 8-foot-tall perimeter chain-link wire fence and maintain a 24-hour guard over the site. On June 20, the University of California Regents voted to turn the People's Park site into a soccer field and parking lot.
In March 1971, when it seemed as though construction of the parking lot and soccer field might proceed, another People's Park protest occurred, resulting in 44 arrests.
In May 1972, an outraged crowd tore down the perimeter chain-link wire fence surrounding the People's Park site after President Richard Nixon announced his intention to mine North Vietnam's main port. In September, the Berkeley City Council voted to lease the park site from the university. The Berkeley community rebuilt the park, mainly with donated labor and materials. Various local groups contributed to managing the park during rebuilding.
In 1979, the university tried to convert the west end of the park, which was already a no-cost parking lot, into a fee lot for students and faculty only. Significantly, the west end of the park was (and remains) the location of the People's Stage, a permanent bandstand that had just been erected on the edge of the lawn within the no-cost parking lot. Completed in the spring of 1979, it had been designed and constructed through user-development and voluntary community participation. This effort was coordinated by the People's Park Council, a democratic group of park advocates, and the People's Park Project/Native Plant Forum. Park users and organizers believed that the university's main purpose in attempting to convert the parking lot was the destruction of the People's Stage in order to suppress free speech and music, both in the park and in the neighborhood south of campus as a whole. It was also widely believed that the foray into the west end warned of the dispossession of the entire park for the purpose of university construction. A spontaneous protest in the fall of 1979 led to an occupation of the west end that continued uninterrupted throughout December 1979. Park volunteers tore up the asphalt and heaped it up as barricades next to the sidewalks along Dwight Way and Haste Street. This confrontation led to negotiations between the university and the park activists. The park activists were led by the People's Park Council, which included park organizers and occupiers, as well as other community members. The university eventually capitulated. Meanwhile, the occupiers, organizers, and volunteer gardeners transformed the former parking lot into a newly cultivated organic community gardening area, which remains to this day.
People's Park Annex/Ohlone Park
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In the immediate aftermath of the May 1969 People's Park demonstrations, and consistent with their goal of "letting a thousand parks bloom," People's Park activists began gardening a two-block strip of land called the "Hearst Corridor," located adjacent to Hearst Avenue just northwest of the university campus. The Hearst Corridor was a strip of land along the north side of Hearst Avenue that had been left largely untended after the houses had been torn down to facilitate completion of an underground subway line by the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) District.
During the 1970s, local residents, especially George Garvin, pursued gardening and user development of this land, which became known as "People's Park Annex." Later on, additional volunteers donated time and energy to the Annex, led by David Axelrod and Charlotte Pyle, urban gardeners who were among the original organizers of the People's Park Project/Native Plant Forum.
As neighborhood and community groups stepped up their support for the preservation and development of the Annex, BART abandoned its original plan to build apartment complexes on Hearst Corridor. The City of Berkeley negotiated with BART to secure permanent above-ground rights to the entire five block strip of land, between Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Sacramento Avenue. By the early 1980s, this land had become a city park comprising 9.8 acres (40,000 m2), which residents decided to name "Ohlone Park" in honor of the Ohlone band of native Americans who once lived there.
Today, the Berkeley Parks and Recreation Commission mediates neighborhood and community feedback concerning issues of park design and the maintenance, operation, and development of Ohlone Park amenities. These amenities—which include pedestrian and bicycle paths, children's playgrounds, a dog park, basketball and volleyball courts, a softball/soccer field, toilets, picnic areas, and community gardens—continue to serve the people and pets of Berkeley.
The People's Café, a house trailer configured and decorated as a café, was mysteriously installed in People's Park overnight in 1988, with no one claiming responsibility. Volunteers from the Catholic Worker Movement and elsewhere began serving food from it the next day, distributing approximately 100 breakfasts per day. It lasted a few months, until the university removed the trailer early one morning after an inspection by the Berkeley Health Department.
The university built sand volleyball courts at the south end of the park in 1991, which set off demonstrations. After the university police began trying to clear the park of protesters and arrested some demonstrators, riots began. Opponents saw the building of volleyball courts as yet another attempt by the university to transform the park's open space into eventual housing, parking, or other projects. The courts were dismantled in 1997. There had been little use by the public, and the maintenance costs were very high.
People's Park is now co-managed by the university and various community groups. During subsequent years, the 2.8-acre (11,000 m2) plot of land known as "People's Park" has remained a focus of controversy between the university, and disparate elements of the Berkeley community. Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates has stated that "over time, people have come to realize that the park has not become what they had hoped it would be... I love the idea of having some kind of memorial recognition there, but right now it is not a place that a lot of people are comfortable going to." Current UC Berkeley students experience People’s Park in a much different way than did UC Berkeley students from the 1960s and 1970s. Now, during welcome orientations, freshmen students living in dormitories in the vicinity of People’s Park are warned to stay away for safety concerns, especially at night.
Dan Siegel has said that the park "has now become this somewhat forlorn urban park... It's a place that no longer reflects the will for independence of the campus community. I think today if the university turned off its Wi-Fi, they’d get bigger demonstrations than they would for People's Park."
In an April 2000 referendum, UC Berkeley students reaffirmed their preference for People Park remaining a park rather than having another use such as housing.
In October 2005, some park supporters attempted to rebuild the Free Box, a clothes donation box, after it had been burned down for the second time in two years by unknown vandals. They were videotaped by the university police and threatened with arrest. The supporters started rebuilding anyway, and no arrests were made, although the university police returned during the early hours of the morning and destroyed what had been built. Subsequent rebuilding attempts were also dismantled. A group of interested community members are working towards improving the children's play area.
On January 8, 2007, at his retirement ceremony celebrating more than 50 years in law enforcement, outgoing Alameda County Sheriff Charles Plummer remained unrepentant about his role as a Berkeley police officer during the People's Park riots:
"I wish I would have hit some people harder during the riots," said Plummer, speaking of the riots in Berkeley in the late-1960s. "I regret that."
In 2007, the university hired consulting firm MKThink to assess the park, and its draft report was published in October 2007.
In a San Francisco Chronicle article on January 13, 2008, People's Park was referred to as "a menacing hub for drug users and the homeless" and also as "perfectly safe, clean and accessible". The article quotes Irene Hegarty, UC Berkeley director of community relations, as saying, "A lot of people's attitudes about the park have changed, and we wanted (referring to the MKThink report) to take a fresh, comprehensive look at the issue," as well as Jason Colson, a park regular, as saying "I've been here at all hours of the day and night, and I don't think it's unsafe at all. I don't have any problem with the park as it is. Additionally, Arthur Fonseca, a Berkeley/East Bay Food Not Bombs activist, was quoted in the same article: "Rich people are welcome here as much as poor people, but if rich people want to change the park to make poor people feel uncomfortable, that's obviously a problem."
Bulldozing of the west end
On December 28, 2011, UC Berkeley bulldozed over the west end of People's Park, tearing up the decades-old community garden and plowing down mature trees in what a press release issued by the school described as an effort to provide students and the broader community with safer, more sanitary conditions. This angered some Berkeley students and residents, who noted that the bulldozing took place during winter break when many students were away from campus, and followed the administration-backed police attack on students at Occupy Cal that occurred less than two months prior.
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