People’s Park (1969-2013) is a complex subject!! Almost anything you hear or read about it will have a grain of truth and a mountain of “this is the way I felt the elephant.” I was there before it began, was there during most of its trauma and am still in contact with some of its protagonists. Michael Delacour came to my home in Bend, OR, a few months ago and reminisced for YouTube about about the books Rag Theater – The 2400 Block of Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, 1969-1973 and People’s Park.
I had been recently Honorably Discharged, as a pilot, from the US Air Force and arrived in Berkeley, a month after the HUAC (House UnAmerican Activities Committee) May 13, 1960, “riots” in San Francisco, City Hall. By 1959, the committee was being denounced by former President Harry S. Truman as the “most un-American thing in the country today.” My thoughts, at that time, were to go to the Starr King Unitarian School of Ministry in Berkeley, but during the summer I attended San Francisco State College graduate school in Art, which eventually led to an MFA, with a specialty in photography.
My interests in the Unitarian way of seeing things meant going to the Church on Bancroft Way, next to campus, on Sunday mornings and the Channing Club student group in that same building on Sunday evenings. Within a year of my arrival that church building was taken away by the force of eminent domain, to become part of campus, and we were compelled to move out. The congregation built a new church three miles away at a glorious spot atop the hills. Some of our Channing Club students didn’t have cars so we ended up meeting at our various friends houses near campus. These people are still meeting regularly some fifty years later.
People’s Park is generally thought of as beginning on Sunday, 20 April 1969, because that was the first major marching of people to protest the University’s use of its powers of eminent domain to close the city block to use by the local people and use it exclusively for a parking lot for the University. They had confiscated it several years earlier, even though they didn’t have any money allocated to build the intended structures. What they did was to tear down the previously occupied two-story Berkeley-style shingle houses and leave some of the rubble laying about in the winter mud and summer dust. Because this was formerly homes with trees and garages and there were driveway access points to this abandoned lot, it soon became a free parking lot. It was unmarked, unstructured, unruly, but it was available for parking and it was free, and after heavy rains it was a mess. That’s the way it was for over a year, with the easternmost part like a mini-forest and the western part a people’s parking lot. Everyone was reasonably happy, and at one point the parking area was paved by the University, and that seemed like a good thing too, but then the University told everyone to get out; and to emphasize their point they put up a cyclone fence around the place at 4AM, and locked the gates.
The person primarily behind this heavy handed action was a former actor who had fingered many of his friends and fellow actors onto the infamous Hollywood Black List. With inside information given to him about his political opposition by J. Edgar Hoover, Chief of the FBI, this actor managed to get elected President of the Screen Actors Guild. And then with even better access to inside information this actor managed to get elected Governor of California. In that capacity he had a helicopter flown over Berkeley and tear gassed the nearly empty campus. I know how empty the campus was because I was the last unaffiliated person to leave. I was in a business suit and had just applied for a job at UC in Sproul Hall. After coming out the colonnaded main door I found myself in Sproul Plaza and behind police lines in every direction. Walking from behind through the lines of police, and National Guard, all with gas masks on their faces, I headed down Telegraph Avenue the three blocks to the Caffe Mediterraneum, and was standing at the coffee counter when the helicopter could be heard flying over campus.
It is easy to understand the feeling of betrayal in people recently beaten, bullied and gassed by their elected governor, over free speech issues. It was in that mood that People’s Park was born. The Park still lives some forty-four years later, and the simple reason is that the people had more legal rights to it than the Governor of California and even the President of the United States, and these people were willing to stand up and demand their legal rights.