The 40th anniversary celebration of People’s Park in Berkeley, Calif. reeked of history and body odor as hundreds of wayfarers, wanderers and wonderers came together on April 26 to share stories and honor the park by remembering those who fought to protect it.
A love child of rebellion, the park was founded on the principles of freedom of speech, assembly and expression. Today the space serves as a public park and a daytime sanctuary for much of Berkeley’s homeless population.
A grassy landscape covers most of the park grounds, but in its back corner gardens are planted among a grove of trees. At the park’s anterior, a playset still stands and People’s Stage is the venue for several concerts and colloquiums every year.
“There’s no other place like it,” said a former People’s Park resident who asked to be identified as Caleb X. “When you come back to Berkeley you come back home.”
People’s Park began as an expansion project for UC Berkeley. The campus bought up the entire space in 1967, with the intention of building dormitories for the growing student population.
The area was known to be “alternative” and the students who lived there adhered to a lifestyle that the university condemned.
Jack Radey attended Cal in 1964, and joined several activist groups while living in Berkeley. He witnessed and participated in many of the movements to protect the park and challenge the authority of the university.
“The existence of considerable student housing in the Southside area was a constant concern to the UC deans,” Radey recalled. “Because in such quarters it was hard for Mommy and Daddy to supervise the young people who were believed to indulge there in such improprieties as sex, marijuana, beat poetry and leftist discussion — to say nothing of espresso and jazz music.”
The year after the university bought the neighborhood, the UC deans issued evictions and the neighborhood was promptly bulldozed. Shortly after, the university ran out of money and the property became derelict.
“While it would have been indecorous to conduct room searches and the like, the university did the next best thing,” Radey said. “It bought up a bunch of the buildings and leveled them, leaving a big, muddy space above Telegraph.”
On April 20, 1969, community members joined forces and took over the space. They tore up the concrete and asphalt, replacing it with gardens, flowers and play equipment.
Less than one month later, the California Highway Patrol and Berkeley police officers occupied an eight-block area around People’s Park. The officers took positions in the early hours of May 15, 1969. Later that day, infamously known as Bloody Thursday, a rally of several thousand gathered at Sproul Plaza on Berkeley’s campus and began to venture toward the park.
Police officers opened fire on the crowds.
They fired tear gas and double-aught buckshot bullets while the marchers retaliated with projectiles, including rocks and bottles. Student James Rector was fatally shot. Today, a mural near the park depicts the Rector shooting.
Over 100 civilian injuries were reported, but no police were hospitalized. By the end of the day, Gov. Ronald Reagan called in the National Guard and banned public congregation.
“We were not supposed to congregate, so the cops and troops were periodically called out to disperse us,” Radey said. “We would not fight them, but we would continue to be in the streets, retreating, advancing when they fell back, regrouping in the side streets, and nonviolently resisting their attempts to violate our right to assemble.”
Radey recalled that the will of the people made an intimidating force against the police. The National Guard and Oakland and Alameda County police forces were called in for backup, causing several casualties including one fatality and one student being blinded.
“The Berkeley police were the most professional and the calmest,” Radey said. “The UC police were pathetic … and scared stiff. [They] ordered parking attendants to do stormtrooper duty. The Oakland pigs and the Alameda sheriffs were the worst, and most dangerous.”
Radey recalled the force with which students and civilians rallied against the police presence as if it were yesterday.
“They had numbers, an uphill lie, youth and grim determination,” he said. “They broke through police lines, trashed police cars, threw back the gas and volleys of bottles and anything else that could be thrown.”
The ensuing battle came in the midst of youthful rebellion and political reform. The appeal of the People’s Park movement, many said, stemmed from having a cause that could be justified.
“We weren’t fighting somebody else’s war. This was ours,” said Julie Vinograd, a Berkeley alumna of the class of 1965.
Vinograd, known as the Bubble Lady, waged her war against the university by blowing soap bubbles from a rooftop near the park for 24 hours.
Daily protests continued for the next two weeks. Security officers and civilians continued to have confrontations. Tear gas was dropped from helicopters and a rally marched in Sacramento.
Despite lack of experience and resources, Radey feels the rally organizers succeeded because of their solidarity and innovation.
“The organizers did manage one impressive feat,” Radey said. “In the face of the marijuana drought, the organizers managed to score a kilo of pot somewhere, and had it rolled up into joints, put in a cardboard box, and thrown off the back of the lead truck into the crowd.”
Between marches and confrontations, Radey said he and his friends spoke with many of the National Guard officers. Radey recalled the reluctance with which these officers served and the solidarity they ultimately succumbed to. In the midst of one particular confrontation, the masses called on the guardsmen to lower their weapons.
“One soldier dropped his rifle and dove into the crowd, stripping off his uniform shirt,” Radey said. “The crowd covered him, gave him the clothes off their backs, and helped him disappear. I do not know what happened to him afterwards. But the fact is, the tool that Reagan wanted to use to crush us turned in his hand into mush. They were just like us for the most part, were in the Guard to avoid Vietnam, and wanted no part of a war at home.”
Vinograd recalled feeling a similar reluctance in the face of confrontation. As a pacifist, she said, it was difficult to motivate herself into activism.
“I had this argument with my feet,” Vinograd said. “They wanted to go in and I didn’t.”
After weeks of tension and unresolved conflict, tens of thousands marched peacefully past People’s Park on May 30, 1969.
Today, UC Berkeley employs a community relations site coordinator to plan special events, enforce rules and manage the park day to day. Devin Wooldrige has been the site coordinator at People’s Park for nine years.
At the People’s Park 40th anniversary celebration, Wooldrige discounted what he determined to be an erroneous rumor that the university might reclaim the park to build the originally intended dormitories.
“The university pumps quite a bit of money into the park and I don’t believe the park is now, or will be, in danger of being redeveloped,” he said.
As for personal goals, Wooldrige takes his job seriously. He works toward making the park acceptable and palatable to the campus and civilian communities.
“I’d like to enhance its value to the community,” he said.
People’s Park is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. The UC Berkeley Police enter at 10 p.m. every evening to vacate the park.
Wooldrige said the park is frequented by an indeterminable number of visitors each year. Although it is closed at night, during the day People’s Park is a sanctuary for the homeless.
Every season, new and old visitors take refuge at the park.
“The population rises and falls with the weather and season,” Wooldrige said.
Tom Thompson is a Vietnam veteran living in Santa Cruz. Curiosity about the 40th anniversary celebration motivated him to venture up to Berkeley.
Unlike many of the park’s patrons, Thompson didn’t protest the Vietnam war — he fought in it. He said serving in the military was the American thing to do and it wasn’t until long after the war that his principles came in conflict with those of the U.S. government.
“I didn’t fight the corporations because the corporations aren’t the problem … other people minding other people’s business is the problem,” he said.
Thompson worked as a concrete finisher for the military nine years after being discharged. He retired at 38 and lost his home to a divorce settlement.
Since then Thompson has been homeless. He said the military has done very little to provide aid to him and many other veterans.
“They care about those they have to,” Thompson said of the military. “Now, I live in the redwoods and grow weed.”
Thompson first experienced People’s Park at its conception. With nostalgia in his voice and a distant look in his eyes, Thompson snapped back to reality when he began to describe the transformation the park has undergone.
“This place has really changed,” he said. “This place is supposed to be a safe spot.”
Thompson is not the first to notice the park’s metamorphosis.
In 1990, ongoing incidents of police brutality inspired the foundation of Cop Watch, an organization that works to educate people about the prevention of police brutality. Cop Watch distributes literature and camera equipment to volunteers. They advocate for civilians knowing their rights and encourage witnesses and victims of police brutality to report and document it.
Brandon Absher is a volunteer with Cop Watch and a Berkeley resident. He said the group distributes cameras to help execute their mission of education and prevention.
“Having a camera around, even if it can’t prevent what’s happening, lets people know what’s going on,” Absher said.
Russel Bates is a Vietnam War veteran who says he’s been arrested several times. He volunteers with Cop Watch and advocates for the homeless and poor.
“People who don’t have anything, who have lost everything, it’s definitely the community’s responsibility to provide the basics for them,” Bates said. “The police don’t seem to serve the poor and homeless well at all. When you’re homeless you have no place to retreat to and the police know that.”
Bates attributes ongoing police brutality to the growing gap between the social classes.
“There’s been a gentrification going on in Berkeley for quite some time now,” he said.
Mamma Taffy, a tie-dye-clad woman soaking up the sun in People’s Park and offering her pipe to anyone passing by, said that verbal abuse from police officers to residents is a common occurrence in the area, where she often takes temporary shelter.
Mamma Taffy believes that, true to its name, the park is meant for the people, and she condemned the police who use force to relocate park residents.
“This doesn’t belong to the state,” she said. “It belongs to the people.”
Any attempts by the university to reclaim the park will be unsuccessful, Mamma Taffy emphasized.
“We want a peaceful protest that leads to the people owning the park like they used to,” she said.
For many, the history the park symbolizes is much more important than the grass and gardens that cover it. As former park resident Caleb X said, “It represents democracy.”