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History of People's Park

People's Park has always been a symbol of what ordinary people can do ...

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 Plan for Expansion." At the time, 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 (compulsory purchase). 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 ca

On 13 April 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 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 18 April 1969, Albert's article appeared in the Berkeley Barb, and on Sunday, 20 April 1969, 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 28 April 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, Vice Chancellor Cheit stated that he would take no action without notifying the park builders. Two days later, on April 30, he decided to allocate control over one quarter of the plot to the Park's builders. On 6 May 1969, 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.
 

15 May 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, 15 May 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 and 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. This angered some people, and 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, so 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 "00" buckshot at people sitting on the roof at the Telegraph Repertory Cinema, fatally wounding student James Rector and permanently blinding carpenter Alan Blanchard. 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 into their 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. Many more protesters and bystanders were treated for minor injuries. 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.

The 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, 21 May 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 found it necessary to venture 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/identification and donning grotesque Halloween type masks (ironically including pig faces) to attack citizens they found in the park annex."

In a university referendum held soon after, the U.C. Berkeley students themselves voted 12,719 to 2,175 in favor of keeping the park.

On 30 May 1969, 30,000 Berkeley citizens (out of a population of 100,000) secured a Berkeley city permit and marched without incident past 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."

In an address before the California Council of Growers on 7 April 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." Just a few weeks later, on 4 May 1970, the Ohio National Guard fired on protestors at Kent State University, killing four students and seriously wounding nine.

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, and before the Kent State shootings. 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.

 

1970s

Unofficial memorial: 25 years of People's Park. "Remove parking lot, put in a paradise" is an allusion to

Joni Mitchell's song "Big Yellow Taxi".

After the peaceful march in support of People's Park on 30 May 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 20 June, 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 resulted 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 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 proceeded to rebuild the park through user-development, 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, excluding community members. 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 South Campus neighborhood 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 of the park 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, on the one hand, and the park users and activists, on the other. The park users and 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.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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