John Jekabson may have missed the summer of love, but he was in the thick of the “Seven Days of May” which saw Berkeley occupied by the National Guard under a state of emergency in 1969.
His black-and-white photographs of those events, a collection of which are currently on show at the Sonoma Coffee Café on Durant, tell the tale of those dramatic days in striking fashion.
Jekabson had a front-row seat to the turmoil as Assistant Editor of the Berkeley Barb, the well-known alternative weekly newspaper published by Max Scherr.
The Barb office was at 2042 University Avenue, just a block from the Cal campus which was the focus of much of the conflict. Jekabson was a writer rather than a photographer, and there were in fact dozens of freelance photographers working for the paper at the time. Nevertheless, he would often scoop up one of the paper’s many donated cameras and leave the office at lunchtime to snap pictures of the drama unfolding on his doorstep.
“I would always dress in a jacket so as not to be confused with the protestors or the police,” he said earlier this month, sitting in the Sonoma Café over coffee, surrounded by his photographs.
The Barb’s coverage was fearless, and included publishing photos of James Rector lying injured on the roof of the Telegraph Repertory Cinema on May 15 after he had been fired on by the police. Rector died from his injuries four days later.
One of Jekabson’s images shows soldiers and a crowd on Shattuck Avenue. “They had fixed bayonets to move us,” says Jekabson, “but I don’t think they had live ammunition. The police and sheriffs had guns which they were authorized to use. I shot [the photo] from behind the soldiers, as that was the safest place to be.”
Jekabson notes that there was no BART station in downtown Berkeley then. “It was just being built, just to the right of the soldiers,” he says.
A photograph taken at the corner of Allston and Shattuck shows the words “Welcome to Prague” scrawled on a wall. “The wall is the old JC Penny store (later Ross), across from the Hotel Shattuck,” says Jekabson. “The sign on the wall is a sticker for Eugene McCarthy for President. The protestor on the right has just been clubbed on the head by the cop, my next three shots were of his bloody head.
“The Barb was the main driving force publicizing [People's Park],” continues Jekabson, “mainly as an “agit-prop” needle against the university. The ordinary papers didn’t even mention it. To them it didn’t seem newsworthy. Ha, little did they know!
“Governor Reagan, once he sent in the National Guard, denounced the Barb by name at one of his press conferences as the instigator of the conflict.”
Jekabson managed the day-to-day editorial and production work on the paper, as well as writing news stories and shooting images. The May 23-29 issue the Barb had a press-run of 93,000, the largest in the history of the paper.
Jekabson kept a diary of those tumultuous days. In an entry dated May 20, he wrote:
Well, I survived intact. Shaken but not hurt, not even a bruise. What: guns, bayonets, tear gas, pepper spray, the helicopter, two arrest attempts, and, Goddamn, that club to my head! Not a scratch on me after all that. A miracle really!
One of Jekabson’s images shows a girl with a black balloon facing the national guard at Sather Gate. “I took some 20 shots of her, but I never saw her face and have no idea who she is,” he says. “The composition of her bare legs and the guns of the soldiers was something I noted as I was positioning myself to shoot. The soldiers were only at the gate for some ten minutes before they drew back, so the images are, I guess, ‘once in a lifetime shots’.”
Jekabson’s first encounter with Scherr had happened two years earlier when he was fresh out UC Berkeley’s J-School.
“I was a cartoonist for the Daily Cal,” he says, “and I showed some of my cartoons to Max. He said, ‘these are too tame, can you write? Can you help me with this newspaper?’”
Jekabson said yes, but before he could start he went to British Guiana for two years to work for the Peace Corps in order to avoid the Draft.
At the Barb, pushing the boundaries was encouraged by Scherr, who according to Jekabson, once declared he “wanted to be the Randolph Hearst of alternative publishing”.
Jekabson chronicled in words and photos what was happening in the Barb office as well as outside it.
“Everyone wanted to be in Berkeley and people were always coming by the office,” he says. Timothy Leary was a regular, he says, young women might come in and ask to have their topless photo taken in order to be on the cover, and drugs were ubiquitous.
After describing the delivery of a new edition of the newspaper one day, and the excitement at seeing the printed front page, Jekabson wrote in his diary: “Someone gave me purple Owsley tabs as payment. What am I going to do with them?”
Jekabson’s photos also document the birth of what is now People’s Park. A picture he shot on April 27 1969, at Haste and Bowditch, shows a group of musicians.
“It was the second weekend of the building of a ‘Street Park’ which was soon known as People’s Park,” he says. “The girl is ‘Frankie’, she was Berkeley’s original ‘street person’ sleeping on the sidewalk and having a grocery cart for her possessions. She seemed so unusual that everyone was always offering to help her, but all she wanted was to buy drugs any time she had some cash. The term ‘homeless’ was not yet used.
“On the first two weekends of the building of the park, all Berkeley radicals showed up at various times — it was the ‘in’ thing. [Everyone] wanted to be photographed working with a shovel or pick, though most had only been ‘coffee house revolutionaries’ up to that point, not at all interested in ‘gardening’.”
Scherr saw the revenue potential in publishing risqué pictures and selling small ads for sex services in the Barb. The mix of radical politics coverage and sex formula was successful, and, at one point, the Barb was one of the top-selling underground papers in the nation. However, after spinning off the sex content into a separate publication called Spectator Magazine in 1978, the Barb finally burnt out in 1980.
Jekabson left the paper not long after the riots and worked as a social worker in New York before pursuing a career in journalism, including editing a labor newspaper. He now lives in Berkeley with his wife Marianne Smith, a writer.
“Berkeley in Black and White: Images from the 1960s by J. Jekabson” is showing at the Sonoma Café, 2131 Durant (At Fulton) through August 31.