Opinion: On the 48th anniversary of People’s Park

It took the united efforts of more than 500 people to create People’s Park and ensure its existence, one of the co-founders recalls.

By Michael Delacour,

Michael Delacour is California native who has been in the Bay Area for 51 years. He is the co-founder of People's Park and belongs to the Boilermakers, Teamsters and SEIU unions.

48 years ago US imperialism-colonialism was in an all-time crisis. Here in Berkeley, there were Third World and worker strikes plus ongoing anti-Vietnam war mobilizations. 60% of the windows on the UC campus were broken and replaced by plywood. Starting in the summer of 1969 the community was unable to have antiwar events at Provo Park (now Martin Luther King Jr. Park), which had taken place in previous years. The community decided to have antiwar events and make a park on a piece of land where the university has been destroying 53 red shingled homes to build dormitories for their students. The San Francisco beatniks lived there.

48 years ago was somewhat the same as it is now, globally. In Vietnam, the US military had a tremendous defeat in 1968. President Johnson had withdrawn from the presidential race and Richard Nixon was elected with a program of slaughter by bombing in North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. There was tremendous violence by the police toward anti-Vietnam war mobilizations. Many people were killed in riots in Newark, Detroit, and Los Angles. Shotguns were used.

Then on April 20th, 1969, community members came on UC land and started a free speech park garden. It caught on. It was called People’s Park. It was the big event of the Bay Area. Thousands of people showed up on the weekend. Loads and loads of sod (grass) were brought from the Central Valley for instant grass. The problem was that Reagan was governor and he had presidential aspirations with the help of UC, FBI and CIA.

Reagan, along with Sheriff Madigan, Oakland District Attorney Edward Meese and Berkeley Mayor Wallace Johnson met and pulled off a covert action that got Reagan elected. After about four weeks of our holding anti-war events and growing plants and grass at People’s Park, UC decided to fence the park. That happened on May 15th, 1969 early in the morning. Around noon, 5,000 students and community people gathered and rallied on the steps of Sproul Hall. They marched down to confront the police and those erecting the fence.

At Telegraph and Haste, young community members turned on the fire hydrant, which was a normal tactic of the time.Deputies from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department were prepared with a wrench to turn the fire hydrant off. Some people in the crowd across the street pelted the deputies and the people around them with objects.

That confrontation gave the sheriff’s deputies an excuse to march one block away to their vehicles and pick up their shotguns filled with birdshot. Then they started firing on everyone they saw on the street and on top of the buildings. When they ran out of birdshot they turned to buck shots. Buckshots are big enough to kill. There were 150 people who were wounded. Forty people were hospitalized. One was blinded and one died three days later; his name was James Rector.

Those shooting events gave Mayor Johnson an excuse to call for martial law and in turn, Reagan activated the National Guard. It was found out later that the National Guard members from Sacramento had been notified in advance before the May 15th confrontation.

The National Guard and 2,500 soldiers occupied the park, downtown and the Marina for 21 days. The Berkeley community fought the National Guard in peaceful ways. On June 2nd, a mass of 421 of us was arrested. We were brutalized by the deputies out at Santa Rita Jail. Overall, during all the protests, over 3,000 were arrested.

Finally, after many days of struggle, the business community saw there was no business at all in downtown Berkeley because of the police presence and because the community was boycotting the businesses. The city ended the state of emergency.

Reagan and the CIA brought in hard drugs into the south campus area, starting with the China White and Persian dust. Young people thought it was cocaine and were easily hooked. They were called the Red Rockets and a book by the name of Rag Theater was published where hundreds of them hung out on Telegraph Avenue. They were the children or offspring of the academic antiwar movement. About half of them (in the hundreds) have died from that drug intervention by the CIA. Hard drugs were used to disable the antiwar movement internationally. The closing of Caffé Mediterraneum here in November 2016 is part of that CIA project.

Another very important condition that before 1969 or People’s Park young black males could not venture passed Grove Street, which is now MLK without being molested by the Berkeley police. Berkeley was a sun down town. People’s Park stopped that “Jim Crow” repression.

People’s Park came months after Jackson State where four black-students were killed. Then after the People’s Park shootings, killings and repression, four Kent State students were killed on May 1st, 1970.

The fence stood up for two and a half years and was attacked hundreds of times by the community. During the Christmas season in 1972, Nixon and Henry Kissinger ordered a bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong and about 500 Berkeley citizens marched around town boycotting GM car dealerships. They found there were no police guarding the fence at People’s Park and in turn, went down and tore down the fence — all 500 of them. It’s amazing what you can do with numbers.

On the negative side, Reagan used all of this repression against the students and antiwar activists and got elected and was responsible for millions of deaths. And Meese carried on his repression against my kids.