Memorial Day in 1969 was Friday, May 30. It was another two years before we started to celebrate Memorial Day on the final Monday of May. In 1969, it was the final scene in the powerful first act of People’s Park.
Work began on People’s Park on April 20, 1969. One year earlier, UC Berkeley had demolished the houses that lay within the block formed by Telegraph, Haste, Bowditch and Dwight. For the intervening year the university had done nothing to develop the land.
Between April 20 and May 15, 1969, thousands of people spontaneously transformed the soul-sucking eyesore of a vacant lot into a pleasant, relaxing and slightly chaotic park. Volunteers laid sod, planted flowers and trees and bushes, built an amphitheater, laid out winding brick paths, and installed swings and play structures. The people who built the park included hippies and freaks and Yippies and street people and politicos and radicals and peace activists and the Free Church of Berkeley and environmentalists and students and grad students and professors and architects and neighbors and their children.
The park as originally created last 24 days.
On May 15, the university fenced in the park and began dismantling the work that had been done. Later that day, law enforcement officers armed with shotguns shot up Telegraph Avenue as park supporters protested the university’s action. A sheriff’s deputy shot and killed James Rector, a bystander. A sheriff’s deputy shot and blinded Alan Blanchard, a bystander. A Sheriff’s deputy gut-shot Donovan Rundle a bystander, from close quarters. Law enforcement officers, mostly sheriff’s deputies, indiscriminately shot dozens more, many of whom were bystanders.
On May 16, more than 2,000 Army National Guard troops entered and occupied Berkeley. A strict curfew and ban on assembly were declared. Bayonets, barbed wire and military vehicles were the new normal.
On May 20, a National Guard helicopter tear-gassed Sproul Plaza. The CS gas drifted north as far as Oxford School and south as far as Emerson School. It filled university classrooms, libraries and Cowell Hospital. Thousands were affected.
On May 22, law enforcement boxed in and arrested almost 500 people on Shattuck Avenue. Some were protesters. Many were not, they were just caught up in Operation Box. Those arrested were taken to the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin. Guards physically abused prisoners to an extent that led to a federal injunction, federal indictments and internal Sheriff’s Department discipline.
The loosely knit leadership of the People’s Park movement then announced plans for a Memorial Day march to be held on Friday, May 30. Bill Miller, a Telegraph Avenue merchant and leader of the Provo Party, secured a permit for the march
Almost as soon as the march was announced, Alameda County Sheriff Frank Madigan and Governor Ronald Reagan vowed that law enforcement would use shotguns again if the march got out of hand.
Fred Cody of Cody’s Books was concerned about the potential for violence. He reached out to Roy Kepler of Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park and the local Quaker community. Peace activist Peter Bergel was recruited to train marshals for the march. As many as 800 people went through the training the night before the march at Le Conte School. Local Quakers bought 30,000 cut daisies that were distributed to marchers, leading to many instantly iconic photos of daisies and barbed wire, daisies and bayonets, daisies and National Guard. Men and women who would go on to lifetimes dedicated to non-violent resistance were here, maintaining the peace – Mandy Carter, Randy Keeler, Steve Ladd and many others.
The march was huge. Crowd estimates ranged up to 30,000 marchers. It is the largest demonstration in Berkeley’s history.
The march was peaceful and non-violent and there were only a few scattered arrests.
Some found the march exhilarating, an affirmation of Berkeley’s ability to maintain discipline and unity and nonviolence despite state violence and provocation.
Others found the march a failure, a co-opting of a militant resistance to state violence that failed to change anything about the university’s occupation of the Park.
One of those whose courage we celebrated and whose shooting we condemned on the march was Donovan Rundle, a first-quarter freshman trying to return to his dorm room on May 15. Carrying a copy of The Tempest, he was shot at close range by Laurence Riche, the same deputy who had earlier in the day fatally shot James Rector. Riche’s shotgun was loaded with buckshot.
As he was loaded into the ambulance, Rundle flashed a “V” sign.
That is something to remember this Memorial Day – the Berkeley that had moral outrage, and the first-quarter freshman with the courage to assert hope while on a stretcher, and the neighbors who took him off the street and gave him comfort and support for a very dark few minutes.
That is the city of Berkeley as it was actually was 49 years ago, and it is the city of Berkeley of my imagination today.
Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,000 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-plus-year resident muses on what it all means.