It was 50 years ago that People’s Park was built and then subsequently seized — an important moment in the radical trajectory of Berkeley, the Bay Area, California and America in the 1960s.
Berkeleyside is publishing excerpts of my recently published book, The Battle for People’s Park, Berkeley 1969 (Heyday).
The book goes from the birth of the park on April 20, through Bloody Thursday (May 15) when UC Berkeley retook the park by fencing it in, through the ensuing protest where Alameda County sheriff deputies, the California Highway Patrol, and the Berkeley, UC Berkeley and San Francisco police departments shot and killed or seriously wounded a number of bystanders, the aerial tear gassing of May 20 and mass arrests a few days later, ending with a peaceful march by 30,000 through the streets of Berkeley on May 30.
People’s Park did not arise in a vacuum, but in the context of more than ten years of radical thought and action in Berkeley. In this, the second installment of a series, I review the events leading up to 1969. (Read Part 1, about the impulse behind building the park.)
SLATE, a campus political party, is born
In 1958, an undergraduate representative on the ASUC Senate named Mike Miller organized a slate of candidates to run on a platform supporting racial equality, free speech on campus, and voluntary ROTC. Miller was later trained in the Saul Alinsky model of community organizing.
They did well and took things a step farther, establishing SLATE as a campus political party in February 1958.
SLATE was not an acronym but simply stood for a slate of candidates who ran on a common platform. The university administration approved SLATE as a student organization but not as a political party.
SLATE took positions on a number of controversial public issues that emerged in its first years. It supported a Berkeley fair housing ordinance in 1959, supported the national Woolworth-Kress boycott called by civil rights organizations, opposed the execution of Caryl Chessman at San Quentin, and opposed continued nuclear weapon testing. SLATE also continued its advocacy for on-campus issues.
The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) held hearings in San Francisco on May 12-14, 1960, to investigate alleged “communist subversion.” They were greeted by hundreds of peaceful protesters, mostly college students including many from Cal, who formed a picket-line around San Francisco City Hall.
Cal students joined Stanford students in insisting they be allowed to monitor the hearings. Eventually, San Francisco authorities decided to clear protestors out of the City Hall using high-pressure fire hoses. It was a pivotal moment that convinced a number of students that they stood in opposition to the government. It also marked the end of HUAC.
SLATE was active on a number of fronts in the years before the Free Speech Movement. On March 23, 1962, President John F. Kennedy spoke at Cal.
Marvin Garson estimated that he and Bardacke and about 450 people picketed Kennedy and that 75,000 people crossed the picket line.
In October 1963, Madame Nhu spoke at Cal. As the wife of Ngô Đình Nhu, who was the brother and chief-advisor to President Ngô Đình Diệm, she was the de facto First Lady of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1963. SLATE members conducted a small demonstration outside Harmon Gym where she was speaking.
In early 1964, the Ad Hoc Committee to End Discrimination picketed San Francisco auto dealers over their discriminatory hiring practices. SLATE supported the picketing.
And then came the Free Speech movement in the fall of 1964. It was the first mass act of civil disobedience as practiced in the civil rights movement on an American college campus in the 1960s.
Students insisted that the university administration lift the ban on on-campus political activities and acknowledge the students’ right to free speech and academic freedom. The Free Speech Movement burst into the headlines on October 1, 1964, when Jack Weinberg was sitting at a CORE information table on campus. He was arrested when he refused to show identification and placed in a police car in Sproul Plaza. Up to 3,000 students and supporters surrounded the police car; speeches and the Free Speech Movement began. He was released without charges 32 hours later.
On December 2, 1964, several thousand students occupied Sproul Hall in support of the Free Speech Movement. In the early morning hours of December 3, law enforcement moved in and almost 800 protesters were arrested.
In January 1965, the university relaxed rules for political activity on the Berkeley campus
The next manifestation of the growing student movement was a 35-hour-long teach-in about Vietnam at Cal. on May 21 and 22, 1965.
It is estimated that 30,000 students took part in the teach-in.
Speakers included I.F. “Izzy” Stone, Robert Scheer, Willie Brown, Berald Serreman (acting chairman of the anthropology department) and Eugene Burdick from the political science department debating department chair Robert Scalapino. Leaders of the Vietnam Day Committee (VDC) included the very old left, Paul Mantauk, and the very new left — Jerry Rubin, Stew Albert, and Abbie Hoffman. Many of the speeches are available on YouTube.
The goals of the VDC were:
- National and international solidarity and coordination on action.
- Militant action, including civil disobedience.
- Extensive work in the community to develop off-campus grassroots opposition and to benefit from the militancy of direct action.
In August 1965, the VDC led protests on the Santa Fe railroad tracks in West Berkeley, trying to stop trains carrying newly inducted troops from Oakland.
There were dramatic moments but no injuries.
In April 1966, a bomb exploded at VDC headquarters on Fulton Street.
The VDC organized Stop the Draft Week, a week of protests at the Oakland Draft Induction Center, in October 1967.
The week started gently with Joan Baez and other non-violent protesters sitting in at the draft board, giving “moral witness.”
By Friday, things got well beyond moral witness.
On Friday, hundreds of police rushed the demonstrators. When the police attacked the demonstrators, the protestors did what they planned – they blocked inductions and for the most part avoided arrest. Protest leader Frank Bardacke wrote later: “We called our barricaded streets liberated territory. We did not loot or shoot. But in our own way, we said to America that at that moment in history we do not recognize the legitimacy of American political authority. We controlled the downtown area of Oakland for most of the day. And the cops were outnumbered and confused and scared and we shut down the induction center.”
In early 1968, seven participants in the Stop the Draft demonstrations were indicted. They were Mike Smith, Steve Hamilton, Frank Bardacke, Reese Erlich, Terry Cannon, Bob Mandel, and Jeff Segal. Karen Jo Koonan, one of the main leaders of the steering committee, was not indicted, presumably because she is a woman. They instantly had a name – the Oakland Seven. They were indicted for conspiring to commit misdemeanors in their planning for the demonstrations.
Charles Garry, Malcolm Burnstein and Dick Hodges were the attorneys representing the Seven. They were aggressive and political and innovative. Witnesses at the trial were allowed to explain their reasons for being at the Stop the Draft Week demonstration. This was a giant leap towards the tactics a little later in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention.
The trial itself became a political issue around which opposition could be and was organized.
On March 28, 1968. the jury acquitted all seven. The defendants and the left in Berkeley were jubilant.
On May 17, 1968, 6,000 University of California students and faculty members attended a solemn anti-draft “Vietnam commencement.”
The commencement served two purposes. First, it demonstrated to Washington that many serious young people opposed the war. Secondly, it gave participants a sense of solidarity and unity. Professor Hardin B. Jones told Chancellor Heyns that the Vietnam commencement “appears to me to be indistinguishable from treason.”
Environmental activists Chuck Herrick and Cliff Humphrey launched Ecology Action in Berkeley in 1968 to promote an ecological life. Herrick was a Vietnam veteran who was trained in the fields of zoology and architecture. Herrick met Humphrey at an organizing meeting of the Peace and Freedom Party. He was quoted in the Berkeley Barb of April 26 through May 9, 1979, as having said, “When land is vacant, we must raise the issue. We must put it to use as a park, a baseball diamond, anything but a lot with a path across it.”
Herrick was killed in an automobile accident in Salt Lake City on May 2, 1968, on his way to a Peace and Freedom Party convention in Ann Arbor. Two days later, Humphrey and other ecology activists converted a vacant lot at the southwest corner of Dwight Way and Telegraph Avenue into a park in honor of Herrick.
Volunteers cleaned up the lot and planted the beginning of a park. For a few weeks, Ecology Action served free soup and bread at this small piece of “liberated land” in Herrick’s memory.
In mid-May, the city dismantled the park without incident. For more complete coverage of the Herrick/People’s Park, see my post in Berkeleyside.
In the summer of 1968, the disciplined non-violence that had characterized actions by Berkeley radicals evaporated.
There were two rounds of riots in the summer of 1968.
The first round of riots on Telegraph Avenue started in late June with a demonstration organized by Peter Camejo and the Socialist Workers Party in support of the student-worker strike in France. The second round took place in response to the police riot in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention.
The Barb covered the riots thoroughly and with conviction. After four years of non-violent Berkeley demonstrations, things got rough in the summer of 1968. Police used mace and tear gas for the first time in Berkeley, heads were cracked, rocks were tossed, and barricades and fires lined Telegraph at night. The July 5th Barb reported that a guard shack near the west entrance to campus had been dynamited. Governor Reagan never tired of repeating this story.
In the July 12 Barb, a headline proclaimed: “Berkeley Commune: Street People Emerge as Underground Force.” We learned more inside: “The street people we talk with are deliberately non-organization and non-leader individuals who resonate with the original SF Diggers and the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers in New York.”
The July 26 Barb gushed over the Commune’s power: “Commune Strikes Fear in Chamber’s Heart: The band of loosely affiliated street people known as the Berkeley communes giving more ulcers to Berkeley’s established elite. The Chamber of Commerce, with Mayor Wallace Johnson and Councilman John De Bonis, met Thursday morning to discuss how to deal with the Telegraph Avenue people. While the pressed suits are fighting panic, Berkeley’s street people are experimenting with varying success with their new form of non-organization.”
If nothing else, after the Telegraph riots, the rules of engagement had changed.
The first major political event of the new academic year was a controversy involving Eldridge Cleaver. The Black Panther leader had been invited to give 10 lectures at Cal. University Regents and Governor Reagan strongly objected to Cleaver’s presence on campus and revoked accreditation for the class, named Social Analysis 139X.
The relatively new Yippies led protests against the action of the Regents with sit-ins at Sproul Hall and Moses Hall. The December 27 issue of the Barb reported that Stew Albert and Peter Camejo had been indicted for felonies as a result of the Moses Hall occupation and that Cleaver was missing. His wife Kathleen was quoted as saying “I don’t think that a possibility that Eldridge is dead should be discredited.” Cleaver had, in fact, jumped bail on attempted murder charges against him and found his way to Cuba.
The final event setting the stage for People’s Park was the Third World Liberation Front Strike. In January 1969, groups representing African-American, Mexican-American, Native American, and Asian-American students formed Berkeley’s Third World Liberation Front. Their demands were:
1. Establishment of a Third World College with four departments.
2. That minority persons be appointed to administrative, faculty, and staff positions at all levels in all campus units.
3. That minority students get additional resources in the admission process, financial aid, and academic assistance. That there be additional work-study positions for minority students in minority communities and on high school campuses.
4. That minorities be allowed to control all minority-related programs on campus.
5. That there be no disciplinary action against student strikers.
Police escalated their tactics when dealing with the students of color, the students responded at times as they had learned to respond to police growing up – with force. By March 3, over 150 students had been arrested and 36 had been suspended. Five days later, the university administration conceded to most of the demands, which included the establishment of the Department of Ethnic Studies.
It was in the context of these events that a small mixed bag of Berkeley radicals set out to build People’s Park on April 20, 1969.