From garden to fenced-in lot to shots fired in Berkeley: People’s Park on May 15, 1969

In the third excerpt of my book, The Battle for People’s Park, Berkeley 1969, which is published today by Heyday, I chronicle what took place in Berkeley 50 years ago today. See part one and part two.

Between April 20 and May 15, 1969, thousands of people spontaneously transformed an eyesore of a vacant lot near Telegraph Avenue into a pleasant, relaxing, slightly chaotic and messy park. Volunteers laid sod, planted flowers and trees and bushes, built an amphitheater, laid out winding brick paths and installed swings and play structures.

There was no one leader or group overseeing the construction of what would be called People’s Park, unlike the way the Free Speech Movement was run just five years earlier. People with differing levels of political experience worked to build the park and made a centralized leadership model impossible. Everyone could give input into the design of the park.

Building the park, with a fire pit in the foreground. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

If you had an idea, you acted on it. At a meeting at Bill Miller’s house, architect Sim Van der Ryn reports Berkeley Barb editor Max Scherr saying that “there should be an overall plan to ensure some sort of aesthetic standard.” Scherr’s concern was dismissed by the group, who believed that “a plan was contrary to the spirit and purpose of a park wherein each person could be creative and get others to work on an idea if he could convince them of its value.”

Plan for the park (author unknown). From the collection of Tom Dalzell
Making stew. Photo: Stephen Shames/Polaris
Facing the southeast corner of the park, with the KNOW letters visible in the background. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Girls on a bike. Photo: Dhyani Berger

For three weeks after ground was broken for the park, UC Berkeley took no action to stop what was taking place in People’s Park. Chancellor Roger Heyns said in a speech on May 23 that: “We considered the fact that there might be trouble in that area and decided to treat the matter gently. We had permitted parking there and saw no reason why the land could not be enjoyed until work began.”

Early on, it even seemed that the university might be endorsing the park. On April 30, it issued a statement that was quoted in the Berkeley Daily Gazette: “No one can live in this area without appreciating the need for open green spaces and park facilities.”

But university officials changed their minds. They decided to reclaim the land. At 4:45 a.m. on May 15, 1969, hundreds of officers from the California Highway Patrol and the Berkeley and San Francisco police departments arrived at the park. Lt. Robert Ludden of the Berkeley Police Department told the supporters, “You are on university land. If you don’t disperse you will be arrested for trespassing. Remove yourself outside the police lines to avoid arrest and any difficulty.” All but three of the supporters dispersed; the three who didn’t were arrested without incident and charged with trespassing.

The first fencing company truck and a bulldozer arrived at 5:50 a.m. The police supervised as workers erected an eight-foot chain-link fence around the park, again without incident. The bulldozer destroyed many of the new plantings near the park perimeter and police continued the destruction once the fence was established.

Police supervise the erection of a fence around the park on the morning of May 15, 1969. Photo: Robert Altman
Alameda County Sheriff’s sit on benches in People’s Park on May 15, 1969. Photo: Stephen Shames/Polaris

By 9 a.m., the park supporters put out a leaflet announcing a noon rally on campus. Word of the police occupation of the park and the erection of the fence spread quickly through a telephone tree and word of mouth. By noon, several thousand park supporters had gathered at Sproul Plaza, which had been reserved by Michael Lerner and the New Left Forum for a rally about the Middle East crisis. The Daily Cal of May 11 reported that Lerner had scheduled Paul Jacobs and Jean-Pierre Salanic from Nice, France to speak. In the late morning, Lerner and park leaders agreed to modify the agenda and focus of the rally in light of the morning’s events.

Speakers at the rally included Lerner, Denise Levertov, Paul Jacobs, the Reverend Dick York and Leslie Russell of the campus AFSCME local. Incoming student body president Dan Siegel then stepped into history, urging that the crowd go “take the park.” Sheri Whitehead and Tom Hayden were scheduled to speak after Siegel, but that was not to be as the crowd turned and marched south on Telegraph.

Dan Siegel, incoming president of the Associated Students of the University of California. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Park supporters walking south on Telegraph Avenue towards People’s Park on May 15, 1959. Photo: William Haigwood

Thousands of people poured onto Telegraph Avenue, heading south. Alameda County Sheriff’s Department deputies blocked Telegraph Avenue south of Dwight Way to impede demonstrators from reaching the park by going east on Dwight. A small group of demonstrators reached the intersection from the west and met the deputies, who resorted to tear gas. When they ran out of tear gas, the deputies turned to shotguns, some loaded with non-lethal birdshot and some loaded with buckshot, which has an effective lethal range of 50 yards.

James Rector watched the demonstration from the roof of the Granma bookstore at 2511 Telegraph Ave. Rector, 25, was not a student at Cal. No civilian witness saw Rector throw anything at the deputies on the street below. In a photograph of him in the minutes before he was shot, neither he nor anyone on the roof with him was throwing anything or preparing to throw anything. Several of the deputies below spun around and blasted the roof with buckshot. Rector was hit and fell to the roof.

Rector was taken to Herrick hospital, where surgeons removed his spleen, part of his pancreas, his left kidney, and part of his small and large intestine. On Monday, May 19, at 10:12 p.m., James Rector died. The hospital announced that he died “suddenly, peacefully, and very unexpectedly” from buckshot lodged in his aorta.

James Rector, mortally wounded by a sheriff deputy’s shotgun blast, is carried off the roof where he had been watching the events on Telegraph Avenue on May 15, 1969. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

Just south of the roof where Rector was shot was the roof and penthouse apartment of the Telegraph Repertory Theater, which showed foreign and art films. On May 15, the theater was scheduled to show Gerard Philipe in The Idiot (1946) and Mark Donskoy’s The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938).

The theater owner, George Pauley, Tom Luddy (who later co-founded the Telluride Film Festival) and Alan Blanchard (a carpenter working at the theater) were standing on the roof of the building watching the demonstration. There has been no claim that Blanchard, Luddy or Pauley were involved in throwing objects down onto deputies in the street. In the same sequence of events in which Rector was killed, deputies on Telegraph turned to the rooftops and shot. Blanchard was struck full in the face with birdshot and permanently blinded.

Donovan Rundle was a first-quarter freshman who was walking south on Telegraph after the shooting had subsided, trying to return to his dormitory on upper Dwight. He wrote:

“I was the closest person to the officers. At no time did I see any missiles thrown at the officers. Alameda County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Lawrence Riche was about 20 yards away from me, shotgun at the hip, pointing skyward. But then, I saw him drawing a bead on me. I had given him no provocation to point a loaded weapon at me. My father had trained me with guns, and my last thought before the shot was that you should never point a gun at someone. In the split second before I was hit I prayed that the shot was rock salt. He aimed so carefully that I could have hit the deck in time to save myself, but I didn’t even imagine that he would shoot. He gave no prior warning of any sort, nor any order to move on.

“It felt like I’d been hit in the gut with a sledgehammer. The buckshot used on me was packed in a 12-gauge shell that holds 9 “double-ought” pellets. Each is about the size of .32 caliber bullet. I was shot in the gut with five or six of these. One or more passed all the way through my abdomen. One lodged on my pelvis and emerged over a year later. I am still carrying lead in me. One hit David Moor, standing just behind me, in the thigh. As I fell, I saw my hand covered with coursing blood and bone chips. It had taken a pellet also.”

Alan Blanchard, a carpenter and artist working at the Telegraph Repertory Theater, lies blinded by an Alameda County Sheriff’s shotgun blast. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
First-quarter freshman Donovan Rundle after being shot in the stomach with buckshot at close range while walking back to his dormitory. Photo: Robert Altman

Rundle’s intestines were tucked back into his body and he was taken to Herrick Hospital, having almost bled out. Over the years, he has endured dozens of operations to repair the damage done by Deputy Sheriff Ritche’s shotgun blast.

At least 40 civilians sought treatment at Berkeley hospitals for shotgun wounds on May 15.


Events and exhibits surrounding the 50th anniversary of People’s Park:

The People’s Park Committee will be holding a rally and demonstration today, Wednesday, at 12:30 p.m. at Haste and Telegraph. Michael Delacour, one of the park’s founders, will talk, as will the musician Country Joe McDonald and others.

The Berkeley Historical Society has an exhibit up about the history of the park. The show is open and free to the public Thursdays through Saturdays, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The Historical Society is located at 1931 Center St.