In 1969, the proposed use of a three-acre, muddy, trash-filled parking lot off Telegraph Avenue on the South side of the UC Berkeley campus triggered an armed confrontation between police, students, and local residents. It was the most violent confrontation in the university’s history. Today, when the word “green” is recognized throughout the world as shorthand for an environmental ethic, it gives pause to remember that a struggle to create a small urban oasis—a park, with trees, grass, and swing sets—pitted students and local residents against university officials, police, and even units of the national guard, leaving one man dead, another permanently blinded, and wounded more than 100 people.
Conflict and struggle over a large Berkeley city block bordered by Dwight Way and Haste Street—later called “People’s Park”—began when the university’s plans to expand campus facilities were stalled by lack of funds, yet remained an administrative priority. In 1956, the university bought property on either side of Telegraph Avenue to build dormitories. By 1960, sixteen blocks of the South Campus area were designated an urban renewal site and Telegraph Avenue) was slated to become a pedestrian mall. Although securing federal funds proved elusive, conservative members of the city council continued to urge the university to “clean up” the area, as an increasing number of Haight-Ashbury hippies, runaways, and youngsters were leaving San Francisco after 1967’s Summer of Love to join Berkeley students in their quest to find cheap housing in South Campus boarding homes. By the end of 1967, the university had purchased all the properties on the three-acre lot between Haste and Dwight.
In spring 1969, a small group of locals—spearheaded by Mike Delacour, a former defense contractor employee turned anti-war activist and a number of former Free Speech Movement activists, New Left radicals, and hippies—decided to take back the empty lot and create a park. The original core of activists were inspired by a desire to find an issue that would unite Berkeley’s divergent population: idealistic hippies who wanted a gentle green setting for rock concerts and personal reflection, and the politically oriented radicals who saw an opportunity for confrontation with the university over land-use policies. In April, activists Frank Bardacke and Stew Albert showed the site to their friend, Abbie Hoffman, who predicted the issue would “suck [then-California governor Ronald] Reagan into a fight.”
The group published an article in the local counterculture newspaper, the Berkeley Barb, saying, “The University had no right to create ugliness as a way of life.” They called for a public gathering on Sunday, April 20, 1969 to all those interested in “engaging in the creative act of building a park out of the University’s muddy ruins”. On the appointed day, they were shocked to find they had unwittingly struck a deep chord: hundreds of people were already there, digging, planting and landscaping with gusto. In the span of four weeks, thousands of people worked on the site and a genuine green space took shape.
Conservative politicians urged Berkeley’s chancellor, Roger Heyns, to crack down on the activists before the regents (all of whom were appointed by the governor) and other state officials arrived for their monthly meeting on May 15. The day before the meeting, Heyns sent a construction crew to bulldoze the park and erect a chain link fence and No Trespassing signs. At 4.30 a.m. on the morning of the Regent meeting, Heyns called for California highway patrolmen to surround the park. By noon, thousands gathered a rally at Sproul Plaza on an unrelated topic—the Arab-Israeli conflict—when student body president Dan Siegel urged the crowd to take back the park. The crowd surged forward and marched down Telegraph Ave where police, who fired tear gas and birdshot at the demonstrators, blocked all entrances to the park. At the urging of Berkeley’s sheriff and mayor, Governor Ronald Reagan called out the National Guard. As the day wore on, police replaced birdshot with larger, more lethal buckshot. James Rector, an innocent bystander on a side street, was shot in the stomach and later died from his wounds. Alan Blanchard, an assistant manager of the Telegraph Repertory Theatre was permanently blinded. One hundred and ten people were injured and taken to the hospital. For an additional 17 days, the troops patrolled Berkeley with bayonets and guns in hand.
Berkeley residents grew furious. Through no action of their own, they were living under martial law with an imposed curfew. Groups of three or larger were not permitted to congregate in public places. Police and guardsmen confiscated cameras. Streets leading in and out of the city were blocked.
The lowest point of the struggle occurred on the afternoon of May 20. Several thousand people appeared on campus at Sproul Plaza for a memorial honoring James Rector, the student who had been killed in the initial riot. As the large but peaceful crowd gathered, National Guard units formed a long line down Bancroft Ave and sealed off the campus. Overhead, helicopters released tear gas, spraying the trapped crowd on Sproul Plaza. The crowd panicked, desperate to break through the police lines. The noxious stench reached Cowell Hospital, endangering patients. It caused skin burns on swimmers in the pool at Strawberry Canyon nearly a mile past campus.
By then, Berkeley’s residents were furious. The citizens were sick of the National Guard and police units that had once been called “Blue Meanies,” but were now called “foreign invaders.” Local residents, led by Fred and Pat Cody of Cody’s Bookstore, organized a peaceful march of over 30,000 people from Memorial Stadium to People’s Park. Sorority houses hung banners proclaiming their support. Anti-war Quakers from the local American Friends Service Committee donated 30,000 daisies which demonstrators passed out to guardsmen who placed them in their rifle barrels and bayonets. Marchers also created green banners made from old girl scout uniforms.
In mid-June, Reagan withdrew the troops and by the next Regent meeting in Berkeley, residents had pulled down the chain link fence around the park. The city council agreed to lease the land from the University. Within a year, Chancellor Haynes resigned. Residents never forgave the local politicians who called for the National Guard. In the coming election, voters elected established leftists to citywide political office.
There are famous photographs that capture the fevered peak of 60s-era protest: hippies at Woodstock in August, 1969, turning muddy fields into an ecstatic sanctuary; hippies in Washington, DC, at the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam in November, 1969, using flower power to protest the military. But these and other potent visual symbols that now sum up an entire decade emerged first in Berkeley, California. Here, both activists and their opponents defined the issues that mattered and how to respond. What began in Berkeley has been taken up and adopted across the country, and witnessed by the entire world.
- Students analyze the major social problems and domestic policy issues in contemporary American society.