I lived in Berkeley in 1969, a dark year in my own life and things happened one after another. That is the year I nearly died. Before that, we had the People’s Park riots when the University of California decided it was time to build on land deeded to them where people had set up a little park. It was a cute place but heading towards a particular hell, that is, a drug dealer haven. I was with the Free Clinic and happened to be out of town when the riots began, I came home in the middle of it all.
On April 13, 1969, local merchants and residents held a meeting to discuss possible uses for the derelict site. At the time, student activist Wendy Schlesinger and Michael Delacour (a former defense contractor employee who had become an anti-war activist) had become attached to the area, as they had been using it as a rendez-vous for a secret romantic affair. The two presented a plan for developing the under-utilized, university-owned land into a public park. This plan was approved by the attendees, but not by the university. Stew Albert, a co-founder of the Yippie Party, agreed to write an article for the local counter-culture newspaper, the Berkeley Barb, on the subject of the park, particularly to call for help from local residents.
I knew all the people in the Wikipedia article. I used to draw cartoons for the Berkeley Barb and was paid $15 for each cartoon (money went much further back then).
I drew a lovely picture of the Park for the Barb and tis picture was so popular, it was clipped out of the paper and posted all over Berkeley to my happy joy.
Then it was all laid to waste.
Michael Delacour stated, “We wanted a free speech area that wasn’t really controlled like Sproul Plaza [the plaza at the south entrance to UC Berkeley] was. It was another place to organize, another place to have a rally. The park was secondary.” The university’s Free Speech microphone was available to all students, with few (if any) restrictions on speech. The construction of the park involved many of the same people and politics as the 1964 Free Speech Movement.
I worked the front desk of the Free Clinic especially at night and we had some reservations about this new ‘park’ because when it was a deserted mess, drug dealers hang out there and it was dangerous. I wanted a patrol there and pushed for this to be a controlled space and not a dangerous hangout.
On April 28, 1969, Berkeley Vice Chancellor Earl Cheit released plans for a sports field to be built on the site. This plan conflicted with the plans of the People’s Park activists. However, Cheit stated that he would take no action without notifying the park builders.
Two days later, on April 30, Cheit allocated control over one quarter of the plot to the park’s builders.
On May 6, Chancellor Heyns met with members of the People’s Park committee, student representatives, and faculty from the College of Environmental Design. He set a time limit of three weeks for this group to produce a plan for the park, and he reiterated his promise that construction would not begin without prior warning.
On May 13, Chancellor Roger W. Heyns notified media via a press release that the University would build a fence around the property and begin construction.
This was the problem: The University kept making promises and giving timelines and then would act suddenly and without warning. This pissed off many people. Another issue was Ronald Reagan: he was the governor and he pressed for this to happen, that is, the confrontations.
Beginning at noon on May 15, about 3,000 people appeared in Sproul Plaza at nearby UC Berkeley for a rally, the original purpose of which was to discuss the Arab–Israeli conflict. Several people spoke; then, Michael Lerner ceded the Free Speech platform to ASUC Student Body President Dan Siegel because students were concerned about the fencing-off and destruction of the park. Siegel said later that he never intended to precipitate a riot; however, when he shouted “Let’s take the park!,” police turned off the sound system. The crowd responded spontaneously, moving down Telegraph Avenue toward People’s Park chanting, “We want the park!”
My husband, David, was at that rally. He was part of the people who went down Telegraph Avenue to the Park. I was still out of town. He was tear gassed and nearly hit in the head but ducked and the blow hit the kid next to him who was a runaway street kid who called himself ‘Sinbad’…he was like my little kid brother and hung out at the clinic at night when I worked there.
Arriving in the early afternoon, protesters were met by the remaining 159 Berkeley and university police officers assigned to guard the fenced-off park site. The protesters opened a fire hydrant, several hundred protesters attempted to tear down the fence and threw bottles, rocks, and bricks at the officers, and then the officers fired tear gas canisters. A major confrontation ensued between police and the crowd, which grew to 4,000. Initial attempts by the police to disperse the protesters were not successful, and more officers were called in from surrounding cities. At least one car was set on fire.
Authorities initially claimed that only birdshot had been used as shotgun ammunition. When physicians provided “00” pellets removed from the wounded as evidence that buckshot had been used, Sheriff Frank Madigan of Alameda County justified the use of shotguns loaded with lethal buckshot by stating, “The choice was essentially this: to use shotguns—because we didn’t have the available manpower—or retreat and abandon the City of Berkeley to the mob.” Sheriff Madigan did admit, however, that some of his deputies (many of whom were Vietnam War veterans) had been overly aggressive in their pursuit of the protesters, acting “as though they were Viet Cong.”
My husband and a number of my personal friends were shot at that day, and they all told me they were stunned that deadly shots were used and the chaos that ensued was traumatic, to put it mildly.
I didn’t know James Rector, who died of gunshot that day while watching from a roof. I suspect the sheriff who shot him was probably shooting upwards rather than directly into the crowd to scare them, but then…
Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies used shotguns to fire at people sitting on the roof at the Telegraph Repertory Cinema. James Rector, a student, was killed when shot by police. The Alamada County Coroner’s report listed cause of death as “shock and hemorrhage due to multiple shotgun wounds and perforation of the aorta.” The buckshot is the same size as a .38 caliber bullet. Governor Reagan conceded that Rector was probably shot by police but countered that “it’s very naive to assume that you should send anyone into that kind of conflict with a flyswatter.” The University of California Police Department (UCPD) claims Rector threw steel rebar down onto the police; however, according to Time Magazine, Rector was a bystander, not a protester.
Carpenter Alan Blanchard was permanently blinded by a load of birdshot directly to his face.
I knew Alan very, very well. He was a sweet, artistic peacenik hippie who was working in his shop when he heard the yelling and screaming and guns going off and opened his front door to see what was going on just when a sheriff was yelling orders and waving his gun and he turned suddenly and shot Alan in the face, blinding him.
It was a disaster for his wife and baby and himself. And he suffered emotionally from this for a long time.
On May 30, 1969, 30,000 Berkeley citizens (out of a population of 100,000) secured a city permit and marched without incident past the barricaded People’s Park to protest Governor Reagan’s occupation of their city, the death of James Rector, the blinding of Alan Blanchard, and the many injuries inflicted by police. Young girls slid flowers down the muzzles of bayoneted National Guard rifles, and a small airplane flew over the city trailing a banner that read, “Let A Thousand Parks Bloom.”
I was there and spoke. I then took a big armload of flowers and told everyone I was going to lay them at the fence that now surrounded the park. I walked up to the lines of National Guards and went through them quietly and laid the flowers there and did a blessing and then thanked the Guards for letting me do this and walked away.
Later that year, in December, we had the Altamont Free Concert – Death of Meredith Hunter, a mirror image in blackness for the ‘Summer of Love’ turning into ‘Complete Hell’ which led to me getting in bigger and bigger fights with the leftists and radicals leading to many horrible scenes and finally leaving the place, saying ‘To Hell with you all.’
Altamont was a complete disaster for me. I knew the Hell’s Angels who were guarding the Rolling Stones, when I learned that they would be doing that, I was aghast. And yes, it was a disaster. The Stones wanted to be ‘cool’. They were stupid. The Hell’s Angels couldn’t stand crowds pushing around them! This is why they killed the crazed concert goer who tried to jump onto the stage.
I was with the Free Clinic and useless for someone slipped us some awful form of LSD that was difficult to deal with rendering us unable to help anyone else, we hid in the ambulance and I thought I was in literal Hell. It was horrible. I never, ever wanted to be in a crowd again after that ‘concert’ from Hell.
As we can see from this week’s news, Berkeley is keeping up the tradition of being violent, irrational, reckless and stupid. I do have the excuse of not being a full adult when I lived there and worked there (I had been on my own since 16 years old). I was still a teenager trying to cope with mobs of nutty people many of whom were adults much older than I. Often, I felt I was the only adult around, when raising objections or giving out warnings. Over time, the cops grew to like me for this, of all things leading to me finally leaving for good after the Japanese cop was assassinated right in front of our collective commune.
I’m sorry, this retrograde rioting in Berkeley over a gay man giving a non-PC speech is giving me bad flashbacks. Brrrr….