The Life & Times of People’s Park

At the start of 1969, the site that is now People’s Park between Dwight and Haste Street half a block above Telegraph Avenue was a dirt parking lot. The university had bought the property using the power of eminent domain for new dorms in the mid-60s but then after demolishing the wood frame houses that had been on the lot (which had, coincidentally, formed a home base for many radicals which the University of California (UC) Regents wanted out of Berkeley) the university never built the dorms. In the spring of 1969, after the land had sat empty for some time and become an eyesore, community members decided to build a park on the lot.

Building the park mobilized and energized many of the street people, activists and regular Berkeley citizens who participated. They were doing something for themselves, not for profit or bosses. Hundreds of people worked hard putting down sod, building a children’s playground and planting trees. From the beginning the ideal was “user development” — the people building a park for themselves without university approval, professional planners or alienated workers. Seizing the land from the university for legitimate public use was and is the spirit of the park.

After the initial construction on April 20, negotiations with the university over control of the park continued for three weeks. For a while it looked like a settlement could be reached but suddenly the university stopped negotiating and in the early morning on May 15 the university moved police into the park and started to build a fence around it. A rally protesting the fence was quickly organized on Sproul Plaza on the UC campus. In the middle of the rally, after a student leader said “lets go down and take the park,” police turned off the sound system. 6,000 people spontaneously began to march down Telegraph Ave. toward the park. They were met by 250 police with rifles and flack-jackets. Someone opened a fire hydrant. When the police moved into the crowd to shut off the hydrant, some rocks were thrown and the police retaliated by firing tear gas to disperse the crowd.

An afternoon of chaos and violence followed. Sheriff’s deputies walked through the streets of Berkeley firing into crowds and at individuals with shotguns. At first they used birdshot but when that ran out, they switched to double-0 buckshot. 128 people were admitted to hospitals that day, mostly with gunshot wounds. James Rector, a spectator on a roof on Telegraph Ave., was shot and died of his wounds a few days later. Another man was blinded.

The day after the shootings, 3,000 National Guard troops were sent by then Governor Reagan to occupy Berkeley. A curfew was imposed and a ban on public assembly was put into force. Mass demonstrations continued and were met with teargas and violence by the police. 15 days after the park was fenced, 30,000 people marched peacefully to the park, and active rebellion against the fence subsided. The fence stayed up.

During the summer of 1969 on Bastille day protesters marched from Ho Chi Minh (Willard) park to People’s Park. Organizers had baked wire clippers into loaves of bread and lo and behold — the fence was down. Police attacked and a riot ensued.

The fence was rebuilt and didn’t finally come down until 1972. In Early May, President Nixon announced the mining of North Vietnamese ports. The same night as his announcement, a hastily-called candlelight march in Ho Chi-Minh Park, starting with only 200-300 people, grew into thousands as they marched through Berkeley. During the night, people tore down the fence around People’s Park with their bare hands, a police car was burned and skirmishs with police lasted into the wee hours.

In 1980, the university put asphalt over the free parking lot at People’s Park to turn it into a Fee parking lot. Students and others occupied the ground and began to rip up the pavement. After a week of confrontations between students and police, the university let the issue drop and the pavement was used to build the garden at the west end of the park.

During the late 1980s the university employed a subtle strategy to again try to retake People’s Park. Community efforts to make improvements in the park, such as installing bathrooms, were met with police and bulldozers, while police, through constant harassment elsewhere, forced drug dealers to do their business in the park. These tactics continue today.

In 1990 and 1991, the City of Berkeley negotiated a deal with the university to “save the park” by “cleaning it up.” The university agreed not to construct dorms on the land if sports facilities were constructed and the character of the park was changed. By this time, the park was being used to provide services to the growing number of homeless in the Southside area including free meals and a free box for clothes. The park continued to serve as a meeting place for activists and as a forum for political events and free concerts. It became clear that “cleaning up the park” meant eliminating freaks and the homeless.

On July 28, 1991, the university again put up a fence at the Park so that it could construct a volleyball court there, part of the “cleanup” plan. During protests that followed, police fired wooden and rubber bullets at fleeing demonstrators every night for 3 nights in a row. Hundreds of police occupied Berkeley. All the while, construction continued on the volleyball courts, which were eventually completed. The Courts stood, despite constant protests and vandalism, from 1991 to 1997, when they were finally removed by the university due to complete non-use.