The People’s Park Riots of 1991, UC Berkeley

It Was Some Scary Shit. I Was There.

This is a picture taken of the riot police at the People’s Park Riots of 1991. Some frightening shit went down. Photo credit:

When I read the news about UC Berkeley cancelling Breitbart News’s Milo Yiannopoulos appearance at the campus and the ensuing riots, my mind immediately cast itself back to the People’s Park Riots at UC Berkeley in the summer of 1991.

I have shared this experience with only a few people and perhaps it is with the anonymity of my identity through my blog and the degrees of separation that remove me from the readership that I am able to relay it.

My sister had been assigned to watch over me as we attended summer school that year at UCB. When we arrived with my mother at the registrar’s office, the lady blinked at me, called for my application which was delivered by someone from admissions, and they looked through the file. There was a hurried conference. My family members all glanced worriedly at one another.

They had made a mistake, the registrar lady finally said, had not realized how young I was so obviously I was unable to attend.

My mother was embarking on one of her usual usual lecture circuits in various countries and had been anticipating that both of her daughters would be housed, fed, and supervised for the summer and essentially be off her hands while receiving prime schooling. As a scholar, she saw nothing wrong with the fact that all three of us were going to advance in our educational endeavors at the same time, just apart from one another (somewhat). Neither did I. I was excited, although poutingly resentful that my “big sister” was going to be there; why did I need chaperoning?

“UC Berkeley accepted her and she was to stay with her sister for the summer,” my mother intoned in an increasingly strident pitch. “I am leaving on a flight this evening and will be unavailable for the next several months.” She informed them that we were expatriates and therefore she did not posses the time to make other arrangements and categorically refused to allow me to fly internationally and make my way home to live alone. “You said my daughter could study and live here. I have the letter! You are not abiding by your own law!”

The lady cleared her throat and explained that correct, Mrs. Mother, I had been accepted and my application had indicated that I preferred to room with my older sister and we had been thus so assigned, but to one in the dormitory for international students, which was co-ed. And I was a minor. Both reasons which, combined, made it absolutely impossible for the university to bend the rules even slightly. Surely my mother understands. Age requirements. Co-ed living quarters. Very much a minor. I was not yet in high school!

Once we exited the office, my mother set out on a quest. She scoured the local papers, made calls, and towed us to residence after residence. I finally ended up at a house that was co-ed (privately owned, non-UCB affiliated), but with a youngish-landlord to whom my mother had probably persuaded with cash in hand to accept me as a boarder while highlighting my innocence with hellfire in her eyes and horns on her forehead.

After my mother departed, he kindly told me that I could call him any time I had trouble since he had promised my mother that he would make sure I was “okay” and check in from time to time. He then gathered all the residents and pointed me out, saying things like, “remember how young she is” and “be sensitive” and a whole bunch of other things I was puzzled by but only realized later was code for, “Please don’t ‘eff this up for me and do crazy stuff around her that can get me jailed!!”

I think my housemates realized I was a naive little Bambi, since they saw my bewildered expression as they gave me a house tour saying things like, “Here is the kitchen where you will store all the food you buy and cook for yourself (uh, we’re not babysitters)” and “There is a laundromat over there, see out the window, and you will need dee-ter-gent, like this, and quarters” and most unbelievable to me, “We have co-ed bathrooms, but this is the sign you can flip from ‘man’ to ‘woman’ while showering so you won’t have to worry about being disturbed by any of the guys!!”

They said all this with a casual, cavalier attitude that actually made me feel safe. After my housemates got comfortable with having me around, they tended to treat me as if they were my exasperated older siblings. I was the party pooper they had to put up with from time to time, but I mainly read or studied for the SATs (as sternly instructed by my mother) in my room or traipsed around Berkeley or hung out with my sister when she was free (or let me). I wasn’t too much of a nuisance.

My sister and I settled into life at Berkeley. She landed a role in a production of UBU THE KING so I volunteered as a backstage staffer at the playhouse, lying about my age. I prowled the catwalks above the lighting rigs and gave cues over a headset and learned about stage production. I discovered Buddy Holly in a music store and watched vendors make jewelry on sidewalks. I rode free, “communal” bikes through neighborhoods. It was great.

Although my sister tried to sneak as much food as she could out of the dining hall for me, that was the summer I also had to start figuring out how to cook for myself. What other choice did I have? My sister, having been given a larger allowance with which to make sure I was fed, enjoyed using that excuse to take us to fancy restaurants from time to time to liven up my rice and sausage, spaghetti, and cafeteria food based diet.

We took the opportunity one time to take leftovers to People’s Park so we could check it out. We had by then heard of and read the pamphlets about the student resistance against the university to plow People’s Park to install volleyball courts, thus potentially displacing all the people that camped out there and who had formed their own community. The student population believed that People’s Park was a save haven for them, not just for the homeless but also those who were anti-establishment naysayers and others that simply craved a simple, pared-down way of living.

The park was spotted with tents, makeshift dwellings and some furniture. People were sitting cross-legged in discourse, playing music, napping, or talking to themselves and frowning at us as we passed. I never realized that people could live this way, deliberately together, yet separate. The homeless I had always seen seemed to reside alone on sidewalks or in doorways, against city fountains or buildings.

The man we gave our doggie bag to looked inside and grumbled, “No utensils or napkins?” The next time, we brought some. I wouldn’t say that we were regular humanitarians at People’s Park, but we did often drop off food to help the people there.

One night, after another of those infamous dinners, we stopped by my place where we put the leftovers in the fridge (all just for me this time!). My sister then announced that as dessert, we should go back to the cafe at her dorm, the International House (or as everyone called it, the “I-House”) for hot mocha with whipped cream! It was late, almost 10:00 pm, but what did we care? We left my house and made our way up to Telegraph Avenue when we started to hear a loud commotion up ahead. We began to encounter groups of students walking towards a huge crowd in front of us so naturally followed. Others pushed against us from behind, packing into a tight formation of shouting students.

We squirmed our way through the throng to find out what was going on. How exciting! What was all this? Because I was small, I was able to wiggle us up to to the front, albeit more off to one side than in the center. That is when we saw the line of police in their riot gear protected by street barriers. Behind them were cop cars. We were in the crowd that was facing them. The students were screaming, the sound intense. They carried signs and chanted slogans we couldn’t make out, but it was obvious that this was a protest about saving People’s Park.

With the press of the bodies around and behind us and the police in front, we were hemmed in. As the crowd grew larger, the commotion escalated to a level where I could feel the vibrations of the noise through my body, thrumming against my eardrums. Since we were somewhat in the front line, I could also see that the police were carrying walkie talkies and what looked like rifles. Two helicopters gradually rose above us, one, then the other, as the hour passed. Their spotlights shone onto the students in the chilly night and what suddenly seemed like another new, interesting chapter in my fun summer was starting to become frightening.

I looked up at my sister. She still looked excited, but I could tell that her forehead was starting to scrunch up and then she looked down at me, saw my little frown, and glanced around. But there was nowhere we could go.

Then a protester threw something at the police. A rock, I think. Another threw an apple. And then one threw a bottle.

To this day, I can remember it, word for word. The order was loud, booming over the front line, turned all the way up as I am sure they meant it to be so as many people could hear it as possible.

“You have the authority to open fire.”

The police raised their rifles. It seemed to happen in slow motion, to take an eternity for those barrels to lift up and point at us. People all around us turned in tandem and screamed, as one, to those behind us, “RUN!!!!!”

Our reaction was a microsecond slower. Mainly because neither one of us could believe what was happening. The words “open fire” repeated in my head. Everyone was still screaming, but now in fear and their desperation to get away or in anger as they fought the police. We were being pushed by everyone around us. What had started as a protest had become a riot.

The sound of shots being fired echoed as we tried to make our way down a side street and words, loud and high in hysteria, words such as “GO, GO, GO!” and “RUN! They’re shooting!” were jolting all of us into flight. My sister was grabbing tight onto one of my wrists through my jacket. My arm slid through up the sleeve as we were being separated and now she only had me by the cuff. I knew that the only thing I had to do besides shove and squeeze through the frenzied students was to make sure to stay close to my sister and never lose hold of my jacket and not to fall down.

As everyone sprinted through the streets, we could hear the commands of the police and the cries of those we had left behind us they were corralling. Our segment of the crowd dispersed and we tore down to a relatively open street. My sister saw a cab with its light on and yanked me to it and as the cabbie tried to drive away, she panted into the window, “Please, please, I have my little sister with me and I think I’ve been hit.”

He took one look at us and let us in, beckoning us to be quick. We scrambled in as he accelerated hastily and I turned to my sister. “What? You’ve been hit? Where?” I could start feeling the tears well in my eyes.

“Not by a real bullet, stupid,” she said. “Are you okay?” I nodded. Now that I knew she was fine, I was calming down. Also, I hated to cry.

She took off her jacket and we could see paint on one shoulder. Some was in her hair. “What is this?”

“Oh, you’ve been marked.” The cab driver said. “By a paintball. Better hide that jacket. The cops use the paint to identify rioters and arrest them.” My sister and I looked at each other with large eyes. “What were you girls doing there anyway? You’re not one of them.”

“I’m a reporter!” My sister said, “For my high school paper. See?” She held out the tape recorder she used for her classes from her bag. She wasn’t, but she was good on her feet. I would probably have sat there mute.

We hid at an all-night cafe for the next two hours and then made our ginger way back to my house, cleaned her jacket, and made promises to each other never to let our our mother know what had happened. Then she left to shower off the paint from her hair back at her dorm.

My sister and I stayed indoors as the riots continued for the next few days and discovered that the police had also used wooden and rubber bullets on the rioters and that indeed, many had been chased down or found and arrested. We then gradually resumed our lives at Berkeley.

I knew I should have realized that the police wasn’t going to actually gun down the students, maiming or killing. But the gut belief that they were going to, ingrained by years of instinct to such words as “You have the authority to open fire” — the wording and delivery of it a psychological strategy, I am sure — while in a frantic, screaming mob lit up by helicopter spotlights and running for what seemed like our lives traumatized me for years to come.

Being a participant in the 1991 People’s Park Riots came with benefits besides the fact that I have a pretty weird, yet awesome story to tell when I choose to (which isn’t often). It gave me a wariness about the police or the sanctity of their actions. And what people like to call an authorized and justified use of force. I was made to see that there were always multiple sides to a story and society’s viewpoints and causes. Which not only makes me a better writer, I hope, but also a better person.


For more information about the 1991 People’s Park Riots in Berkeley, you can read the below (as well as other articles or research, I am sure). I have not used any of these sources in my writing above as it is based solely on my recollection of my experience there as a child.