Berkeley: A Focal Point Of Resistance

It all began in May of 1960, with an organized demonstration against the House Un-American Activities Committee — a group created to investigate domestic affairs related to the “general operation of the communist conspiracy.” Students rallied against the oppression of political freedom, and for places of free expression. This demonstration prompted new political discussions within the college community — and student activist groups were created to foster new political discourse.

At the same time, the college administration began to quell the voices of students. As President Kerr of UC Berkeley said; “One of the most distressing tasks as a University President, is to pretend that the protest and outrage of each new generation of undergraduates is really fresh and meaningful.” Activists were described as fringe lunatics: their demonstrations silenced. But as faculty came out in support of the Free Speech movement, victory was achieved — and Sproul Plaza became a place of free expression.

After victories of the Free Speech Movement in 1965, the movement’s leader, Mario Savio, led a celebration. But as many students began to leave the celebration, feeling satisfied with their achievements, he called upon the students to devote themselves to a new objective: resisting the Vietnam War. In May of 1965, Paul Potter gave his famous speech, questioning the integrity and morality of the foreign affairs of the United States.

“What kind of system is it that allows decent men, good men, to make the decisions that have led to the thousands and thousands of deaths in Vietnam? What kind of system is it that justifies the United States in seizing the destinies of other people and using them callously for our own ends? We must name that system, we must change and control it, else it will destroy us.”

That fall the Vietnam Day Committee of Berkeley led an anti-war march on the Oakland Army terminal, where hundreds of inductees were enlisting. The march failed and had no effect on the choices of the young men. But the VDC didn’t give up. They came back in larger numbers, outnumbering law enforcement. They controlled the area for most of the day and eventually shut down the induction center.

In 1966 Ronald Reagan ran for Governor. During the election he denounced actions of the students at Berkeley which he referred to as “a haven for communist sympathizers.” He wanted to crack down on resistance. In April of 1969, student activists came together to cultivate a lot at the corner of Dwight and Bowditch, owned by the University. It wasn’t being used for anything and in a mutualist fashion, the activists took the property for their own use. Cultivation began: grass was laid down and trees were planted. The students now had a designated sanctuary for unrestricted free expression: People’s Park.

On May 12th, 1969, Reagan cracked down, sending in 2,700 National Guard Troops to fence off the newly built People’s Park and police the area. At noon that day 3,000 students gathered at Sproul Plaza for a rally which was organized originally to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict. The microphone was handed to Dan Siegel who took the rally in a different direction — questioning the brutality of law enforcement during demonstrations. He shouted at the students to seize the park. The crowd reacted, promptly marching down Telegraph Avenue, chanting “WE WANT THE PARK.” The riots began. Reagan allowed “whatever force is necessary” which ended with one student killed, and 130 injured.

Carolyn Schwartzbord, a relative of mine whom I spoke to, was a student at the time — and was present during the riots. A few law students that she knew had rented out an office in Sausalito in order to spread information concerning the war resistance movement throughout the university system of the western United States. She helped out around the office for a semester. She had to be blindfolded to keep the location of the office a secret. Her brother, Bruce Feder, remembers Berkeley as a focal point of resistance during the sixties — and considers People’s Park as more than just a park, but a symbol of the conflicts that occurred.

Prompted by the brutality against peaceful protest, in 1970, many students left Berkeley as a means of self preservation. Their cries against war and injustice were ignored by authorities and protest was seemingly doing nothing but endangering students. No one wanted to end up like James Rector, a student shot and killed by the Alameda County Sheriff during the People’s Park riots on May 12th, 1969.

In 1979, after ten years of being fenced off, People’s Park was developed through voluntary participation. Since then, it has been a place of free expression — music, dance, and political discourse open to the public. Almost fifty years since it’s construction, People’s Park is worn. In the center of the grass on the bayside of the park lies a stage, but not much of one: crafted by creaky wood and covered in years of graffiti layering. Homeless men lie on the stage — puffs of smoke emanating from their mouths, atop dirty blankets and laundry. I hear an occasional yell, and some commotion, but it never escalates to an alarming level. Even with my long hair, I stick out like a sore thumb here. Most of the natives take note of the outsider sitting in the tall grass writing in the composition book.

I try not to stare at the stage, I can’t keep my eyes off of it. It once said “PEOPLE’S PARK FOREVER,” but today, it says something different, and I can’t read it — something about “UC GREED” and “HE IS NOT OUR MAYOR.” I try and look closer, but I’m met with hostile stares. I retreat to my spot in the grass. A short black man approaches. He starts hassling a boy right next to me. The boy avoids his questions and get back to shooting hoops. The man gets the message, and moves on to me.

“Aye. You got a dollar?”

“Nah, I’m sorry.” I had three twenties on me.

“Aight.” He’s annoyed.

He doesn’t leave. Standing over me, and looking around. I avoid aggressing him by taking out my Malinche book and pretending as though I’m reading. He doesn’t leave. My intuition tells me get out as quick as I can. The other boy has retreated. I’m alone. I’m cornered. Finally, the man gets distracted and walks away. I take a deep breath and get away from People’s Park.

Oakland Women’s March

I expected the park to look something like it did in the old films and photographs: to have some sort of lively nature. I expected positivity and openness, and diversity. I expected it to share characteristics with the Oakland Women’s March. On that Saturday, I found myself in a sea of 70,000 people marching. Toddlers and grandmothers, girls and boys, men and women. I’m reminded of old films of the sixties, but somehow this is much more evolved. I’m here with children of those movements. They’ve come to march down the same streets as their mothers, fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers did in the sixties. The spark is still alive.