Showdown in Berkeley

Richard Brownell
May 17 · 6 min read
Berkeley’s finest go to war over People’s Park.

In May 1969, patience was in short supply in Berkeley, California. Students at the state university campus and city inhabitants had lost patience waiting for sluggish, corrupt, imperialist institutions to do the right thing. The state government had no more patience for student and community troublemakers who seemed to have an axe to grind with everyone over everything.

Or at least that’s how both sides saw each other. The truth lay somewhere in between, but it was an undeniable fact that there was no overlap between their positions regarding a cornucopia of issues going back years — the Vietnam War; the rising tide of homelessness, crime, and drug abuse; the lack of respect for authority; the lack of respect for civil rights. Pick any topic and behind it you would find someone ready to go to blows to prove their point.

Add a tough-talking governor with national political aspirations and a group of militant activists to the mix, and before you know it, you’ve got a real problem on your hands.

The University of California, Berkeley campus is in the northeastern part of the city of Berkeley. The university, and by extension the city, were considered to be the epicenter of the counterculture of the 1960s. The Free Speech Movement was born there in 1964 after the university administration had the less-than-bright idea to ban political activity on campus. Their ham-fisted action ended up turning Berkeley into the most overtly political university in the country.

Trying to kick ROTC off campus, chasing away recruiters from defense contractors, protesting the war, protesting civil rights abuses, protesting the Establishment in general, burning draft cards, marches, sit-ins, teach-ins, be-ins, you name it — it was happening at Berkeley.

As with any university town, UC Berkeley held significant sway over the happenings of the city at large. It was a major landholder, a major employer, and its faculty, staff, and students made up a major portion of the local population. This was evident in the university administration’s influence in community affairs and the student population’s influence on the political and cultural attitudes of the city.

This being the case, clashes between the university and the student body would not be confined to the campus, but instead would spill over to into the streets of Berkeley.

In 1956, UC Berkeley had been given the blessing of the University of California Board of Regents to begin a long-range development plan that would include more student housing and administration offices near the southern part of the campus. Nothing came of this plan for years, but in 1967, the university used eminent domain to purchase and clear a city block for “athletic fields until a long-range plan for resident student housing can be realized.”

It seemed as if the university wanted to do something, anything to prove to the state government that it was indeed moving forward with its decade-old development plan. Razing a residential city block to put in an athletic field that would later be torn up to put in student housing doesn’t seem like an appropriate use of scarce resources. Unless you work for the government.

In February 1968, bulldozers rumbled in and tore down most of the block, but then, shock of shocks, the development project ran out of money. The block was left in disarray and became one of those ubiquitous urban vacant lots littered with trash, abandoned cars, and home to the occasional vagrant, drug addict, or general ne’er do well.

In April 1969, local residents and business folk met to decide what to do with the lot. It was an eyesore, and it was apparent to them that the university wasn’t going to do anything with it in the near term. The idea was put forth to turn the space into a public park and collective community space.

The locals at work building People’s Park. Image: Lewis C. Shaffer.

On April 20, students and community residents got together and started cleaning up the lot and planting shrubs. In true community spirit, they volunteered their resources and their free time to turn the area into a more physically appealing space. People’s Park was born.

On April 28, it was announced that a sports field was going to be built in the very near future on the site where the park was forming. From the perspective of the activists building the park, the university lost its right to the land because it wasn’t doing anything with it. The land wasn’t being used, so the people made it into a park, and it now belonged to the people.

This unilateral application of communal law did not sit well with the state government, particularly with the governor.

Ronald Reagan took office as governor of California in 1967 on the promise that he would get tough with the counterculture crowd. Far from the smiling, happy warrior he would become when he ran for president in 1980, Reagan was a tough customer in the 1960s. He had no patience for the activists at Berkeley, referring to the campus as “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants.” He believed the university was letting itself get pushed around by the students, and he promised major changes in relations with the student body at Berkeley.

On Reagan’s order, a fence went up around People’s Park on May 15. This overrode a promise made to the public by the university not to make any unannounced changes to park access. From Reagan’s perspective, no promise was broken as the university should not have made such a vow in the first place.

Activists gathered on campus, and with the cry of “Let’s take the park!,” marched down to People’s Park to reclaim what they believed was theirs. They assaulted the assembled Berkeley and university police officers with rocks and bottles, and tore down the fence. The cops were quickly outnumbered, and more officers were called in from nearby jurisdictions.

The crowd of 6,000 or so demonstrators faced off with close to 800 cops, who were given orders to use whatever methods necessary to restore order. This is always a dangerous thing to say, because one man’s “method” may be another man’s excessive use of force. In the cranked up, violent atmosphere of 1969, with so many convinced the end of the world was nigh, it was a recipe for disaster.

Cops fired buckshot and tear gas canisters into the crowd, and nightsticks swung like tree limbs in a windstorm. One man was killed, another permanently blinded. Estimates of injuries vary widely, possibly inflated by each side to further prove the danger and malice posed by the other. Hospital records, perhaps the most reliable measure, logged 128 civilians admitted for head trauma, buckshot wounds, and illness due to tear gas. Several police were injured, with the most serious being one officer who was stabbed in the chest.

Reagan declared a state of emergency and called in 2,700 National Guard troops. The Berkeley City Council voted against the decision, but their action was merely symbolic. The power to deploy the troops rested with the governor alone.

The Guardsmen patrolled the streets of Berkeley for the next two weeks, setting up camp in People’s Park, no doubt a deliberate move. During that time, a state of martial law existed in the city, complete with a curfew and a ban on public congregations. Large gatherings were broken up with tear gas and mass arrests. Students and locals frequently taunted the troops, flashing them, hurling insults, and offering drug-laced food and drink. Some cops were accused of roaming the streets in disguises and beating up hippies.

Eventually the city was returned to its citizens. Over the next several years, the university floated multiple ideas to develop the land that made up People’s Park. Each met with protest from activists. In May 2018, the university announced plans to develop the property into student housing, a plan it had first announced in 1967. Activists reflexively lodged their protest, and spent the 50th anniversary of the 1969 confrontation preparing for another battle with the university.

Maybe next time around it will be more peaceful.

Throughout 2019, Mr. Rick will be looking back at 1969, the year the turbulent 60s came to an end. Subscribe now and be sure to catch new features on that year’s entertainment, lifestyle, politics, and much more.

Richard Brownell

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Writer. Historian. Sucker for a Good Story. Blogging at https://www.MrRicksHistory.com among other places.