Remembering “Bloody Thursday:” 1969 People’s Park Riot

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In observance of People’s Park’s 48th anniversary, we are reprinting our front-page story about the “Bloody Thursday” riot over the embattled park on May 15, 1969. Borne out of protest against the university’s plans to turn the park into an athletic field, the clash between demonstrators and police left one person dead and dozens injured, and prompted then-governor Ronald Reagan to declare a state of emergency in Berkeley.  

This story was first published in the May 16, 1969 issue of The Daily Californian. It has been edited for clarity. 

By Joe Pichirallo

A peaceful noon rally and march to protest the University’s seizure of People’s Park erupted into a brutal day-long battle between police and demonstrators here yesterday.

Fifty-eight people were hospitalized and by the end of the day tear gas had penetrated the entire south campus area.

Police, openly brandishing shotguns, fired birdshot into surging crowds of demonstrators. The blood streaming down the faces of participants and observers was not the result of clubbings, but was caused by shot from police guns.

Late last night, Commanding General Glenn Ames of the California National Guard said he was calling up a “substantial number” of National Guardsmen, who would be moved into staging areas around Berkeley during the night “prepared to furnish whatever military support might be required.”

Twenty-five people were arrested on charges ranging from misdemeanors for throwing rocks to a felony for possession of a concealed weapon.

One policeman was stabbed and three others received minor injuries from rocks and shattered glass. All were treated at Herrick Memorial Hospital and were eventually released in satisfactory condition.

At press time, local hospitals reported that 58 people were treated for injuries suffered in the riot. Of these, 12 were admitted to hospitals. About 30 people were wounded by bullets, of which four contained gunpowder, the rest birdshot.

By nightfall, approximately 500 police from nine different departments guarded the streets of Berkeley.

At the request of the Mayor and City Manager of Berkeley, Governor Ronald Reagan issued emergency regulations late yesterday which established a curfew over the entire city, including the University campus. 

A helicopter circling over the city blared out the regulation that no person could loiter in or about the City of Berkeley between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. 

The National Guard moves to disperse demonstrators at Shattuck Avenue and Center Street on Saturday, May 17 1969.

The National Guard moves to disperse demonstrators at Shattuck Avenue and Center Street on Saturday, May 17 1969. Svenn Rasmussen

In addition, Reagan’s emergency regulations prohibit any “participation in a meeting, assembly or parade in or about Berkeley, including the campus.” Any violation of these regulations will be considered a misdemeanor.

Rumors predicting the destruction of “People’s Park” had become an almost daily occurrence around campus. However, Chancellor Roger W. Heyns issued a definitive statement on the park Wednesday, in which he announced his intention to construct a fence around the administration-proposed athletic field.

Thus the possibility of imminent destruction became a reality. A meeting was held in the park yesterday where a group of people decided not to defend the land with their bodies, primarily because that tactic had not worked in the past.

Instead, they decided to treat the park as a “political candidate,” to promote support in the entire Berkeley community through an intense publicity campaign and widespread canvassing.

A grey darkness encompassed “People’s Park” at 4:45 a.m. yesterday. Fifty people were sitting around camp fires discussing tactics, their voices punctuating the apparent stillness of the night.

Briskly, a new voice entered the park. “You are on university land,” said Lieutenant Robert Ludden of the Berkeley Police Department. “If you don’t disperse you will be arrested for trespassing.”

Quietly and quickly most of the people left “their” park. Three decided to stay and were consequently arrested.

Dressed in flak jackets, armed with tear gas launchers and shotguns, the Berkeley Police, Alameda Tactical Squad and campus police swept the park. By 5:09 a.m. the park was secured by the police.

Police armed with telescopic rifles were stationed on rooftops surrounding the park, while some of the 200 police cordoned off the surrounding area, diverting traffic from Telegraph Avenue between Haste and Dwight, and others surrounded the immediate boundaries of the park.

Meanwhile small crowds began to gather at various corners around the park observing police actions. At 6 a.m. the San Jose Steel Fence Company’s bulldozer and crew arrived to begin construction of the fence. By 10:30 a.m. the efficient and fast moving crew already had 8 foot stakes surrounding the entire park.

Throughout all this activity, there was an evident lack of tension within the crowd. This began to be reflected by the police who began to joke and casually converse among themselves. In fact some of them even began to take advantage of some of the park’s fixtures, sitting in the swings and lying out on the grass.

By 11 a.m. the police began to withdraw a large amount of their forces. In fact one Berkeley sergeant was surprised that the people didn’t try to defend the park. He wondered if the people had become “chicken.”

At 9 a.m. the park negotiating committee put out a leaflet announcing a noon rally on campus.

The last person who was able to speak at the rally was Dan Siegel, ASUC president-elect, who said Chancellor Heyns is the one “responsible for the mess at the park.”

“Roger Heyns does not want you to think that you can control your lives,” charged Siegel. “That’s why he is tearing it down. For seven months he allowed a mud puddle to exist and let people use the land for their purpose — parking their cars. But when some other people found a better way to use that land by building a park, Heyns suddenly said a soccer field is what he wanted.

“In effect,” Siegel explained, “Heyns is saying that it will be my park ‘by any means necessary,’ because he doesn’t want anyone to doubt who is the boss of this University.”

Siegel then suggested that one alternative might be ‘“to go to the park now.” But before he could finish his statement, the 3000 people jammed into Sproul Plaza, spontaneously began to move en masse in the direction of the park.

Without any leaders, the people streamed down Bancroft towards the park, shouting “We want the park.” The doors of the Bank of America were kicked in on the way. 

People's Park in 1969, in a photo taken prior to the May 15, 1969 riot over the University's plan to convert the park to an athletic field.

People’s Park in 1969, in a photo taken prior to the May 15, 1969 riot over the University’s plan to convert the park to an athletic field. Gene Elsen

As the crowd approached Haste and Telegraph the people split into two main groups; one congregated in the parking lot across from the park, the other tried to approach the park via Haste Street. They were immediately confronted by police lines.

A couple of demonstrators turned on a fire hydrant at the corner of Haste and Telegraph. As police moved to turn off the hydrant, they were pelted by rocks and bottles from the crowd.

The police were then ordered to discharge tear gas canisters into the crowd. Choking from the gas, the crowd broke in many directions to escape the rolling clouds.

The police had divided the crowd on Telegraph into two groups by 1 p.m. A large body also stood near the Bancroft and Telegraph campus entrance.

At the corner of Parker and Telegraph, some people succeeded in overturning a Berkeley municipal car and set it on fire. As the car went up in flames a group of Highway Patrolmen tried to cordon off the car.

However, while the police were discharging their tear gas, the crowd smashed the windows of the Highway Patrol car and would have overturned it had not reinforcements from the Alameda Tactical Squad arrived.

At the same time, another contingent of Alameda police began to move down Telegraph from Dwight, rifles ready.

Somebody on the roof of one of the apartments facing Dwight tossed a rock at the police. A policeman immediately whirled around, and without warning, fired a round of birdshot into a group on the roof of the building adjacent to the apartment from which the stone was thrown.

Tom Luddy, manager of the Telegraph Repertory Cinema, was standing on the roof of his office, target of the blast. Originally he thought it was a tear gas discharge. However, when he saw no smoke he turned around and noticed blood streaming down the face of one of his employees, Jim Carr. George Pauley the owner of the Telegraph Repertory was also hit in the face. Two other people were injured and could not be moved.

The incident occurred at 1:55 p.m. Pauley immediately rushed down to a police car parked on Regent Street and pleaded for an ambulance. The police informed him that all the ambulances were in use but would try to get one.

Luddy said he was told “that’s what happens when you f–k around.” The ambulance arrived at 2:35 p.m., half an hour later. The other two injured by the bird shot, James Rector and Alan Blanchard, 29, are still listed in serious condition at Herrick Hospital.

Around 3 p.m. the San Francisco Tactical Squad arrived in cars and buses and proceeded in the direction of the campus. A few arrests were made along Telegraph during this time. One of those arrested was found to have a .22 derringer on his person.

By 3:30 p.m. most of the activity had shifted back to the campus area. Police attempted to disperse the large crowd there by firing tear gas which forced the crowd into the central campus where the police, particularly the S.F. Tactical Squad, broke into roving groups, which pursued the crowds around the campus.

At 4:25 p.m. a busload of police through the mutual aid agreement arrived at the Bancroft, Telegraph entrance; police from San Leandro, Walnut Creek, Richmond, Oakland, Pacifica and Contra Costa County were now on campus.

With these new reinforcements, order was restored to the campus area at about 5 p.m. At this time, police lines were stationed on all corners down Telegraph from Bancroft to Parker, and also on the same corners extending up to Piedmont and down to Ellsworth. In addition, the entire perimeter of the park was surrounded by police standing ten feet apart.

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