Acknowledging history: People’s Park mural is a unique Berkeley fixture

Cheyenne Tex/Staff

When you think of Berkeley, People’s Park might be one of the first places you picture. With a rough exterior but an undeniable mission for social good, People’s Park is, essentially, Berkeley. One of its most unique (and Berkeley-esque) qualities is the People’s Park mural, which tells the story of the park’s history and gives insight into why so many consider it so sacred. 

In 1976, Berkeley artists Osha Neumann and Brian Thiele decided to create a public work of art dedicated to People’s Park. The finished product is “A People’s History of Telegraph Avenue.” It spans the entire north-facing wall of Amoeba Music just west of the park and honors the park’s significance. 

In 1969, Berkeley was alive with social activism, and People’s Park was just an unmaintained, university-owned lot gathering debris. Out of the Free Speech Movement grew a movement to turn the lot into People’s Park, a community-oriented safe space where free expression would be celebrated. Student activists and community members took it upon themselves to park-ify the lot, but they were met with strong opposition from UC Berkeley. The campus subsequently built a fence around the park, which sparked protest from UC students. 

On May 15, 1969, student protesters marched from Sproul Plaza to People’s Park, shouting, “Take back the park!” The protest devolved into a violent standoff with the National Guard, which then-governor Ronald Reagan had specifically sent to Berkeley to squash the civil unrest. The National Guard, aided by other Berkeley law enforcement groups, attacked protesters with tear gas and gunshots, injuring hundreds and killing one. The events of that day, known as “Bloody Thursday,” are detailed in “A People’s History of Telegraph Avenue” with precision. 

The mural is read from left to right (or east to west). In its eastern section, it depicts scenes of the political and social activism during the 1960s that Berkeley is best known for. Free Speech Movement founder Mario Savio stands atop a police car delivering a speech. Black Panther Party members gather together amid anti-war and anti-draft protesters. A few yards west, the mural shows optimistic students and activists working together to build People’s Park, rolling out sod and gardening with smiles on their faces. The next scene details “Bloody Thursday.” Law enforcement officers line up with rifles in hand. A fire hydrant bursts open. Protesters run from tear gas, and an innocent bystander is shown dead on a nearby roof. 

The final scene in the mural shows People’s Park as it exists today. Panhandlers sit on the sidewalk, and passersby shuffle down the street without giving the park much thought. However, through a crack in the sidewalk grows the tree of life, and the 1969 dream of People’s Park manifests. In a video detailing the mural, artist Neumann says of this scene, “The dream of revolution is deferred, but we end on a hopeful note.”

The battle for People’s Park centers around land and who has the power to control what that land is used for. Students wanted to use it as a public safe space for community gatherings, but they were overpowered by state institutions. With themes of power, control and land in mind, Neumann and Thiele added a section to the mural in 1991 that depicts Native Americans’ forced removal from their land by Western colonizers. This addition acknowledges that the land originally belonged not to the community nor to the university, but to Native Americans. 

Next time you’re passing by, take a moment to appreciate “A People’s History of Telegraph Avenue.” The mural, which has officially been declared a Berkeley landmark, might change your perspective on People’s Park. 

Contact Margo Salah at [email protected].