The camera as a false shield: Janine Wiedel on photographing 1969 People’s Park protests

Image of Janine Wiedel
John Walmsley/Courtesy

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Janine Wiedel received a phone call May 15, 1969. It was early morning. The young art student and photographer was living in San Francisco, but the call concerned a 2.8-acre plot of land on the other side of the bay: People’s Park.

In an email interview with The Daily Californian, Wiedel recalled the events of that time in Berkeley, now more than fifty years ago:

“I was phoned up and told that police had moved in and were beginning to build a massive perimeter fence around an 8-block area. I rushed over with my camera and spent most of the following days dodging the troops and running from the frequent pepper gas and tear gas attacks as I tried to photograph.”

This was not Wiedel’s first exposure to People’s Park. She had initially heard about the space in April of 1969 when activists took over the site owned by UC Berkeley.

“A call went out for people to help with digging, planting and creating the park out of the inhospitable and long neglected land,” Wiedel remembered. “At that stage I spent as much time as I could helping out but also photographing. There was an amazing creative and communal atmosphere particularly on weekends. Children, students, local people of all ages took part.”

Wiedel’s photography contrasts idyllic scenes of community gardening with images of the police and the National Guard occupying the city. These contrasts emerged organically from Wiedel’s observational style of photography and were put into sharp relief through her careful editing.

“I have never preplanned how situations in life will unravel,” she explained. “I tend to observe and try to understand the dynamics. The images, the ironies and the contrasts emerge. I do not consciously set them up but try to capture them as I come across them.”

Wiedel’s use of the word “unravel” is indicative of the atmosphere in Berkeley at that time. Among the situations she photographed and compiled into the collection “People’s Park Berkeley Riots 1969,” there are images of daisies placed on barbed wire, young women dancing a few feet away from a line of bayonets and armed troops massing in front of a sign reading: “American Savings.”

At the time Wiedel was photographing the scene, the National Guard was ordered into the city of Berkeley by Governor Ronald Reagan.

“I had never witnessed anything like it,” Wiedel said, describing the presence of armed troops in the city. “It was both terrifying and physically exhausting but at the same time addictive. The entire town became a no-go area taken over by the police and the National guard armed with bayonets as well as shotguns.”

Wiedel believes that Reagan ordered the National Guard into Berkeley in a disproportionate, prejudiced response to leftist community organizing.

“Local pedestrians were told to stay indoors and all pedestrians were herded out of the town center,” Wiedel recalled. “People remaining were forced onto buses and removed from the area. There was a real sense of ‘them and us.’”

It was not an easy situation for reporters to navigate.

“The National Guard and police were particularly aggressive towards photographers and journalists,” Wiedel said. “Taking photographs was very challenging as I found myself continually on the go and frequently running from teargas attacks.”

Wiedel likened the situation to a warzone.

“My partner at the time was shot with pellets of birdshot,” she remembered. This was not an isolated incident. The National Guard was ordered to use birdshot on the crowds, often to injurious effect. But despite the hazards to her personal safety, Wiedel was determined to remain on the scene.

“Without the camera or a purpose I would probably have never remained in the area,” she admitted. “I felt it was important to document what was happening and the camera in some ways acts as a false shield.”

Wiedel’s “false shield” allowed her to navigate more than just the National Guard. She captured many dramatic and politically charged images from the scene, images that help illustrate the history and enduring legacy of the park.

Wiedel continued to draw inspiration from the experience. “People’s Park Berkeley Riots 1969” was published in 2019 — the 50 year anniversary of the founding of People’s Park.

She explained: “Being in the midst of this political battle … really ignited my life-time interest in documenting groups and communities who are fighting to survive despite the pressures of government and society.”

Wiedel returned to People’s Park in 1996, nearly 30 years after she first photographed it, and was deeply gratified to see that it still existed. She was particularly taken by the tributes and mural paintings on the walls.

In the future, Wiedel hopes that People’s Park will continue to endure as a symbol of the 1960s and a space for the people.

Blue Fay covers visual art. Contact him at [email protected].