‘Governed by us’: Looking into the history of People’s Park

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Daily Californian/File

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Editor’s note: This article is the first part of a three-part series on People’s Park and campus’s proposed development of it.

Since February, UC Berkeley students have occupied People’s Park in protest of campus plans to build a multi-story student housing and supportive housing complex on the site, marking the latest in a decades long struggle to preserve the 2.8-acre parcel of land as a public open space and a piece of Berkeley history.

Park advocates and the UC system have collided over the space for nearly as long as the park itself has been around. After purchasing the space in 1967 with the express purpose of developing the land, the university was met with opposition when about 200 people turned up one Sunday in April of 1969 to lay down soil and plant grass over the muddy lot in the south campus neighborhood.

“There was this idea that we can put our ideals into effect,” said Charles Wollenberg, a Berkeley historian. “This will be a people’s park. This won’t be governed by big bureaucracy like the university and the city. This will be governed by us.”

Building a people’s park

Although the university’s initial plan was to use the space for athletic fields and later develop it for student housing, some alleged that there was another objective: to push radical activists out of the Telegraph area, according to Tom Dalzell, author of “The Battle for People’s Park, Berkeley in 1969.”

In the book, Dalzell quotes former UC regent Fred Dutton as having said the demolition was “an intentional act against the hippie culture” during a time of radical, political activism.

“The ulterior motive of trying to squash student activism and community activism was not very far below the surface,” Dalzell alleged. “They were now into the fifth year of intense student activism where Berkeley was the epicenter of student activism in the United States.”

When the university acquired funding and purchased the land through the process of eminent domain, occupants of the roughly 30 structures there were displaced and the buildings were demolished, according to Dalzell.

Following the demolition, funding diminished, and the lot sat vacant for a number of months with much of the debris unmoved — eventually becoming an informal parking lot.

“The university just ignored it. It was slotted out with mud puddles and busted up cars,” Dalzell alleged. “It was a complete urban eyesore by the spring of 1969 because the university had done nothing with it.”

Berkeley community members Michael Delacour and Wendy Schlessinger subsequently proposed to transform the space into a community park that could serve as an off-campus, free speech zone and bring people together. They took their idea to a group of friends and started taking donations to support the project.

On April 20, 1969, about 200 people met at the site to lay down topsoil and grass over the mud. Their work building “Power to the People Park” would continue for several weeks as more locals joined the cause, installing plants and eventually playground equipment, as reported by The Daily Californian.

“It was an expression of this kind of ’60s idealism, an expression of this idea that we can actually create something rather than just protesting,” Wollenberg said. “Because of that, it captured people’s imaginations.”

Shortly after the park’s founding, the UC system announced plans to build intramural sports fields on the lot, igniting tension between park proponents and the university.

Although some within the campus administration and the park’s committee favored a compromise over the land, officials were under pressure from a conservative majority on the UC Board of Regents and the administration of former California gov. Ronald Reagan, who ran for office under a platform to “clean up the mess at Berkeley.”

Roger Heyns, then-campus chancellor, soon released a statement that said the area would be fenced off before construction to “re-establish the conveniently forgotten fact that the field is the University’s, and to exclude unauthorized persons from the site.”

A day of infamy

In the early morning of May 15, 1969, officers from the Berkeley Police Department, Alameda County Sheriff’s Department and UCPD removed about 50 individuals from the site. Shortly after, an eight-foot chain-link fence was installed around the perimeter of the park while the area was cordoned off and officers were stationed on nearby rooftops.

During a noon rally on the steps of Sproul Hall, Dan Siegel, then-ASUC president-elect, made a speech decrying the university’s fencing of the park. When Siegel notoriously said, “Let’s go down there and take the park,” police cut off the microphones, and a crowd of about 3,000 marched down Telegraph Avenue toward the park.

What followed was a violent, daylong clash between pro-park demonstrators and police — now known as “Bloody Thursday.”

Dozens were arrested and about 60 were hospitalized, facing severe injuries. Demonstrators threw rocks and bottles at police while officers deployed tear gas and discharged live rounds of birdshot at rioters, as authorized by Reagan’s administration.

During the riot, one man, James Rector, died after being shot in the abdomen. Another man, Alan Blanchard, was permanently blinded.

In response to the violence, Reagan announced a state of emergency in Berkeley and called in the national guard to institute a curfew and establish order.

After about two weeks of occupation, troops withdrew, and the state of emergency was lifted. The city of Berkeley then granted a permit for a peaceful demonstration where about 30,000 people joined a march, which culminated at the still-fenced People’s Park. In a symbolic gesture, patches of sod were strewn across the streets surrounding the site.

“Just a couple weeks earlier you have this terrible violence, it was the most violent confrontation that ever occurred in Berkeley,” Wollenberg said. “Within a couple of weeks you have this kind of — I guess you could call it a hippy celebration.”

While the UC system eventually pulled back from its development plans, the eight-foot-tall fence around the park’s perimeter remained in place for another few years — withstanding several riots and demonstrations calling for its removal.

Then, in 1972, demonstrators successfully dismantled the fence during a rally against the Nixon administration’s escalation of the war in Vietnam, allowing proponents of People’s Park to once again enter the site.

More than a park

In the spring of 1974, the People’s Park Project, which would eventually become the People’s Park Committee, was formed by a group of campus students, according to committee member Lisa Teague.

The project started as an organic garden course and prompted the growth of a garden on the east side of the park with native Californian plants, initiating the development of the park as a community green space, Teague said.

Teague added that in the following years, the park saw further progress in green and community infrastructure with UC Berkeley and the People’s Park Project reaching an agreement that before taking action in the park, campus would consult with the project. Additionally, the park set up a stage for concerts and gardens on the west end.

The community garden, which exists today, was created when campus planned to convert the informal parking lot by the park into a student fee parking lot, according to Teague. The plans came to a halt following protests led by Julia Vinograd, who Teague called the “poet laureate” of the park.

According to the Daily Cal, protesters “reduced much of the lot to rubble” and planted trees in the asphalt’s place.

Today, parkgoers will find a People’s Park kitchen. Teague said part of its inspiration comes from the People’s Cafe, which started May 9, 1989.

“Some activists towed a little house trailer into the park in the middle of the night and started serving free food,” Teague said. “It ran for a couple of months before UC took it away.”

The Daily Cal previously described the trailer, operated by the Berkeley Catholic Worker, as a “light blue building with maroon awnings, a wooden deck and picnic tables outside” that could seat 80. On its first day, the café served breakfast to about 100 people.

In 1991, campus released plans to build volleyball courts on the park, which Teague said would “tear up the free speech stage and put a toilet there.”

“There was great chaos, and there were riots, and (the UC) ended up suing a number of People’s Park activists for conspiracy against the university,” Teague added.

The riots and protests began July 27, lasting several days and resulting in the arrest of more than 97 individuals. Police fired wood and rubber bullets into the crowds on multiple days of protests, and according to the Daily Cal, “protesters compared the scene to a war zone.”

On Aug. 1, the city and campus released a joint statement that noted how these actions were a threat to the “City-U.C. agreement” and “the traditions which distinguish Berkeley as a community of intellect and innovation.”

Despite the public outcry, the volleyball courts were built and remained in the park until 1997. However, the stage never left the park while the courts were removed.

Additionally, Teague recalled the story of activist Rosebud Denovo, who was shot by UC police in August of 1992 at the age of 19 after breaking into the chancellor’s mansion with a machete at night. Her death sparked marches from park activists, and “jaded cynicism or perhaps a thrill of pride” from students, the Daily Cal previously wrote.

These events marked a tumultuous time period before the 2000s, as park proponents and UC administration disputed over the park.

While the 2000s were absent of riots, according to Teague, the 2010s reignited conversations of development and the varying perspectives of People’s Park.

As UC Berkeley sets forth with its development plans for the park, many students, activists and community members continue to question the impacts of the proposed development and the legacy of the park.

Contact Jacob Souza and Maya Akkaraju at [email protected].

Correction(s):
Due to misinformation from a source, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that UC Berkeley’s volleyball court construction plans included removing the stage at People’s Park and that the stage was returned in 1997. In fact, the stage never left the park.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the death of Rosebud Denovo sparked riots. In fact, it sparked marches.