From Rubble to Refuge

Andrea Hernandez of The Daily Californian contributed to this report.

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On Sunday, People's Park was filled with skateboarders, banners food and celebrations.

But 35 years ago, the park was filled with tear gas, rioters and police with their bayonets raised, shotguns loaded with rock salt and birdseed.

Sunday's partyers commemorated the 35th anniversary of beginning of the People's Park epic, when thousands of students clashed with the university over 2.8 acres nestled between Dwight Way and Haste Street.

The students envisioned an area where they would be free to stage political rallies, fill the garden with whatever they desired, smoke pot and hang out all night. The university saw their rallies as a public disturbance and a waste of land.

Today, the park is in a tenuous state: still technically university property, but rented to the city and maintained by community members.

"This is like a refuge from babylon," said Yukon, 55, who came to Berkeley in the 70s and was celebrating this weekend. "This is our park: what we're about. It takes people to make this park."

UC purchased what would eventually become People's Park for $1.3 million in June 1967, when it was a square of apartment buildings. They evicted the tenants, bulldozed the apartments-then sat on the land for nearly two years, as it became a unofficial parking lot.

In April 1969, several community members decided they wanted a place to hold political rallies. They turned it into a garden, calling it "Power to the People Park."

"It was another place to organize, another place to have a rally. The park was secondary," said activist Mike Delacour. "It was all muddy, and we were thinking well, where are we going to be able to rally?"

A group of about 200 people moved in April 20, 1969, bringing trees, flowers and shovels with them. They were joined by thousands more, who spent four weeks in the park, laying sod and planting shrubbery during the day, smoking and talking politics at night.

"They were trying to spark a confrontation between the university and the south campus," said Rutgers University professor Craig Oren, who covered the People's Park saga for The Daily Californian in 1969. "And they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams."

The growing presence of drugs and homeless people in the park raised alarm bells for university administrators who grew concerned the state of their $1 million investment.

On May 13, former Chancellor Roger Heyns made clear the university's intentions to turn the park into a soccer field, announcing that eight-foot fences would soon encircle the land.

"They wanted to rumble too, you know what I mean? The university wanted to rumble," Delacour said.

At 4:45 a.m. on May 15, 1969, 50 people settled around a campfire in the park as darkness began to lift.

Berkeley and campus police arrived soon after dressed in flak jackets and armed shotguns to clear the land. When news of the new fence hit campus, the students were summoned to a noon rally on Sproul Plaza.

"Roger Heyns does not want you to think that you can control your own lives," said then-ASUC President-elect Dan Siegel to the crowd.

Before Siegel could even finish his speech, the crowd of 3,000 people began marching down Telegraph Avenue chanting, "We want the park."

As the police moved in, the angry crowd turned a fire hydrant against them and began throwing rocks and bottles. The police responded with tear gas canisters, and soon, the noon rally erupted into a full-fledged riot.

Some turned over a police car, setting it on fire while others smashed its windows. A person standing on the roof of a nearby apartment threw a rock at a police officer, who whirled around and fired, hitting a local theater manager in the face. Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan declared an official state of emergency, and summoned the National Guard.

By the end of the day, 58 people were treated for injuries, 12 were sent to the hospital, and one was killed by police fire as he watched from the rooftops.

In the days and weeks following the riot, the troops withdrew and the issue of the park simmered down as students headed to summer break.

Although its violent past has faded, the touchy issue of People's Park has come alive twice since the original riot: once in 1971, when students tried to reclaim the park on its two-year anniversary, and again in 1991, when the university installed volleyball courts.

Today's People's Park is a sensitive subject for those who saw the 1969 riot. Some say the park is a haven for the homeless and drug users, soiling the memory of the rioters. Other say the park has been subject to a crackdown from the university and the police.

It remains a symbol of the tensions between the university and the community, and between authority and 1960s counterculture.

For some, the park's existence remains a testament and a memorial to what started in April 35 years ago

"Sure, its a victory," Delacour said. "It's still here, isn't it?"


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