By Arianna Puopolo
The 40th anniversary celebration of People's Park in Berkeley, Calif.
reeked of history and body odor as hundreds of wayfarers, wanderers
and wonderers came together on April 26 to share stories and honor
the park by remembering those who fought to protect it.
A love child of rebellion, the park was founded on the principles of
freedom of speech, assembly and expression. Today the space serves as
a public park and a daytime sanctuary for much of Berkeley's homeless
A grassy landscape covers most of the park grounds, but in its back
corner gardens are planted among a grove of trees. At the park's
anterior, a playset still stands and People's Stage is the venue for
several concerts and colloquiums every year.
"There's no other place like it," said a former People's Park
resident who asked to be identified as Caleb X. "When you come back
to Berkeley you come back home."
People's Park began as an expansion project for UC Berkeley. The
campus bought up the entire space in 1967, with the intention of
building dormitories for the growing student population.
The area was known to be "alternative" and the students who lived
there adhered to a lifestyle that the university condemned.
Jack Radey attended Cal in 1964, and joined several activist groups
while living in Berkeley. He witnessed and participated in many of
the movements to protect the park and challenge the authority of the
"The existence of considerable student housing in the Southside area
was a constant concern to the UC deans," Radey recalled. "Because in
such quarters it was hard for Mommy and Daddy to supervise the young
people who were believed to indulge there in such improprieties as
sex, marijuana, beat poetry and leftist discussion to say nothing
of espresso and jazz music."
The year after the university bought the neighborhood, the UC deans
issued evictions and the neighborhood was promptly bulldozed. Shortly
after, the university ran out of money and the property became derelict.
"While it would have been indecorous to conduct room searches and the
like, the university did the next best thing," Radey said. "It bought
up a bunch of the buildings and leveled them, leaving a big, muddy
space above Telegraph."
On April 20, 1969, community members joined forces and took over the
space. They tore up the concrete and asphalt, replacing it with
gardens, flowers and play equipment.
Less than one month later, the California Highway Patrol and Berkeley
police officers occupied an eight-block area around People's Park.
The officers took positions in the early hours of May 15, 1969. Later
that day, infamously known as Bloody Thursday, a rally of several
thousand gathered at Sproul Plaza on Berkeley's campus and began to
venture toward the park.
Police officers opened fire on the crowds.
They fired tear gas and double-aught buckshot bullets while the
marchers retaliated with projectiles, including rocks and bottles.
Student James Rector was fatally shot. Today, a mural near the park
depicts the Rector shooting.
Over 100 civilian injuries were reported, but no police were
hospitalized. By the end of the day, Gov. Ronald Reagan called in the
National Guard and banned public congregation.
"We were not supposed to congregate, so the cops and troops were
periodically called out to disperse us," Radey said. "We would not
fight them, but we would continue to be in the streets, retreating,
advancing when they fell back, regrouping in the side streets, and
nonviolently resisting their attempts to violate our right to assemble."
Radey recalled that the will of the people made an intimidating force
against the police. The National Guard and Oakland and Alameda County
police forces were called in for backup, causing several casualties
including one fatality and one student being blinded.
"The Berkeley police were the most professional and the calmest,"
Radey said. "The UC police were pathetic … and scared stiff. [They]
ordered parking attendants to do stormtrooper duty. The Oakland pigs
and the Alameda sheriffs were the worst, and most dangerous."
Radey recalled the force with which students and civilians rallied
against the police presence as if it were yesterday.
"They had numbers, an uphill lie, youth and grim determination," he
said. "They broke through police lines, trashed police cars, threw
back the gas and volleys of bottles and anything else that could be thrown."
The ensuing battle came in the midst of youthful rebellion and
political reform. The appeal of the People's Park movement, many
said, stemmed from having a cause that could be justified.
"We weren't fighting somebody else's war. This was ours," said Julie
Vinograd, a Berkeley alumna of the class of 1965.
Vinograd, known as the Bubble Lady, waged her war against the
university by blowing soap bubbles from a rooftop near the park for 24 hours.
Daily protests continued for the next two weeks. Security officers
and civilians continued to have confrontations. Tear gas was dropped
from helicopters and a rally marched in Sacramento.
Despite lack of experience and resources, Radey feels the rally
organizers succeeded because of their solidarity and innovation.
"The organizers did manage one impressive feat," Radey said. "In the
face of the marijuana drought, the organizers managed to score a kilo
of pot somewhere, and had it rolled up into joints, put in a
cardboard box, and thrown off the back of the lead truck into the crowd."
Between marches and confrontations, Radey said he and his friends
spoke with many of the National Guard officers. Radey recalled the
reluctance with which these officers served and the solidarity they
ultimately succumbed to. In the midst of one particular
confrontation, the masses called on the guardsmen to lower their weapons.
"One soldier dropped his rifle and dove into the crowd, stripping off
his uniform shirt," Radey said. "The crowd covered him, gave him the
clothes off their backs, and helped him disappear. I do not know what
happened to him afterwards. But the fact is, the tool that Reagan
wanted to use to crush us turned in his hand into mush. They were
just like us for the most part, were in the Guard to avoid Vietnam,
and wanted no part of a war at home."
Vinograd recalled feeling a similar reluctance in the face of
confrontation. As a pacifist, she said, it was difficult to motivate
herself into activism.
"I had this argument with my feet," Vinograd said. "They wanted to go
in and I didn't."
After weeks of tension and unresolved conflict, tens of thousands
marched peacefully past People's Park on May 30, 1969.
Today, UC Berkeley employs a community relations site coordinator to
plan special events, enforce rules and manage the park day to day.
Devin Wooldrige has been the site coordinator at People's Park for nine years.
At the People's Park 40th anniversary celebration, Wooldrige
discounted what he determined to be an erroneous rumor that the
university might reclaim the park to build the originally intended
"The university pumps quite a bit of money into the park and I don't
believe the park is now, or will be, in danger of being redeveloped," he said.
As for personal goals, Wooldrige takes his job seriously. He works
toward making the park acceptable and palatable to the campus and
"I'd like to enhance its value to the community," he said.
People's Park is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. The UC
Berkeley Police enter at 10 p.m. every evening to vacate the park.
Wooldrige said the park is frequented by an indeterminable number of
visitors each year. Although it is closed at night, during the day
People's Park is a sanctuary for the homeless.
Every season, new and old visitors take refuge at the park.
"The population rises and falls with the weather and season," Wooldrige said.
Tom Thompson is a Vietnam veteran living in Santa Cruz. Curiosity
about the 40th anniversary celebration motivated him to venture up to
Unlike many of the park's patrons, Thompson didn't protest the
Vietnam war he fought in it. He said serving in the military was
the American thing to do and it wasn't until long after the war that
his principles came in conflict with those of the U.S. government.
"I didn't fight the corporations because the corporations aren't the
problem … other people minding other people's business is the
problem," he said.
Thompson worked as a concrete finisher for the military nine years
after being discharged. He retired at 38 and lost his home to a
Since then Thompson has been homeless. He said the military has done
very little to provide aid to him and many other veterans.
"They care about those they have to," Thompson said of the military.
"Now, I live in the redwoods and grow weed."
Thompson first experienced People's Park at its conception. With
nostalgia in his voice and a distant look in his eyes, Thompson
snapped back to reality when he began to describe the transformation
the park has undergone.
"This place has really changed," he said. "This place is supposed to
be a safe spot."
Thompson is not the first to notice the park's metamorphosis.
In 1990, ongoing incidents of police brutality inspired the
foundation of Cop Watch, an organization that works to educate people
about the prevention of police brutality. Cop Watch distributes
literature and camera equipment to volunteers. They advocate for
civilians knowing their rights and encourage witnesses and victims of
police brutality to report and document it.
Brandon Absher is a volunteer with Cop Watch and a Berkeley resident.
He said the group distributes cameras to help execute their mission
of education and prevention.
"Having a camera around, even if it can't prevent what's happening,
lets people know what's going on," Absher said.
Russel Bates is a Vietnam War veteran who says he's been arrested
several times. He volunteers with Cop Watch and advocates for the
homeless and poor.
"People who don't have anything, who have lost everything, it's
definitely the community's responsibility to provide the basics for
them," Bates said. "The police don't seem to serve the poor and
homeless well at all. When you're homeless you have no place to
retreat to and the police know that."
Bates attributes ongoing police brutality to the growing gap between
the social classes.
"There's been a gentrification going on in Berkeley for quite some
time now," he said.
Mamma Taffy, a tie-dye-clad woman soaking up the sun in People's Park
and offering her pipe to anyone passing by, said that verbal abuse
from police officers to residents is a common occurrence in the area,
where she often takes temporary shelter.
Mamma Taffy believes that, true to its name, the park is meant for
the people, and she condemned the police who use force to relocate
"This doesn't belong to the state," she said. "It belongs to the people."
Any attempts by the university to reclaim the park will be
unsuccessful, Mamma Taffy emphasized.
"We want a peaceful protest that leads to the people owning the park
like they used to," she said.
For many, the history the park symbolizes is much more important than
the grass and gardens that cover it. As former park resident Caleb X
said, "It represents democracy."