~~ It is with Honor that Slingshot bestows upon Michael Delacour the 2013 Golden Wingnut Award for Lifetime Achievement. ~~
by Samara Steele
They say that the term “Wingnut” comes from the Hell’s Angels of the 1960s, when the motorcycle gang started using the term “fuckin wingnut” to refer to any radical in the East Bay who spoke their mind too loudly. Since that time, radicals have worked to reclaim the term “wingnut,” to make it positive. “Berkeley would float off into space if there wasn’t a wingnut holding it down on every corner,” became a common saying in the 70s. In the 90s, punks around here started sewing wingnut patches to their jackets. During the WTO protests of 1999, the folks from the Long Haul Info Shop carried a giant wingnut flag through the throng in Seattle.
In 2005, Slingshot began to bestow the “Golden Wingnut Award for Lifetime Achievement” upon a local member of the activist community. The Gold Wingnut Award is our way of showing our gratitude to the folks who manage to stay true to themselves and inspire us, through it all.
This year’s Golden Wingnut Award for Lifetime Achievement goes to Michael Delacore.
There might not have been a “People’s Park” if Michael hadn’t shown up that day back in ’69 with a 2-ton-truck filled with shovels and sod. There had been a lot of talk about putting a park there, in the junked out vacant lot that the university created when it leveled a bunch of beautiful old houses, publicly claiming that there was a “desperate need for a soccer field” privately celebrating the destruction of houses that had been a notorious hangout for hippies, Yippies, beats, and flower children. They didn’t expect for the land to be reclaimed and turned into a park.
Everyone was behind the idea of making it a park, of turning it into a sort of user-cultivated autonomous space where people could have free concerts, meditate, plant vegetables, let their kids play, and do what they want.
Michael held the first planning meeting in a dress shop that he and his former partner were running, and on April 19th Michael gathered the sod and supplies, and about a hundred people showed up and made a park.
No one expected the fallout.
The city of Berkeley transformed into a military zone, police shooting people with birdshot and buckshot, leaving one man dead: a laborer from San Jose who was watching the riot from a roof–shot dead by police–another man blinded permanently, and dozens sustained wounds that would never heal.
Legend tells that the Berkeley Free Clinic was started that day–May 15th, 1969, also called “Bloody Thursday”–when they began dragging folks into the basement of that church on Channing to pull the buckshot and rock salt out of them. Hippies and shopkeepers alike were shot, tear-gassed, and forced to follow a curfew.
You might say People’s Park was the beginning of a movement. A war between private interests and the public desire for non-moneyed spaces where people could have real human interaction.
A lot of folks talk about People’s Park as the first Occupation: and it has been held for 44 years.
I meet Michael at his apartment near the intersection of Ashby and Telegraph, and we walk to a nearby Chinese Restaurant for lunch.
He tells me about his experience of Bloody Thursday:
“They came and fenced off the Park that morning, and so we all went out to the intersection of Haste and Telegraph.”
Michael’s daughter, Kathy, who was twelve at the time, used a wrench to open the fire-hydrant, creating a plume of water.
“The kids were like the black bloc back then,” Mike laughs. “Anyone under 18 could do what they wanted and not worry about it staying on their record. So the kids were the ones who broke the bank window that day, and tossed rocks and bricks at the cops.”
I ask Mike if he was worried about Kathy. He shakes his head. “I knew she could take care of herself–and I didn’t know how bad things were going to get. Just seemed like another protest march. Now the thing I was really worried about was my weed! Police were everywhere, and having weed was a felony at the time.”
So Mike ran back to his house on the north side of the UC Berkeley campus and promptly tossed his stash into a garbage can by his house before turning around and heading back down to the protest. As he was walking through the university campus, he noticed some people hiding in the bushes near Wheeler Hall and discovered what was going on:
“They’re shooting people!” a man said.
“No way,” Mike said. “It’s just rock salt.”
Just then, a couple folks covered in blood ran by, and Mike was like, “Whoa!” and jumped into the bushes to join the people hiding.
Mike would later learn that dozens of people were injured, one blinded, and James Rector was mortally wounded.
“You take responsibility for these things,” Michael says. “You don’t have a choice about that. I wanted a park. Now James Rector is dead.”
But there were other unforeseen consequences of People’s Park. Among them, The Long Haul Info Shop (which, arguably, was created in the wake of the energy generated during the People’s Park volleyball riots) and Slingshot!.
Michael lives with his foster son, Dusk, and his daughter, Vanessa, who experienced a stroke last year, leaving the right side of her body less mobile that it was before. Michael also has 2 surviving children, and 7 grandchildren.
“Family and activism,” Michael says, “That’s my life.”
Though he is in his 70s, Michael still works making boilers. His is active in his union, he explains he pays 6.2% of his wages to union dues, and they have done an excellent job keeping his pay rate at around $40 an hour. As a member of the so-called “Millennial Generation,” this is strange and interesting for me to hear: I’ve worked for over 15 years, but have never held a union job. My generation seems to think these things like good wages will simply be given to them, whereas Michael explains that “you have to keep pressure on the bosses, you can’t let up.”
Mike hosted a worker-themed radio show on Berkeley Liberation Radio. “At first, I just played jazz music, but I kept having guest speakers and they talked so much, there wasn’t much time for music.”
The radio show lasted several months, and had to end when Mike’s employer transferred him, forcing a longer commute. “When the master call…” Mike says, shaking his head.
Michael’s daughter Kathy died in 1988.
Dusk, Mike’s foster son, tells me he found an old diary of Kathy’s and started typing it up. He prints a copy out for me, and a few days later, I curl up on the sofa in my living room, and read. On the ten year anniversary of Blood Thursday, she wrote:
May 15, 1979
“Ten years ago I was in one of the highlights of my so called life / 10 years ago. Bloody Thursday Peoples Park — it’s so weird when I try to imagine and life 10 years ago/ Need I go on? In the dark? Still at leslies — it’s late — stoned out typical!!! Tea is being made. I could have made a good speech at Sproul plaza today. Michael made one — I missed it. It was on the news though 5 & 7 — saw old faces.”
A few days later, I ask Mike how Kathy died. He explains that a bad batch of heroine went through town. “It was 400 times stronger than the old stuff. Kathy had no idea that’s what she had.”
Kathy went to the hospital, and was given a shot of “heroine antidote,” but the doctors didn’t know that it wouldn’t be strong enough. She went home, and fell asleep, and never woke up.
“A couple hundred people in the area died from that one batch,” Mike says.
Twenty months ago, Gina Sasso, Michael’s long-term partner, died of pneumonia.
Outside of Michael’s apartment building, there is a Coldwater Banker sign saying that the building is for sale.
“They killed her!” Michael says, gesturing towards the sign. “They killed Gina!”
Michael goes on to explain that new property owners bought the apartment building he lives in in order to sell it and turn a profit. Twenty months ago, they demanded that Mike and Gina clear out the whole back area of the building so they could replace the patio, in order to raise the property value. It was November, and Gina was sick. But she wanted to do right by them, so she pushed herself to clean, and before she could finish the task, she was dead.
Now the apartments are for sale again.
The property owners will surely get their profit.
On April 28th, I ride my bike to People’s Park for the 44th Anniversary Carnival. The park is alive with hundreds of people dancing, making music, blowing bubbles, and even feeding a pack of llamas that someone brought.
I search the park for over an hour before I finally find Mike. He’s patrolling the perimeter of the Park, copwatching.
“There’s three of them over there,” Mike says through gritted teeth, motioning towards 3 cops with gun belts lurking near the edge of the park. Mike’s 2-year-old granddaughter is balanced on his hip.
Suddenly, the three officers beeline for a man who is sunbathing naked in the middle of the park.
We watch as the cops begin to harass the naked guy, telling him “There are children present, you realize!”
Suddenly, a group of people–mostly women and children–form a circle around the naked guy. They hold hands, chanting, “Guns out of the park, nudity in the park!”
“Don’t you think it’s disgusting,” a cop says, “to have a naked guy in front of children?”
A woman responds, “I’d rather kids see him than your gun in the park!”
The police seem confused. They back away, and soon flee from the park entirely.
This is the space that Mike hoped to create when he hauled those shovels and sod here 44 years ago: a space where anything can happen. A space where we negotiate what it means to be among people.