In celebration of the 31st anniversary of People\’s Park, to be celebrated on April 30 with a street fair, concert and educational events, Slingshot presents the following history of People\’s Park for your enjoyment and education.
At the start of 1969, the site that is now People\’s Park was a dirt parking lot. The university had bought the property for new dorms in the mid-60s but then after demolishing the wood frame houses that had been on the lot (which had, coincidentally, formed a home base for many radicals which the UC Regents wanted out of Berkeley) the university never built the dorms. In the spring of 1969m after it had sat empty for some time and become an eyesore, community members decided to build a park on the lot.
Building the park mobilized and energized many of the hippies, street people, activists and regular Berkeley citizens who participated. They were doing something for themselves, not for profit or for bosses. Hundreds of people worked hard putting down sod, building a children\’s play ground and planting trees. From the beginning the ideal was \”user development\”-the people building a park for themselves without university approval, planners, etc. Seizing the land from the university for legitimate public use was and is the spirit of the park.
After the initial construction on April 20, negotiations with the university over control of the park continued for about three weeks. For a while it looked like a settlement could be reached but suddenly the university stopped negotiating and in the early morning on May 15 moved police into the park. A rally protesting the fence was quickly organized in Sproul Plaza on the UC campus. In the middle of the rally, after a student leader said \”lets go down and take the park,\” police turned off the sound system. 6,000 people spontaneously began to march down Telegraph Avenue toward the park. They were met by 250 police with rifles and flack-jackets. Someone opened a fire hydrant. When the police moved into the crowd to shut off the hydrant, some rocks were thrown and the police retaliated by firing tear gas to disperse the crowd.
An afternoon of chaos and violence followed. Sheriff\’s deputies walked through the streets firing into crowds and at individuals with shotguns. 128 people were admitted to hospitals that day, mostly with gunshot wounds. James Rector, a spectator on a roof on Telegraph Avenue, was shot and died of his wounds a few days later.
The day after the shootings, 3000 National Guard troops were sent by then Governor Reagan to occupy Berkeley. A curfew was imposed and a ban on public assembly was put into force. Mass demonstrations continued and were met with teargas and violence by the police. 15 days after the park was fenced, 30,000 people marched peacefully to the park, and active rebellion against the fence subsided. The fence stayed up until it was finally ripped down during demonstrations in 1972.