“A park will be built this Sunday.”
That’s the sentence that sparked a movement. It was 1969, and the University of California had plans to develop a plot of land in the bohemian hub of Berkeley’s south side. So the staff of the Berkeley Barb, the city’s radical underground newspaper, published a call to arms in its weekly edition. The fiery missive—titled “Hear Ye! Hear Ye!—commanded its readers:
“On Sunday we will stop this shit. Bring shovels, hoses, chains, grass, paints, flowers, trees, bulldozers, topsoil, colorful smiles, laughter and lots of sweat. At one o’clock our rural reclamation project for Telegraph Ave. commences in the expectation of beauty. We want the park to be a cultural, political, freak out and rap center for the Western world.”
The Barb’s staff may not have seen exactly what was coming. But what followed is a story that many in Berkeley know well. Just days after this piece published, people congregated in the park to plant flowers, occupy the area, and oppose the development. Then on May 15, 1969, a militarized police force seized the park, injuring more than 100 people and killing an activist named James Rector. In what came to be known as “Bloody Thursday,” then-governor Ronald Reagan declared a state of emergency in Berkeley. The university’s efforts to develop the land were thwarted. People’s Park was born.
Fast-forward fifty years, and this nearly mythical only-in-Berkeley story has a new twist: People’s Park is once again under threat, as the park faces a highly contested demolition in favor of student housing for UC Berkeley students. While much has been written about this battle, a look at the role of community journalism in spurring and recording the struggle for the park half a century ago provides context that both informs and enhances the park’s current history as it is being written.
The radical newspaper that first called for the community to gather and resist at People’s Park was the Berkeley Barb, a bombastic and sharp weekly publication founded in 1965 by the radical Max Scherr. In its heyday, the newspaper exploded with new ideas and viewpoints rarely seen in the mainstream. Intricate illustrations and political cartoons riddled the pages. Sex ads jumped out from between communiqués.
Paul Krassner, a Barb alum and journalist who penned a column artfully titled “Rumpleforeskin,” remembers people selling the newspaper on the streets to passersby and visitors, even drivers waiting at red lights.
“It was a community of people who were working on the paper,” Krassner said. “It published articles that weren’t written about in the San Francisco Chronicle—it filled in what they wouldn’t write about protesters, rallies, demonstrations.”
Its reach extended beyond the Bay. Some who left town would get the Barb wherever they moved. The paper’s price spiked outside of the Bay Area—in 1969, from 15 cents to 25.
“You would find people selling the Berkeley Barb on the streets of Paris,” said Diana Stephens, a historian and archivist who compiled the Barb’s archives. “People sold the Barb to make enough money to eat that day, or to make their rent.”
The paper was not without its troubles—internally, the Barb saw its fair share of scandals and power struggles. But in its 15-year run, the radical newspaper both observed and participated in the community it covered—documenting rallies, protests and social movements and also helping to inspire them. This was perhaps most evident in its role at People’s Park, where the community came together in protest and celebration in the weeks after the Barb’s first call to action.
“It was one big party of workers and gatherers, parents and kids expressing a hunger for gathering together in the construction of a park, rather than the destruction of a militarized society,” wrote the late Reverend Paul Sawyer, a revered social justice activist wrote in The Berkeley Daily Planet in 2009.
A week after the Barb’s command that people join the building of People’s Park, Stew Albert wrote a dispatch from the frontlines of the struggle. In it, he describes the joys of landscaping the park and the range of eager volunteers. Black Panthers leader Bobby Seale shows up on the scene, grinning with delight at what was unfolding. The piece ends:
“Come to the People’s Park this Sunday and make it grow. We need bread for sod, flowers and renting bulldozers. Bring your own rakes shovels and shrubbery. If you want to see a flower grow plant it… You must be in the Park that is happening on Sunday. Dwight Way, Bowditch and Haste, Berkeley. All Power to the People’s Park!”
As Berkeley’s most infamous park faces a parallel threat almost 50 years later, this call to action serves as a lesson for our present moment. In Diana Stephens’s words:
“The timing and the politics of today certainly offer somebody or some collection of people with the right skills and motivation to create something that does (what the Barb did) — it’s all about the people. The Berkeley Barb was not important because it was a newspaper it was important because it brought together a group of people that had something to say and wanted to change the world. And they did.”
Libby Rainey is a journalist and producer for Democracy Now! living in New York City.