The ghosts of People’s Park still haunt us today, 50 years after the police and National Guard met unarmed demonstrators with overwhelming firepower.
Restless spirits still demand to be heard, and seem to speak with special power in the springtime, bringing to mind the spring of 1969 when the Park was created. It was the very springtime of our generation’s struggles for peace and justice.
But the springtime dreams of peace and love that led young people to place flowers in gun barrels, and plant flowers in People’s Park were shattered on Bloody Thursday, which brought with it shotgun blasts, massive tear gas attacks, brutal police beatings, the murder of James Rector and the blinding of Alan Blanchard.
“Part of my heart is buried at People’s Park,” wrote Berkeley poet Julia Vinograd, speaking for many of us who can never forget.
In May of 1969, I was in high school in Montana when I watched the Battle of Berkeley on the evening news and saw thousands of protesters viciously beaten and blasted with shotguns, chased by what looked like an army of police, and tear-gassed from helicopters.
I have never forgotten that moment. Somehow, thousands of Berkeley residents had found the courage to defy all the guns of empire. To my 16-year-old eyes, it was an inspiring struggle for freedom, a courageous attempt to wrest control of land from corporate overlords and transform a parking lot into a public commons.
Even after Governor Ronald Reagan imposed martial law on Berkeley, the spirit of freedom could not be shot down. In the face of the shocking brutality of the police and National Guard, 30,000 Berkeley citizens found the heart to march in protest of Reagan’s military occupation of their city, on May 30, 1969.
Today, controversy continues to polarize public opinion about the Park. When I hear of the University of California’s plans to pave over People’s Park and build housing,
I remember the blood that was spilled in its defense, and the great dedication of thousands of people. And I am sick at heart at their plans to desecrate this legacy.
From the moment I first saw the news broadcasts about People’s Park in May 1969, Berkeley became my Mecca. When I finally was able to move to the city 12 years later, I had a fellowship to attend the Graduate Theological Union on Berkeley’s Holy Hill.
I loved the activist spirit of Berkeley, and shortly after entering the seminary, Darla Rucker and I helped organize the Livermore Action Group and the Pledge of Resistance, and were arrested dozens of times for acts of civil disobedience at Livermore Laboratory and Concord Naval Weapons Station in the early 1980s.
50 springs have passed, and the vision of a Park for the People is imperiled once again
In many ways, People’s Park was at the heart of my inspiration. During those years, I was jailed for civil disobedience many times in Santa Rita, and was usually released from jail in the middle of the night. Late at night, after the exhilarating and exhausting process of protests, handcuffs and jail cells, I would walk from our apartment on Holy Hill across the UC Campus and down Telegraph to People’s Park.
I would reflect on the legacy of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement and the People’s Park uprising. It always haunted me to walk on what, for a peace activist, could only be called sacred ground.
So many times, I wanted to thank every one of the thousands of demonstrators for giving us such an inspiring example of courage under fire. I wanted to tell them that their brave dissent had turned a patch of earth into Holy Ground.
In so many ways, the People’s Park activists inspired people all over the country to follow their own consciences and dream their own dreams.
In those long-ago, late-night walks when I reflected on the meaning of People’s Park, I realized it was not the Park itself that had inspired me over the years. It was the brave idealism and commitment of the people of Berkeley that had enshrined this park as sacred ground, in my mind.
And now, 50 springs have passed and in the spring of 2019, the vision of a Park for the People is imperiled once again. UC officials are trying to destroy its legacy, cutting down more than 40 trees on December 28, 2018, then arresting the members of an encampment set up to protect the trees.
People’s Park may be only a shadow of the utopian project it was once envisioned to be. Time is tough on dreams and ideals. The Park has often been a refuge for homeless people
and destitute street people—and many cannot forgive the Park for that. People irrationally blame the park, instead of the economy and skyrocketing rents of the Bay Area that pushed so many out on the streets.
Now, UC officials plot to destroy People’s Park by erecting student housing, and are sweetening their plans with a promise to build a phony museum exhibit.
They have tried countless times to tear the heart out of People’s Park and pave it over. Now, their hypocritical plans would destroy everything the park stands for, and then pretend to honor its history— after extinguishing the dream.
They plan to crush our dreams once and for all. Yet truth crushed to earth will rise again, as Martin Luther King reminded us.
The one and only way to honor the legacy of People’s Park is to maintain it as a park for all the people. Anything less would be a gigantic betrayal by UC officials.
The 1960s were packed with epochal moments of conscience and rebellion, moments destined to shape the rest of your life, forever engraved on your soul. The memories of People’s Park have never died because they were emblematic of the counterculture’s commitment to peace and freedom and justice.
The Park must endure as a prophetic reminder that we always have the power to fight for our rights, and we can ride into resistance like Don Quixote pursuing the impossible dream, no matter how many armed troops are unleashed against us.
Terry Messman was the Editor in Chief of Street Spirit for 23 years. During that time, he saw evidence of Berkeley’s great dedication to People’s Park in the dozens of articles that were submitted in its defense.
Terry Messman was a longtime anti-war activist and homeless rights advocate who co-founded Street Spirit in March 1995. He was Editor in Chief of Street Spirit for 23 years.