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People’s Park: Just the Beginning by John Simon (1969)

Like who knows how many thousand others, I got involved in the battle of People’s Park when somebody handed me a shovel and said, over there, we’re breaking it up so we can lay sod down. Packed by weight of years of houses and months of cars, the hard earth barely yielded to any tool, had an oily blue sheen in the sunlight where it was cut. This was Sunday, April 20, behind Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.

I worked steadily for 20 minutes, then wandered through the diligent crowd. Now I see how the Chinese build dams. No idle tools, and some dude in a cowboy hat was grading the bumps and hollows on a rented bulldozer. Wine bottles passed, lemonade, and joints from hand to hand. By dusk a rock band was playing and several hundred square yards of park had been laid down under old trees.

In the next three weeks I came back time after time, bringing trees, poems and most of the children on my block. Now there is a brown dusty lot there, patrolled by Burns detectives, who replaced the National Guard behind that cyclone fence. I suppose that in the national mind, if any, the whole issue seems a little silly, cross between the spring dreams of flower children and the devious plots of SDS-inspired revolutionaries. Some factions of SDS, at least, share this view.

But we find it impossible to deny that the park is at the very center of our struggle. The revolution is about the opening of time and space for human beings, inevitably the total liberation of the ecology. The most revolutionary consciousness, says Gary Snyder, is to be found among the most oppressed classes -animals, trees, grass, air, water, earth. The park has brought the concept of the Whole Earth, the Mother Earth, into the vocabulary of revolutionary politics. The park has raised sharply the question of property and use; it has demonstrated the absurdity of a system that puts land title above human life; and it has given the dispossessed children of the tract homes and the cities a feeling of involvement with the planet, an involvement proved through our sweat and our blood.

The park has joined international antagonists in battle. The owner of title is the University of California, the prototype Multiversity, up to its ears in war research and with a Rand systems analyst for its president. The park people are the students, quasi-students and street people who made a Free Speech Movement, a Vietnam Day Committee, a Stop the Draft Week, who declare themselves to be the brothers of the Black Panthers, the Cubans, the Viet cong.

The land of the park used to be nice substandard houses where students and street people lived. The University, spreading its holdings particularly in the south campus hip ghetto, acquired the land via eminent domain for $1.3 million with the claim that it had become a scene of hippie concentration and rising crime, and demolished the houses in the summer of 1968. Then the lot was empty, cars stuck in the winter rain and mud, glass, litter.

Central to previous Berkeley crises was the theme of protest, disruption of the public obscenities that maim our society. The park crisis started because people went ahead and did something for which there was no legal convention, budding a new society on the vacant lots of the old. The park was born April 20, and it lived three and a half weeks. It is difficult to go back to the spirit of those days, when at first even the police were reasonably friendly. Decisions were made by the people who wanted to work, to lay sod here and plant a revolutionary corn garden there. There was a play area with several swings and a sandbox, but the favorite children’s thing was a set of 7-foot high wooden letters spelling K N O W which could be crawled through. A platform festooned with prayer flags, brick walls, a maypole, a fire pit surrounded at night by the young passive drifters, far gone and not coming home.

Thursday morning, May 15, 300 police in battle gear surrounded the park at 4:45 a.m. and ordered us out. Hopelessly outnumbered, we stumbled through their lines to watch workmen putting up the fence. Exhausted, tears of rage, tears of grief. And then at noon 5000 people whooped down the Avenue from campus to do battle. Everybody knows about Bloody Thursday, the shotguns, the death of James Rector. The days became indeterminate ages of confrontation, continual fear, meetings to all hours; too close to it to be a historian, I can offer an incident or two to give a sense of how it was:

Late afternoon, Bloody Thursday, quiet south campus street, woman with baby carriage, telephone repairman, street brother grazed earlier by pellets tells girl on lawn they’re shooting people on telegraph. Are you sure? then Blue Meanie (Alameda county sheriff) pokes his head around the corner and lets fly, wounding the brother again, missing the baby carriage and grazing the phone man who doesn’t understand, lemme go get his badge number he cries and has to be held back gently, no, he’s not wearing a badge and if you go up there they’ll shoot you again.

Gatherings, marches, loitering is illegal at the discretion of the pigs; every day the people gather, march, loiter; dispersed, they regroup and come back for more; downtown Berkeley is closed down nine days in a row. Cut off from the main body, a group of 50 blocks a busy intersection for ten minutes; one brother is nearly run down by a young black gunning in a sports car. Then come a dozen cops and the people slowly yield, one boy a little too slow and he is thrown down, the clubs rise and fall but somehow he is up again and running free, pursued as rocks fly from the crowd, the first cop trips and helmet, club shoots loose, he has to retreat-combing his trained blonde hair….

Every day three helicopters circle the city from first light. One day a trapped crowd is gassed on campus by a copter. The afternoons go on and on, the people still unused to violence and untrained, intermittently ready to go down for each other, not really sure how much they mean by revolution, not yet a military quantity. Thursday the 22nd nearly 500 are herded into a parking lot and busted, then subjected to incredible humiliations at the concentration camp known as Santa Rita; when I see friends on their release next day, they are whispering, shaken and bent.

The confrontations quieted before the big march on Memorial Day. Thirty thousand people, mostly scared to death; Telegraph Avenue is closed off by barbed wire, machine guns are on the roofs; liberal nonviolent monitors with white armbands are circulating in the crowd, at intersections they link arms between the people and the police, continually they cry KEEP MOVING.

The official park monitors in green helmets are very far between. Everyone expects a massacre. At the park, the march slows; a few continue around the city-assigned route, others sprawl off into side streets, frustrated by the fence and the incongruous picnic atmosphere. A band arrives on a flatbed truck, grass is laid down in the street and freaks with hoses begin to jump up and down, screaming and spraying the crowd. The tension dissolves into an incomplete orgy; behind the fence, the Guard is watching, roasting in their flak jackets, impassive, feelings masked. Late afternoon, a thousand people follow the band through the streets, dancing whooping and hollering WE ARE FREE a block away from the scene of the big bust. Not yet.

On the day of the march a 13-point Berkeley Liberation Program appeared in the Berkeley Barb. Drawn up after weeks of discussion among many Berkeley radicals, it represents a common point of departure for the community, and already has become a focus for right-wing hysteria. Reagan has cited it as evidence of What They Really Want, and the conservative Berkeley Gazette, viewing it as a declaration of war, editorialized there is no gentle way to deal with the Berkeley Liberation Program. And yet it is a curiously modest document, raising almost no ideas that have not been raised before. It does not appear to be a blueprint for a revolutionary society; at most it is a plan for survival in a dangerous period, a list of not impossible priorities.

The points call for the south campus ghetto to become a strategic free territory for revolution, speak to the flowering of revolutionary culture and working out a humane community through communal services, housing councils, tax reform and a government of people in motion around their own needs. The schools are to become training grounds of struggle, while open war is declared on the University as a major brain center for world domination. The document demands the full liberation of women and defends the liberating potential of drugs. It announces alliance with the’ Black Panther Party and all Third World Liberation movements and criticizes sectarian groups as supposed vanguards seeking to manipulate mass movements. The tenth section says we will defend ourselves against law and order and suggests that the people must be armed and skilled in self defense and street fighting. Finally, liberation committees of people who can trust each other are put forward as an alternative to traditional organizing techniques.

The Liberation Program is important because Berkeley represents probably the only place in America where white revolutionaries live in a territory in which it makes sense to say they are the people, now. Unlike the hip enclaves in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and so on, the south campus is a valid community to itself and does not have to cope with enveloping and hostile working-class neighbors. Within this territory the people have risen and fought the police four times now in the last year. Although the future of People’s Park remains unclear, people have begun to look towards many ways of implementing the basic principles of the park: community, spontaneity, and opening of time, space and life in relation to the environment. The liberation Program speaks to the possibility of maintaining a zone of struggle and liberation in Berkeley. An International liberation School is opening this month, which will teach basic survival skills: self defense, first aid, legal defense and communications. People are talking now about breakfasts for children, legal collectives, free clinics. Some are beginning to see that this is not an easy matter, it will last years, last our lives.

Source: Liberation Magazine July, 1969

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