On April 20, 1969, a group of activists, Berkeley residents, and idealistic Cal students took it upon themselves to take a blighted, empty lot next to the university campus and turn it into a public park.
In the fifty years since, People's Park has come to symbolize a particularly fractious moment in the history of counterculture protest in America, in addition to a triumph of hippies over the establishment which has endured — despite the property still technically being owned by the University of California.
The park has, in recent years, like many public spaces around the Bay Area, become a magnet for homeless people — and a longstanding tradition of feeding people at the park by East Bay Food Not Bombs continues to this day.
But back on that Sunday in 1969, hundreds of volunteers gathered to lay down sod and stick a middle finger up toward the university, which had acquired the property bounded by Haste, Dwight, and Bowditch streets through eminent domain two years earlier and razed the houses that were there. The university then ran out of development funds, and much like the legendarily racist and delayed redevelopment of the Fillmore in San Francisco during that decade, the lot sat empty, becoming a mud pit in the winter and a dumping ground for abandoned cars.
As a flyer written by Stew Albert that circulated in mid-April, 1969 put it:
The land is now used as free parking space. In a year, the University will build a cement type expensive parking lot which will fiercely compete with the other lots for the allegiance of Berkeley's Buicks. On Sunday we will stop this shit... We want the park to be a cultural, political, freak out and rap center for the Western world.
As Dalzell recalls:
Several hundred volunteers came to People’s Park on Sunday, April 20. From the start, the park attracted a cross-section of straights, political radicals, hippies and street people. Between April 20 and May 15, 1969, thousands of people spontaneously transformed the eyesore of a vacant lot into a pleasant, relaxing and slightly chaotic and messy park. Volunteers laid sod, planted flowers and trees and bushes, built an amphitheater, laid out winding brick paths, and installed swings and play structures.
What happened on May 15 would be echoed around the country in the Occupy protests earlier in this decade: Authorities became fed up with the anarchic situation, and they stepped in to lay down the law.
What transpired from there grew partly out of Governor Ronald Reagan's pressuring university administrators to stop making concessions to the park's builders. After promises that no construction would occur on the park land without notifying the activists, a fence went up around the park on the morning of May 15, 1969, and Reagan sent CHP and Berkeley Police officers in to clear the hippies out, with the help of Berkeley's Republican mayor, Wallace Johnson.
A scheduled rally that day in Sproul Plaza about the Arab-Israeli conflict drew some 3,000 students, and the topic of the rally shifted to the authorities' actions at People's Park. Chants of "Let's take the park!" began, and a crowd that grew to around 4,000 marched down Telegraph Avenue and began trying to dismantle fencing around the park. Reportedly, bottles and other objects were thrown at the 159 police officers guarding the park, a fire hydrant was opened, and at least one car was set on fire.
Alameda County Sheriff Frank Madigan led a troop of 791 officers from multiple jurisdictions to quell what became a chaotic street battle between activists and law enforcement. Tear gas was thrown. Shotguns loaded with lethal buckshot came out. And Madigan later admitted that many of the officers, freshly returned from the Vietnam War, went aggressively into battle as if the students were the Vietcong.
The conflict became bloody, and known as Bloody Thursday in Berkeley. One student, James Rector, died of a gunshot wound. 128 others were injured, including Allan Blanchard, who was left permanently blind.
A vigil for Rector five days later in Sproul Plaza became a mass protest of some 3,000 people, where protesters were pelted with more tear gas — including a type that was used in Vietnam, dropped by an Army helicopter that swooped in over the campus.
In the decades since, Berkeley activists have remained fiercely protective of People's Park — including with a 1991 riot after the university announced plans to build a volleyball court there — though some of the original creators of the park told the LA Times in 2006 that the place had become a derelict urban space without any of its original charm or purpose.
Launched, in part, as a second Free Speech Zone outside of Sproul Plaza, the reputation for vagrancy and drug use over the years had blighted the place in many people's minds.
Former Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, himself one of the park's original builders in 1969, told the LA Times in 2006, "Over time, people have come to realize that the park has not become what they hoped it would be... it is not a place that a lot of people are comfortable going to."
Indeed, just last year, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ announced that part of the park's land was going to be devoted to building some much-needed housing — including housing for the homeless. And the plan drew little protest.
"The park was like the third rail,” Christ told the LA Times. “A lot of chancellors felt they just couldn’t touch it. But I think the time is just right. It’s a combination of people’s sense of urgency of the housing crisis and also, frankly, the urgency of the homelessness crisis."
Local homeless man Christopher Kohler spoke to the LAT last year saying he'd been coming to the park since 1969, but even he couldn't defend it anymore. "If the community had kept the will to keep the park it had begun, I’d be solidly behind it — but I don’t see that community anymore. The people using the park are trashing it. If it becomes student housing — oh, well, things change."