May 15, 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the infamous street battle between local law enforcement and unarmed UC Berkeley students over People's Park which left one man dead and over 100 people injured.
Last month SFist brought you a brief history of People's Park, tied to the anniversary of its founding on April 20, 1969. And in it we discussed the shockingly violent episode known as Bloody Thursday in which, just about three weeks after the park took shape, Oakland and Berkeley cops as well as Alameda County Sheriff's deputies clashed with the park's supporters, many of whom were students.
Tonight, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin, and eyewitnesses Tom Dalzell, Michael Delacour, Dan Siegel and others are hosting a 60s-style "teach-in" at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, telling the story of People's Park and the events of May 15, 1969. Dalzell has been publishing excerpts of a new book about the park's history on Berkeleyside, and the final installment is here.
Just to back up: People's Park was a community-driven effort to reclaim a blighted, muddy, vacant lot next to the Cal campus that had been purchased by the university through eminent domain. It had been left vacant for about two years, attracting derelict cars, as the university lacked funding for student housing that it planned to build there. Organizers seized the land on April 20, christening it People's Park, and began cleaning it up and making improvements, bringing in sod, playground equipment, trees, and plants. The university let this go for several weeks, but under pressure from then governor Ronald Reagan — who had taken a hard line against hippies and civil disobedience — law enforcement was called in on the morning of May 15 to put up an eight-foot fence around the park and kick everyone out. Three people who refused to leave were arrested.
A planned rally that afternoon on Sproul Plaza, originally planned to discuss the crisis in the Middle East, pivoted to focus on the police action at People's Park, and newly elected student body president Dan Siegel took the microphone and called for the thousands assembled to "take the park." The group then moved down Telegraph Avenue toward the park, and law enforcement officers armed with buckshot started shooting.
As Dalzell recalls, observers had climbed on roofs to take in the growing conflict, and there were accusations by law enforcement that some of these observers were throwing objects at officers. This was apparently the justification for shooting their guns up toward the rooftops, and this resulted in the mortal wounding of 25-year-old James Rector — the Berkeleyside piece includes some harrowing photos of the wounded, including Rector.
Another man, standing on the roof of the Telegraph Repertory movie theater, was permanently blinded by buckshot. Another 40 people were treated for wounds at local hospitals, and a reported 128 were injured in total.
Alameda County Sheriff Frank Madigan later admitted that his troops — which numbered around 790 — included many officers who had freshly returned from the Vietnam War, and they went after the student activists too aggressively.
Several days after the incident, when thousands gathered on Sproul Plaza at a memorial for Rector, Reagan sent an Army helicopter swooping in over the plaza to dump tear gas on the attendees. (That can be seen around the 3:00 mark in the video above.)
This bloody episode in Bay Area history deserves not to be forgotten, especially when we've seen street battles erupt out of protests, particularly in the East Bay, in recent years — some connected to similar occupations of public land in the Occupy movement, and some following the election of Donald Trump and featuring skirmishes between alt-right activists and Antifa. Law enforcement tends not to know how to handle angry, unruly, unarmed crowds, and history tends to repeat itself.