|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Spring - Summer 2007|
During one of our early meetings, I told my shrink about People's Park. She said it sounded as if I valued the event because, for once, I could Belong, yet be myself as well.
Maybe so. Belonging is one of the universal human needs. But if my feelings about People's Park stemmed only from that desire to adopt the protective coloration of the community around me, why was I even more anti-drug at Cat than I am now? Perhaps the excitement of rebellion had me enthralled. It was dangerous out there. The police shotgunned 35 people and killed one, for no other reason than that he got in the way. When you're 19, that sort of madness can be ... delightful.
I should give myself more credit. What I remember – what comes through the turgid prose of my journal – is the calm at the core of my excitement, terror, thrill. There was defiance and danger, sure. But there was also the sense of being right. Of being on the side of decency and justice, terms that were more than vague, comic abstracts in that place and at that time. Of having communion with, in that greatest American phrase, self-evident truth, a justice so pure and so simple that I could not imagine it being fairly denied.
We were right, out there. We were right. People's Park, Berkeley California, May 15, 1969, and the weeks that followed. The best days of my youth.
By 1969, springtime in Berkeley had come to signal a nice fat round of campus rioting. But in the spring quarter of that year all it seemed to mean was pretty weather and relaxed anticipation of summer. Cal's winter session had seen the campus flooded with tear gas and racial division as the Third World Liberation Front had moved its call for a college devoted to minority studies. The appearance of People's Park seemed to promise a much more constructive and affirmative season.
Charlie Williams' illo for this article is based on a photomontage I picked up sometime in the days of the Park. It shows something of the way it was. A block off Telegraph Avenue, hotbed of Berkeley's street life, and coincidentally a block in the other direction from the highrise dorm where I lived, the University of California bought and razed an acre of land, saying that they intended to use it – eventually – as an athletic field. For months the land lay fallow, empty, cluttered with trash.
Then someone, we don't know who, began to plant flowers there – bushes – put benches down, and swing sets. It became a group project. Spontaneously, in the midst of dormitories, across the street from the university's housing office on one comer, and a beautiful rustic divinity school on the other, a community park began to emerge. Kids played there. A path was etched through with donated brick. Strips of sod were rolled onto the lifeless hardened clay. Someone brought in hollow plastic hemispheres. just the right size for a kid to sit in and rock. A local radio station, KNOW, donated enormous wooden letters (God knows where they got them) which stood in the comer of the fabulous lot. Someone – we don't know who -- painted a sign on rough wood and nailed it to a tree. It read PEOPLE'S PARK.
You have to understand the political dynamic of the day. All of California is divided into two parts. (Hmm ... snappy.) Southern California is dry, desert, frenetic, freeway urban, winger. Northern California is lush, wooded, tranquil, pastoral, liberal. Southern California is dominated by Los Angeles. Northern California is centered – in all ways but geographically – in San Francisco. In 1969, the major political activity in Southern Californians was outrage at the "youth movement" echoing out of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, and Bay Area college campuses. It was the height of the '60's, the era of the hippies, The Berkeley Barb (I always preferred the Tribe), with the Vietnam War in its full sick pitch and the reaction to it angry, angrier, and building. Nixon was President, beginning his slide into the paranoia that would, a year later, kill Schroeder, Scheurer, Miller and Krause at Kent State and, five years later, drive him out of office. In California, Ronald Reagan was Governor, in part because of hostility to the "Filthy Speech Movement" at Berkeley. That was actually the Free Speech Movement, which began in 1964 and which convinced me, at 14, that Berkeley just might be a helluva place to go to college.
As you see, I did so, although Berkeley's unique attractions took their time making an impact. Translation: I resisted drugs and shrouded within me an apprehension over Berkeley's huge population of street people – runaways, mostly, the detritus of an uncaring and intolerant suburban age. Campus radicals bugged me; they seemed more interested in posturing and bullying than in ending the war or racial justice or any of their exemplary stated aims.
I walked through People's Park every day. I was 19, mostly... inexperienced, shall we say, uptight, repressed, all the residuum of a suburban boyhood. After the TWF battles, however, and my first experience with police stupidity and promiscuous brutality, it was good even to middle American eyes to see a positive and affirmative and beautiful thing come out of Berkeley. I didn't linger there, though. People's Park was beautiful, but it was scary. It was much safer back in the locked-and-bolted confines of my dorm.
But one time I couldn't avoid the real meaning of People's Park. I was walking past, en route to class, and a bearded guy hailed me. He was on his knees, pulling shrubs out of nursery cans. He needed a little help planting a tree ...
Well, uh, gee, uhh I might be late for class, get grass stains on my slacks ...
Anyway, I helped him bend back the can, put the little shrub, its roots gripped by lush black soil, into the hole he'd dug for it, and tamp the dirt back into place.
It gave me a stake in People's Park.
My roommate's name was Brian Siegel, an actor and overt hippie. T’was he who awoke me at 4 a.m. on May 15, 1969. "They're coming in," he said.
For the past few days, the University administration, under the thumb of Ronald Reagan's gubernatorial tyranny, had been making threatening noises against the hippies and revolutionaries camping out on university property. But Cal officials and street people had been communicating very publically, and UC Chancellor Roger Heyns himself had pledged police would not come into People's Park "in the middle of the night".
Give "Roger the Dodger" some credit, we said later. When they came, it was well past the middle of the night.
It was a downhill block from Griffiths Hall to People's Park. In the darkness a campfire burned, at the bottom of a shallow pit. Angry voices, perplexed voices, argued from the half-dug wading pool. (Someone had an idea, and the next moment it had been begun. Such was the nature of People's Park.) The argument? "We've got to do something?”/What can we do?", as every 30 seconds a police car roared down Haste Street, the shadowed face within peering out at us.
What to do? What to do? A couple of the braver lads climbed the tall pines in the center of the park; it'd be hours before they were discovered. We could see down Bowditch Street to the University; when they came, they'd come from there. More cop cars gunned past, and again and again the rumor flew: they're coming. And finally...
It was quiet. I remember that silence. The streetlight fell on their bobbing helmets; they looked like blue bubbles bobbing down the street. Then you could hear their boots. In America we were hearing boots.
CHP – California Highway Patrol. Reagan was leading off with his best troops. They moved in quickly, cutting off the comers, emptying the Park. We faded back to face them across the street, a no-man's-land of asphalt. "Please go home," one officer said. And one brave fool, awoken to self-evident truth on the morning of this bloody Thursday, replied, "This is my home."
That was me.
For the next couple of hours we stood across from People's Park and watched Reagan's troopers do their thing. I remember a squad of Berkeley cops clambering into the tower of that lovely divinity school after God knows what and God knows who. I remember the commotion when the cops finally found the dudes who had hidden up the pines. They hauled them off to cheers. I remember, and am still astonished by, a very small young woman who came up to the police line, leading her two children: toddlers clad like urchins in the style of the day. She attempted to take her toddlers across the street, over to their playground. But the CHP line closed in front of them, and while one cop pleaded with her and another squawked, red-faced, a third coldfaced thug unsheathed and held ready his billy club. "Fair's fair," I shouted. "It's three against three!" She didn't get across.
They brought in a bulldozer with a fat, frightened hardhat (non-union, we were told later) at the controls, and he roared about the edge of the park, ripping up bushes and bashing the giant KNOW letters out of the way. A girl wept behind me. A few quick postholes were dug and what came to be known as The Fence began to rise. How much hatred was directed in subsequent months at that cyclone fence? An asshole waved wirecutters at the cops. "Go ahead," I told him. "There's the fence; go ahead!" This was too important a day for such posturing. The Fence, while we watched, was finished.
I went back to bed.
And because I was in bed, I was not there when Dan Siegel, Student Body President, led a quiet march towards People's Park from Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus. I wasn't there when the Alameda County Sheriffs Deputies, the redneck brutes known with no affection whatsoever as The Blue Meanies, opened fire on the march, first with tear gas, then with birdshot, then, for God knows what sick reason, with buckshot. I was a block away, eyes smarting from the CN fog rising above Telegraph Avenue, naive in my belief that the boom boom boom I was hearing came from the explosion of tear gas canisters, and not shotgun blasts.
Yeah, I was a block away, walking towards the campus, a skinny Middle American zero behind horn-rimmed glasses, a scared kid not particularly scared today, a kid becoming not-a-kid anymore in the glare of self-evident truth, at the moment the Alameda deputies took their infamous walk up Telegraph. Someone dropped a beer can onto the street. The deputies whirled and fired blindly at the rooftops. They blinded an artist named Alan Blanchard. They gutted – killed – a guy from southern California named James Rector, whose only crime had been to stand where one of them could see him.
(They say that as Rector lay there in agony, two Berkeley police climbed up to the rooftop. People asked them to get help. That’s what you get for screwing around,” they replied, and left.)
The deputies shot 35 people that day. That night Berkeley went under martial law. The air was rank with acid. Cops everywhere. Daring death – or at least arrest – I went out driving with Steve Elgar, a kid from New York City who lived on my dorm floor. We bought potables. When we returned, I wrote in my diary about how it felt to be under siege.
On Friday, May 16, the National Guard moved in. For a time we felt this was good, because we had a rapport with them, the clerks and typists” of their division, many of them students from San Jose State out to beat the draft. There was a night curfew, but before sundown students sat and rapped with their khaki contemporaries, and after dark we pointed speakers out the window and broadcast rock music, and some Guardsmen bopped in their boots. We grew used to seeing guys flash surreptitious V”-for-peace signs behind the backs of officers, and onetime provided loud support when one of the weekend Pattons bawled out a guy for saluting us at our dorm window. True, a squad had careened onto the campus in a jeep on May 15th, spewing CS peppergas.” But when those bozos tried to drill, the pandemonium was too comic for us to think of them as any enemy. I went back to what was, for me, a normal life: lectures from the brilliant Mark Schorer, moping over the beautiful girls; such was Friday.
But for all the normalcy, it was a day of shock in Berkeley. Everyone was astonished at what had befallen us. Tom Collins, editor of The Daily Californian (and a fan, I found later), wrote a splendid editorial. A few cops chased a group of us – me included, this time – down Telegraph, clubs swinging. One calm voice on a bullhorn would have cleared the street as easily, if that is what they really wanted. Hysterical with worry, my parents called; I don't blame them now but I didn't need it then. Apollo 10 launched for the moon. Such was the weekend.
Quiet – but tense, very tense. On Monday, coming home from class, I walked through a herd of Highway Patrolmen gathered on the campus' edge. They were taut as guitar strings ready to be strummed; one whacked his billy club again and again on the grill of his car, drumming up his battle blood. We exchanged a glance; I wanted to see into his eye. He looked away before I could tell what was there. For days we'd endured overflights of gnat-like "pork-choppers" that had been filling the air (and wrecking my nerves) with their drone: Now a bigger helicopter, a huge National Guard monstrosity, dive-bombed Sproul Plaza with tear gas. It blew into the campus hospital and forced one patient into an iron lung.
Some distance from campus a whole streetful of Americans were prodded by Guard bayonets into an empty cul-de-sac on Shattuck Avenue. People I knew were among them; my dorm-mate Edmundo escaped only because a local businessman let people escape through his basement. Those not so lucky were beaten, arrested, hauled out to Alameda County's Santa Rita prison farm, forced to lay face down on gravel for hours on end, allowed to turn their heads once an hour. Any arrestees giving the deputies any lip was made to lean their heads against poles driven into the ground – which the guards whacked with their riot sticks.
The night at Santa Rita became the most infamous incident to come out of People's Park – a Life article and several federal indictments came out of it. Although I need not tell you how those worked out. The cop who killed Rector was brought to trial and totally exonerated.
The cop who shot Blanchard was brought to trial and totally exonerated. The guards at Santa Rita were all totally exonerated. They were all totally exonerated.
On May 21st, the cops invaded my dorm. Music from the 6th floor was too loud for their tastes. It was only 7PM, far too early for what we called Quiet Hours, and nobody knew who sicced them on. Unis – university cops – they stampeded up the stairs, silenced the stereos, broke into rooms and tore down anti-cop signs hung in the windows, descended to a furious crowd and chants: "PIGS! PIGS! PIGS!" The cops fled.
A spontaneous street festival erupted. Frisbees flew. A jumprope flipped. And then the Blue Meanies roared in. I watched from my third floor window. Clubs whipped "in private arbitrary orbits." A camera was smashed from a student's hands. (His pictures might not have survived anyway. We'd been told local photo outlets were destroying pictures of cops in action.)
That night the dorm protested. Speakers were hauled to the windows. The William Tell Overture blammed out at full volume, at midnight. On the balconies people beat trashcans against the railings, in solidarity, one with the other. One-two, one-two-three, one-two-three-four! Dormies ... left of fraternities, we were the most complacent and middleclass clowns at Cal. And yet there we were, beating out our ragged chant. It had come home to us. Clapping.
Something happened on May 21, 1969 that I did not see. I wish I had.
There was a march, by students, street people, on the residence of the gutless Chancellor, a pretty, high-storied house on the opposite side of the campus from People's Park. Cops and Guardsmen rushed there and surrounded the house, gasmasks on, ready for a fight But when the march reached the house, the people found a hill overlooking the troops, sat down, and began to sing. They sang movement songs like "We Shall Overcome." And they began to talk to their brothers in the National Guard.
It was very simple, what they called to them. They called, "Take off your masks! Take off your masks! You are men, not machines! You are not our enemies. You are our brothers. Take off your masks!"
There's film of it that I saw later on television. I pray to God it survives. It shows the first Guardsman reaching up to his face and, with infinite weariness, removing his helmet, and with infinite sadness, pulling the gasmask from his face. He is young, crewcut, blond. He is weeping. He puts the mask into its pouch on his belt, so slowly, and so tired, and then he replaces his helmet and he stands there, at his post, tears streaming down his handsome young face. An officer runs up, or maybe it's a cop, screaming at the guy to put his mask back on. But the Guardsman just stands there and looks at the man like he was speaking Martian.
All down the picket line gasmasks start hitting the ground.
That night I wrote in my diary, "We're going to win this thing. Reagan will be reelected and [Sheriff] Madigan will still strut. But their time is limited in this life. What [we] saw today is forever. We're gonna win. "
Two weeks after the assault on People's Park and the murder of James Rector, the streets of Berkeley began to fill with people. For May 30th a march was planned. Counterculture kids from everywhere under the sun came in. No one knew what would happen, but everyone expected blood. There was anticipation and excitement as well as dread. Thirty thousand people would be marching, we were told. Thirty thousand.
Both sides prepared. The student/street community was advised to fly kites – with piano wire, the better to snarl and foul helicopter rotors. In the outside world, the copter gassing of Sproul Plaza was earning shock. not the bland approval Reaganites expected, but there was no indication such an assault wouldn't be tried again. A rumor danced through the crowd that the Fence around People's Park – already an icon of evil to the people of Berkeley – had been electrified. When a friend and I sallied forth from our dorm that Friday morning, we found thick rolls of barbed wire on every comer surrounding the Park.
We skirted the campus to meet the March near the vacant lot they'd dubbed "People's Park II". We met the March just as it got underway. In the forefront, hnunming motorcycles, fifty at least, flashed chrome and revved forth choking clouds of exhaust. Behind this line, a thousand thousand Berkeley people, street kids, students, and at least one of my English professors. Slowly but im-pressively, the March moved forward.
The sky was filled with helicopters and planes. The massive "pork chopper" that had divebombed Sproul Plaza chuggachugged in the distance, hovering like a single scout locust. But few cops were visible until the March reached Dwight Way, the street on which People's Park grew. Then they began to appear, sitting nervously in patrol cars, helmeted heads peeking over rooftops. Heat in the heat, for it had become a blisteringly warm day.
We reached the comer of Dwight Way and Bowditch. The Park within its Fence was filled with National Guard. A suspicious cord snaked up to the Fence ... but that didn't stop the people. They covered the Fence ... with flowers.
Instead of blood on the streets this hot May day, the people of Berkeley rolled out sod and grass: instant lawn. Instead of peppergas sprayed from the back of a jeep, rock music crackled forth from the back of a slow-moving truck. In answer to their flak jackets, cops looked on embarrassed and fascinated at the painful beauty of street girls naked to the waist. (I'm afraid we all gawked. One guy, spying a lovely half-nude lady seated on the turf, threw himself onto the ground near her and snapped photos so recklessly she threatened to don her shirt again. I took only one picture.) The Fence – barbed wire -entwined with flowers. It was spontaneous and it was unexpected, this answer of the people of Berkeley, the creators of People's Park, to the brutality and the cynicism that had taken it from them. It astonished me then and it astonishes me now, that the answer our brethren gave to gas and terror was that most delicate of symbols: flowers. Instead of blood ... there was brotherhood.
I was loafing amidst those thirty thousand souls when, suddenly, she was there. A lacy white dress over black dance tights, a wilted flower between her breasts, and that fabulous, wonderful, absolute dream that was her red, red hair. She wore huge-lensed sunglasses and, in a photo I took of her that moment she recognized me, a little smile.
Her name was Jerrell. She looked a little like Susan Hayward and a lot like Samantha Eggar. Her hair had that off-coppery tone that shines like fire in the sun, and her hidden eyes were green. Throughout high school, she’d been alternately amused and friendly, or haughty and aloof. No adolescent male could have had a more terrible or more glorious fantasy feast than watching. her strut down a hallway in her phony white fur coat. Berkeley had changed her much more quickly and much more dramatically than it ever would me; there was a tremendous gap between us, but ... here we were, on the same street, under the same guns, beside the same Park.
We sat down on the exposed roots of a tree across from my dorm. A band was playing. Hairy knees danced all around us. Jerrell shook and nodded her head in time. I watched her move to the music, and she saw me watching, a kooky loudmouth pest from high school, and for some reason she smiled. I touched her hand. She wasn't quite surprised.
Were this the People's Park story of my dreams, of course, the touching would not have stopped there. In a way it didn't. Jerrell lifted her eyes from our hands where they touched and asked me if I had any friends, any close friends, people with whom I could really talk. I had to admit that no, I didn't. I could have gone on: it was difficult for me to open myself to others; cruelty and suspicion had driven me inside, and only a caricature dared show its face. When that changes, she said, she wanted to talk with me about what had gone on here, about herself and ourselves and what we had lived through.
It was a challenge, I think. Come find me when you're willing to do that; when you're willing to do that, come find me. And then she was gone.
I wandered about in the throng. Berkeley cops laughed on the street corners, flowers wound through their hair. Still toting their shotguns, as if that proved anything, Alameda deputies smirked behind their barricades, completely ignored. In the center of Haste Street a vast carpet of streetpeople fused into a chanting mass. "OMMMMMMMMMMMMM ..."
That night, elsewhere in the city, there was an enormous bacchanalia. Jerrell was there and told me her feet got stomped on. Schnook that I was, I wrote an English paper. And a journal entry about a day that still teaches me things.
One photograph I took that day: a roll of barbed wire sits like tumbleweed across an intersection. A Guardsman stands at attention a few steps behind it. In front of the wire a hippy kid looks on, his head bound in a red kerchief. The barbed wire is covered with flowers and draped with an American flag. On the back of the photo I wrote "People's Park, May 30 1969. Barbed wire by the National Guard. Flowers by the people of Berkeley. It's a common flag."
Blood had been shed over People's Park, and that made the area surrounded by Dwight Way, Haste and Bowditch as holy a place as Berkeley could have. For years it was sacrosanct. The University replaced the Fence with a stronger model. Fine green grass was sown there, which grew verdant and pleasant. But few were the footsteps felt by that grass; it was an unwritten Law of Berkeley life that no matter how the University prettified People's Park, no student would touch it. Nor would we use the parking lots set up first at opposite ends of the Park. People who did were reproached, even vilified as "scabs."
I was no different. By now I was in the far less constricted, shall we say, environs of the Barrington Hall co-op. I had discovered the twin wonders of girls and fanzines. But the Park saga gripped me as had no other event in my life. One time I caught myself carrying an egg up to the scab parking lot, intending to dash it against an offending windshield. When I came to my senses, I carefully returned the egg to the Barrington kitchen. But I did argue with people parking there. On one occasion Tom Collins – then editor of The Daily Califomian, later my New York roomie and editor of a terrific fanzine, Apollo – talked a nice foreign couple out of using it. I wasn't so successful with a black-suited yuppie (the type was true before the word was coined) I met there after a Stanford game, but the conversation did give me a frightening insight into the icebox that was the middle American heart. "I want my government to fight for its property," he proclaimed. "Helluva thing to die for, huh?" he sneered, when I told him how it had. No wonder Ronald Reagan became President.
But the general fervor matched mine. After I graduated, and moved South, People's Park remained a battlefield in the people's war against arbitrary authority. One day, some fifteen years ago, the pavement on the parking lots was literally tom from the ground by angry citizens wielding picks and sledgehammers. The only other word I had of the Park in the years I was away was a disparaging portrait in a detective novel somebody leant me.
Then I went back and saw for myself.
The occasion was Confrancisco, the '93 Worldcon. Leaving the convention at about noon that Labor Day, I crossed the Bay Bridge into Berkeley, and began exploring my old home by auto. Seldom before had I driven its streets. Avenues which seemed endless when I was a footsore youth became quick traverses behind the wheel of my noble Geo Metro. I found Barrington Hall, now called Huddlestone, fully refurbished and protected behind a locked fence. I found Cloyne Court, the ramshackle northside co-op, and found it even more ramshackle than before. I found Griffiths Hall, the sterile highrise where I’d lived in May, 1969... still there, still sterile. I thought of seeking Jerrell, but decided to leave well enough alone.
Because I did find People's Park.
Had you followed me there, here's what you would have found. At the west end of the Park, towards Telegraph Avenue, you will find truck gardens and neat paths. On the Haste side of the block is a clothes bin and a basketball court, on the Dwight Way side a brand new volleyball court with obscenities chalked onto every available surface. East of that, in the area where Tom and I had argued with the foreign couple, where the fire pit had been dug, is an overgrown place now, almost a forest, and amongst the young trees and brush you will find flattened cardboard boxes with the homeless sleeping on them. They gather on benches about weed-swamped paths, and one of them wa1ked past me, and I called to her. Hey, come take my picture. She came when I offered her a dollar.
Her name was C.C. and she wore blue jeans and a blue sweatshirt and blue house slippers. Her face was puffy but she had a prettiness to her, and after she took my picture and I took hers, with People's Park as a backdrop, we walked around the Park, as it is today.
C.C. had quite a story to tell. Her husband was a Vietnam veteran and he'd split on her and her kids, and the government had goddamn it taken her kids, and was trying to make her into a legal drug addict by feeding her thorazine and so what if they sold a little grass around there, they had to live didn't they? and the people who lived in the Park were "copacetic" with the basketball court but the volleyball was bullshit, man, because, because, because this place is holy ground, man ... this place is holy ground.
I know, I told her. I was here. She had no idea what I meant. I gave C.C. some money and she said "Thanks, brother," and was off, and so was I.
"Helluva thing to die for, huh?" "This place is holy ground." I drove away and thought long and hard about what People's Park meant to me.
Big words came to mind. Community. Creativity. Justice. Brutality. Tolerance. Pity. And Home.
For there are places on Earth where I am forever home. The Watts Towers in Los Angeles, and the Three Sisters Islands above Niagara Falls. The field at Gettysburg. And no matter what happens to it, People's Park. Holy ground.