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Jonathan Dombro, April 20 2022

The People's Park

This post is the third installment of a seven part series on the history of political action and suppression at UC Berkeley that will be released throughout the spring and summer of 2022.

There is no political controversy from UC Berkeley’s history that is more relevant on campus today than that of People’s Park. Interestingly, though, while most students I’ve met hold some position on the park issue, relatively few seem to know anything about the origin of the controversy. As I went looking into the history, I began to realize that contemporary discourse generally captures very little of the deeper significance of the People’s Park movement. Current perceptions tend to cast the conflict as being about the park's current unhoused population and the University's ongoing plans to build more student housing. However, historical review reveals a broader political struggle over power, community, and the public good.

What would become People’s Park began as houses. In 1967, the University utilized eminent domain to annex the land and force the local residents out of their homes. The administration planned to demolish all houses and begin construction of sports fields, with student housing being its long term goal when funds would become available. By April of 1969, development had yet to begin. At that time, activist Stew Albert published an article in the underground newspaper The Berkeley Barb, calling on community members to transform what was at the time an empty lot into a community hub beginning on Sunday April 20th, 1969.

Sure enough, individuals from the community and from Berkeley campus came with equipment and began to cultivate and build a park on the lot. In response, the UC Berkeley Administration announced plans to begin construction of playing fields immediately. Clear tension then emerged around the campus. Flyers and leaflets circulated from a variety of sources advocating for the University to allow community claimants the opportunity to direct what the land would be used for. Some threatened to defend the park if the University were to take action without negotiating. Importantly, there was also a clear sentiment — acknowledged by law enforcement and the University — that the issue of the park was about use, not ownership (Baker). The community was frustrated with what they saw as an effort by the University to usurp local decision making by the force of government authority. To many, the fact that the University sought to develop the land only once the People’s Park movement had begun signified a complete lack of care for its supposed interest in community development. Activists challenged the Administration and the City to develop the land in a way that upheld both University and community interests.

For over two weeks, Chancellor Roger Heyns held conferences on what to do about the park. Participating with him were executive Vice Chancellor Earl Cheit, other top aides, Berkeley City Manager William Hanley, and Police Chief Bruce L. Baker. From the beginning, there were various alternatives suggested for dealing with the situation: 1) Letting the free hand developers proceed in hopes that the novelty would wear off and the project would fall apart; 2) Immediate eviction of trespassers and construction of a fence; 3) Dispatching a crew of surveyors with a police escort; 4) Obtaining an injunction, permitting arrest; 5) Deferring eviction and fencing while attempts were made to achieve a peaceful solution. Reportedly, Heyns seriously considered letting the ‘park people’ have the land all summer but decided against it because city officials thought this would cause a mounting police problem.

One week before violence erupted at the park, Heyns met with the chair of his committee on housing and environment, as well as a UC alumnus and an ASUC representative who were involved in the People’s Park movement. He asked this group to recommend an alternative plan for development of the land in 4 days, before the upcoming Regents meeting. That way, the administration could avoid involving the Regents in the controversy. Unfortunately, the group was unsuccessful in establishing a consensus between activists and the University. According to an announcement by Chancellor Heyns, this was because the persons working on the land had refused to organize ‘a responsible committee with which the University could consult.’ Importantly, however, the principal reason for this refusal was that they declined to meet Heyns’ preconditions that the University must control use of the land and that work on the park had to stop. In other words, if the activists were to be allowed to formally negotiate at all, they would have to acquiesce to legal authority and give up their leverage. On May 13th, Heyns announced negotiations would not proceed and that a fence would be built to exclude unauthorized persons from the site.

On the morning of May 15th — the day that would come to be known as Bloody Thursday — University contractors entered the park to construct a fence. The University had made arrangements through the Sheriff of Alameda County for the law enforcement help it believed would be necessary to protect the construction crews (Yandell). The sheriff made arrangements for the assistance of the Highway Patrol, Berkeley Police, and UCPD, as well as units from its own Department. Fencing proceeded peacefully until around noon. At that point, 2,000 people who had been listening to various speakers at Sproul Plaza responded to one of the speaker’s urgings to ‘Go take back the Park.’ As protestors arrived, serious street fighting broke out between them and law enforcement personnel in the area.

What next ensued was violence functionally amounting to political suppression. That day, the ACLU received more than 500  accounts of poor police conduct: this included the lack of visible necessity for police action, the arbitrary singling out of an individual from a group, the police’s hostility toward photographers seeking to record the event, the denial of arrestees’ elementary rights, and the conspicuously excessive and unnecessary violence (Yandell). Dozens if not hundreds of protestors and observers were beaten with batons and shot with rock salt and buck shot. The most tragic consequence of this violence was the killing of a 25-year-old graduate student named James Rector who was observing the conflict. His murder both exemplifies the oppressive, indiscriminate violence that officers engaged in that day and stands out as a particularly egregious example. The rooftop on which Rector was killed was three buildings away from a rooftop from which rocks were being thrown — the police’s justification for use of deadly force. Four additional people on the rooftop were wounded. None were armed. There was no order from the police for anyone to leave the rooftop. They shot before they spoke.

Over 400 demonstrators were arrested on Bloody Thursday, with many taken to Santa Rita Jail. From all accounts, there is no doubt that protestors did carry out violence against law enforcement. However, there is similarly no doubt that law enforcement officials were largely the instigators and not the initial recipients of violence (Yandell). Fortunately for law enforcement, officials could legally justify any and all arrests under a state of emergency invoked by then-Governor Ronald Reagan to suppress protests around UC Berkeley. The order had actually been established months earlier in response to previous campus protests but the governor had never revoked it. Law enforcement leadership thus understood that mass arrests and violence would likely be the most effective method to end the large street demonstrations (Baker). In fact, this reaction by the demonstrators is precisely what followed. On the days immediately following this mass arrest, there were no mass demonstrations or disruptions. Despite the park issue repeatedly coming into public attention in the decades since Bloody Thursday, the political situation remains unresolved to this day.

If the UC administration is to restore its relationships with the local population and its activist student community, it must do a much more thorough job of acknowledging and apologizing for these egregious crimes. While no university official committed any violence at People’s Park, their gross indifference requires accountability. As with the Free Speech Movement, the University considered its unwillingness to negotiate with students on terms that the students deemed reasonable to be an appropriate justification to call in law enforcement and suppress whatever oppositional action would arise. Especially egregious is that the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor were both out of town during the events of Bloody Thursday, with neither leaving any record of attempting to cancel their travel plans, coordinate an appropriate response, or generally take responsibility for the products of their failed negotiations.

As is reflected in his writings at the time, Chancellor Heyns had a sense that by the time violent conflict emerged on Bloody Thursday, the political confrontation was already over. There was also a corresponding consensus amongst law enforcement that whatever needed to be done to contain the People’s Park resistance would be and could be done. This is a problem that runs through the entirety of UC Berkeley’s political history. While the administration generally presents itself as a willing partner in political negotiation, it does not typically need to engage with students in good faith. If students’ terms are too undesirable, University officials have a plethora of ways to leverage authority and construct terms that are conducive to its broader goals. When students stick to their position and refuse to compromise, the University can find ways to shut down political negotiation altogether. It can distort the political discourse and utilize violence to suppress action. And it has done this historically on a number of occasions.

For many of today’s uninformed students, the park issue seems like a no-brainer. The land is occupied primarily by unhoused people and is only infrequently used for general community purposes. As such, many think the best thing the University can do is turn the land into something safe and useful. However, many activists for the park remain engaged with the initial controversy of community governance. They say that in the decades since violence first erupted at People’s Park, the University has purchased and developed land in a variety of areas around the city. It is thus creating its own demand arbitrarily and using its broad authority in the city to sweep history under the rug and find a solution that appears to be a compromise but fundamentally still represents an abuse of power. 

The reality of current decision making around the park is complex and I will abstain from making any sweeping generalities about it. I believe that a constructive compromise can be reached regarding the future of the land. I also believe that doing so requires creativity and flexibility, as societal expectations around homelessness, community, property ownership, and local governance are dynamic. My fear is that the University has no actual interest in engaging with this struggle. Though there continues to be student and community involvement in saving the park from unilaterally directed development, activists' numbers and enthusiasm are variable and subject to erosion. If the University wants to wait until the memory of 1969 is sufficiently absent from campus consciousness before making any strong moves, they likely can. As a community member, it’s difficult to know what the administration sees in the land because they do not tell us. Meanwhile, students grow increasingly open to the idea of having anything done to the park that the University wants because of their discomfort with the unhoused population and fears about crime. 

It is a shame that this longstanding issue has been defined by so little open communication. This is not a zero sum game. The University’s interests are not completely juxtaposed with those of the community and they never have been. The issue has been historically about a lack of care from the University Administration, care that administration officials are now trying to demonstrate in their plans to develop the land into a combined space for student housing, low-income housing, and community space. If the question is about property ownership, I am not sure there is a solution. On the other hand, if it is about use, there is still room for People’s Park to prosper. This requires openness and understanding on both sides. In particular, it requires Administration officials to demonstrate an authentic commitment to listening and community care. It also requires them to reopen a political conversation that it once shut down by force, and to seek reconciliation for these past wrongs that so define our present.

Other Sources:

Baker, Bruce. Berkeley Police Department. Police report for People's Park riots, 1969.

Yandell, James. Neither Law nor Order: The People's Park and the People's Police. Berkeley, Calif., 1971.

Written by

Jonathan Dombro

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