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People’s Park, Berkeley

In the southwest corner of the 2.8 acres of unbuilt land in Berkeley known since April 20, 1970 as “People’s Park,” there grew a tree which I planted there that morning. An unlabeled sapling, about three feet tall, bare roots, no leaves.

It had been given to a group of about a hundred of us who gathered sleepily in a back-alley dress shop, “Red Square.” Its owner was Michael Delacour, a dropout from a career track as a missile designer for General Dynamics, who’d been “woked” by the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements. 

Delacour’s “dress shop” was also a place where people, including homeless potheads could leave a backpack and sleeping bag with some assurance their items would still be there in an hour, or a day, or a week. And where “coppin,” as buying marijuana was then called, was regularly part of the mix.

As was the case in many “college towns,” the City of Berkeley grew uneasily alongside the burgeoning post-World War II educational facilities of the University of California. Madison, Iowa City, Ann Arbor, Burlington, and Santa Barbara were among these. The “G.I. Bill,” part of the Roosevelt era panoply of popular social benefits, meant that tens of thousands of veterans could start to build their delayed lives. And the egalitarian distribution of money meant they could spend on delayed pleasures as well as on tuition. These included “cafes, repertory cinemas, funky clothing stores, ‘head shops,’ dope dealers, wide sidewalks with plenty of unmetered parking, some of the best new and used bookstores in America, poster galleries with large, inexpensive prints,” wrote the late Todd Gitlin, who migrated west from Harvard on a wave of political activism. Gitlin expressed his activism by writing numerous articles in dozens of publications. Eventually, when he became a Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley, he authored what is still the best of many studies of the era, “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.” (1987).

People’s Park began, writes Gitlin, “because of a felt need for a commons, a communal space, where work was a joy, not a job.” So in the few weeks after our tiny group had put our tree seedlings and assorted shrubs (most of which died in the typically arid northern California summer) in the ground, “up to 3,000 people a day came to carry sod, to install swings, slides, a wading pool and a sandbox, to cook and eat huge vats of stew and soup, to drink and smoke marijuana. to throw frisbees and soft ball toys to their dogs.

Gitlin quotes himself writing at the time, “It was the answer to the question, ‘What do you people want?’ It was substance and a sign of a possible participatory order, as the living and hand-made proof that necessary institutions need not be over-planned, absentee owned, hierarchical. The Park came to stand in many minds as one tantalizing trace of a good society, as the practical negation of American death, as a redemption worth fighting for.”

That was far from the vision of the California State Government, led by Republicans Ronald Reagan and Edwin Meese. Or of a California legislature dominated by right wing men, their unelected appointees to the Board of Regents, the governing board of the Universities, and the Berkeley City Council, elected at large by non-students and dominated by Chamber of Commerce types: bankers, realtors, big store owners.

People’s Park people tried to develop floating and ill-defined administrative structures. Somebody had to get medical care organized. Somebody had to try to bail out those arbitrarily arrested. Somebody had to be a spokesperson for the media, which began to descend from all over the world. Somebody had to handle the cash that was put into large buckets up and down Telegraph Avenue.

Me, I was a somebody who rode around in an old, converted bread truck that had been donated to “community” radio station KPFA many years before. It was usually parked (illegally) on the street, one or more of its ancient tires deflated, its motor usually reluctant to start, its cumbersome batteries often dead and needing constant re-charging. I knew not how to run a truck but knew how to run my mouth and so with a few others went on the air from time to time from in and around the Park. The truck was kept running by many who had grown up on farms, or had been automotive workers during their military service.

We had gas masks inside the truck. But as they dated from World War II they were impossibly cumbersome and had to have their filters changed frequently. Filters, however, were no longer readily available. However there were numerous “Army-Navy Stores” in Berkeley, whose owners donated supplies.

Tear gas was fired indiscriminately by a rowdy bunch of cops, sheriffs, highway patrolmen, National Guards, and campus police. Just as no one was in charge on our side, no one seemed to be in charge on theirs. With serious consequences, including one death and many injuries, some of them causing lifelong disabilities.

One shooting got me even further involved, in a typically spontaneous way.

As I was helping to edit a long report for the weekly Berkeley Barb which was the “underground” newspaper whose circulation had rocketed to over 100,000 from a tenth of that in two weeks, a man came in the door of the filthy, disorganized Barb storefront on University Avenue. He asked the first person he saw if the photo editor was around. There was no photo editor; the man eventually got handed off to me.

“Would you be interested in this?” I recall him asking. He handed over a perfectly printed black and white photo of a uniformed cop firing a shotgun at a fleeing protestor on a street near People’s Park. A few days before an Alameda County Sheriff’s squad had fired on (unarmed) spectators on a nearby rooftop, fatally wounding one young man and permanently blinding another. 

“Interested?” Yeah we were interested! So were dozens of major and minor newspapers and TV stations all over the world.

Since that week’s “Barb” was already in an advanced state of production it seemed to me we had to put out a special edition. But the Barb’s owner, who we awakened, sleepily told me on that everyone was exhausted and “click” the phone call ended.

I asked the remaining troops who among them could start working on this special issue with me? I offered (unauthorized) amounts of what were then big pots of money. A kid on a bike was sent to Delacour’s “Red Square” dress store next to People’s Park. Mike and I talked it over quickly. A bucket of cash arrived. And a few days later “Outcry! from Occupied Berkeley” with the photo of the cop shooting at the protestor prominently positioned on the front page, hit the streets.

Meanwhile I’d recruited half a dozen repurposed salespeople to blitz every findable telephone number for every findable weekly newspaper in the country. Could they insert the four page “Outcry!” in their next issue? “How fast can you get them here?” was the common response.

How fast? How fast could we assemble 24-hour work crews to tie bundles, transport them to Railway Express (way before FedEx existed), how fast could Railway Express sort them onto trains, how fast could those trains be unloaded thousands of miles away? More buckets of cash from “Red Square” came and went. We sent out all 100,000 papers free of charge, and gave free bundles to local stores, which begged for re-supplies within hours. 

Two things you wouldn’t find in the first issue of “Outcry!” - an address or phone number for the publication. And the name and contact info for its creator, publisher, editor, and business manager. Me.

I didn’t want or need more contact as I was already overwhelmed. KPFA constantly wanted to send the “Green Weenie,” as the ancient old bread truck was called, back into the streets. Or to have it sit in the middle of People’s Park, with me in it. We’d used one of those cash buckets to buy it new tires and batteries, and paint over some of the bullet holes it had absorbed, possibly (but not necessarily) accidentally.

It had been days since I was in my then San Francisco home, a tiny Noe Valley upper flat; my then partner, a lovely, intelligent Cal psychology student, was taking care of our dogs and cats. And bringing me changes of clothes on her way (via hitchhiking) from San Francisco to her classes in Berkeley.

There was a formidable demand for another issue of “Outcry.” It announced a May 30 Memorial Day rally at the Park, at which another of the University’s proliferating fences would be torn down.

The Barb offices we were told, couldn’t be used again to produce “Outcry!” We didn’t want to be there anyway since most of us involved in “Outcry!” didn’t care for the drunks, potheads, and seriously sexist men who were at the Barb 24.7. 

And so it came to pass that the second and final issue of “Outcry!” was produced on the balcony of the Fillmore Street Black Panther Party offices in San Francisco.

It might have seemed a strange choice. But for me, it made sense. I had helped the Panthers, especially their newspaper’s wonderful artist-editor Emory Douglas, produce their early newspapers. I was co-chair (with Kathleen Cleaver) of “The International Committee to Release Eldridge Cleaver.” And Bobby Seale had worked on his autobiography, “A Lonely Rage” in my North Beach apartment, when I was managing editor of Ramparts magazine (Seale was a fine writer, and barely needed my help).

Sam Napier, “The Black Panther’s” super-competent circulation director, helped me with the logistics of once again distributing thousands of copies. (He would be killed, shortly afterward, when, despite warnings of trouble he volunteered to go to New York to try to make peace between disputing Panther factions. Those who shot him, we were told, belonged to a faction largely composed of New York City undercover cops). No one was ever arrested for the killing.

After Issue 2 of “Outcry!”, when the UC Berkeley-installed fence at People’s Park was torn down, I’d had enough. 

But I kept up with broadcasting about People’s Park. At the same time I got submerged in the endless internal “struggles” at KPFA, while trying to concentrate on issues of peace and social justice. I was also lonely and heartbroken, as my dear partner, the lovely Cal psychology student had informed me that our life together, or rather mostly not together, interfered with her pursuit of what she later accomplished, working with mentally distressed , medically neglected people.

Now, in 2022, as I try to live through yet another falsely labelled and totally unnecessary Peoples’ Park “housing” crisis, it’s hard to have optimistic thoughts about its outcome. The University doesn’t get it: people need open space, not more sterile, unaffordable high-rise ghettos. Developing People’s Park into attractive, inviting parkland has abundant models elsewhere. Our City Council, while oh-so-diverse ethnically and with a gender correct constellation, is bereft of creativity and leadership. The Council has been mute when encountering real estate development greed and small business collapse. Corporate interests have now destroyed all of this college town’s once vibrant downtown. And the legal system seems to not know the difference between. a historical site and a garbage dump.

Thousands and thousands of people cycled through some aspect of People’s Park. I hope they still will.

(Larry Bensky welcomes praise and blame: LBensky@igc.org.)

4 Comments

  1. 1976961 an acquaintance of San Francisco Bruce August 12, 2022

    I was the person who came down from Sonoma County in a faded red Austin Healey Sprite, got off 80, went to Gilmore. saw a huge contingent of various law enforcement personnel and vehicles straight ahead.
    I decided to take another route by turning right on the railroad tracks, driving several streets down the tracks, finally found an unguarded street and wended my way by a long and devious route towards People’s Park (about an hour total) where I arrived after hiding the little car in the back yard of a friend, and running several blocks to the demonstration.

    There I meet a mixture of students, teaching assistants, ordinary Berkeley housewives, high school students who had decided to take a school holiday and who were taking turns with large pickaxe unable to break through a segment of the sidewalk in order ”
    “Liberate the Land”.

    I just grabbed the large Pick Axe, swung three times shattering the first section of sidewalk into three segments. pried the segments semi upright. lifted up an adjoining portion of sidewalk and fled down the street to the accompaniment of my personal choir and orchestral section wit cries of “There’s the Sprite driver, nail him ” by taking evasive action and running back to the backyard of where my Austin Healy was napping peacefully, covered us both with my Marine Corps camouflage tarp and slept until my friend got home so we could have dinner. Two days later, I left, drove to San Franscisco and then across the bridge to Marin and eventually to Glen Ellen where I went to have a celebratory beer and dinner at the London Side Lodge.

  2. Larry Livermore August 14, 2022

    It was 1969, not 1970.

  3. Jonah Raskin August 15, 2022

    What about the tree you planted?

  4. Kat Schaaf August 17, 2022

    It was amazing to note that simultaneously the People’s Park and the César Chavez Park at Berkeley Marina were being bandied about ( the Marina Specific Plan for commercial development) and but for vigilance by all the park goers who had not even had an opportunity to chime in, it, too, would have just been swept in by City Manager etc….Thank you, Larry Bensky, for Your eternally great observations! And History! Lucky us!
    Go Berkeley!!!

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