The Fight For People's Park Continues Over 50 Years Later
The battle over the right to access People’s Park in Berkeley began over 50 years ago, but it never really ended. Now, UC Berkeley plans to develop the space into housing for students as well as homeless people.
A reggae band is jamming on stage at People’s Park in Berkeley by Telegraph Avenue. Only a few people are in the crowd, but the musicians don’t take it personally. A few people are sound asleep on benches and on the grass. Others are hanging out in groups by the garden, or underneath the trees. Roosevelt Stephens sits with his sketch pad.
“You’ve got the meth heads up there, you’ve got the alcoholics over here, and you’ve got the potheads here,” Stephens says with a laugh.
He says people at the park call him Obi-Wan Kenobi because they trust him and go to him for advice. He’s been coming here since the 1970s.
“It has value, it has significance. This is the mecca, where people come for help,” Stephens says.
They come for the free food from Food Not Bombs, to use the restroom, and to offer support for each other. Michael Dowdey creates a makeshift rec center here to play chess. Like a lot of people who use the park, Dowdey is homeless.
“I think I found myself here because every place else, you could feel the energy of people pushing you away,” Dowdey says. “This is the only place I felt like I was accepted.”
But it may not stay this way. UC Berkeley plans to develop the park for housing.
But Dowdey says he wants to keep his park.
“This is the place where the people took a stand,” he says. “And it’s amazing that it’s still here.”
In some ways, it’s surprising the park exists at all.
The university also had plans to develop this plot of land back in 1969. Back then, activist Michael Delacour says, it was basically a mud hole. He co-owned a dress shop called the Red Square. He invited people to the park to protest against the Vietnam War.
“We had rallies every weekend. Thousands of people got involved. It was a place where I could get across the message on the war,” Delacour says. “That was my main goal.”
Soon the Berkeley Barb underground weekly advertised the park as a “cultural, political, freak out and rap center for the Western World.” Students, activists, and families arrived with shovels, sod, and plants to turn the mud hole into a park.
“Most of the students that came here, they never had a shovel in their hand,” The slogan we had, ‘Everybody gets a blister,’ sort of says we’re trying to involve everybody.”
Then, less than a month later, on May 15, 1969, police put up a fence around the park. Then protestors moved to defend the space.
Someone opened up a fire hydrant, and police retaliated with tear gas. Protestors threw bottles and rocks back at them. “The sheriff’s got their weapons, and started shooting us,” Delacour says. "They were serious. They wanted to shoot us up and make sure..people would know what they're capable of doing."
James Rector, a bystander, was shot by police and died days later. A man was blinded for life. Tom Dalzell is the author of “The Battle for People’s Park, 1969.” He says what became known as Bloody Thursday was a turning point because it was so violent. After that, Governor Ronald Reagan sent more than 2,000 National Guard troops in. A helicopter even dropped tear gas on the city.
Dalzell says an architect walking down Regent Street was shot in the calf. "He went down to city hall, because he knew the mayor, to say, 'Why did your cops shoot me?' And they kicked him out, because he was bleeding all over the carpet."
“This was a tactic, developed for Vietnam that they tested in Berkeley. The tear gas drifted a couple of miles north and south,” Dalzell says. “Kids were sick from the tear gas, and went to the hospitals.”
Days later, nearly 30,000 people took to the streets for the largest demonstration in Berkeley’s history. Quaker leaders trained marchers to keep the peace. Protestors baked pot brownies for the troops.
“[The] effort...brought together all kinds of people in Berkeley: the Quakers and pacifists, Marxists and Stalinists, street people, professors.”
Dalzell says no one really ever won the fight for People’s Park. The activists soon splintered into factions. The idealism of the ’60s was replaced by the skepticism of the ’70s and the greed of the ’80s.
“Berkeley changed. Not as much as the rest of the country, but Berkeley changed. And what we were fighting for became harder and harder to see,” Dalzell says. “And...the park became further and further from the original vision. I hope that it’s not forgotten.”
The university attempted to build on the land again. In 1991, protestors clashed with police for days over plans for volleyball courts. But UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof says the university's current plan to build housing is urgent.
“The plan for housing at People’s Park is part of a broader initiative to address a really serious crisis,” Mogulof says. “And I’m referring to the student-housing crisis.”
Mogulof says the park is a good site for housing because it’s close to campus and underused. Also, over the years, he says, it’s become a locus for crime. Police were called to the park over 10,000 times from 2013 to 2018.
“There was a shooting there, there was a baby who was given methamphetamines,” Mogulof says. “There have been a whole series of things that happen in and around that park that don’t exactly provide an incentive to those who want to visit it.”
The university also plans to build a memorial to honor the park’s history. Mogulof says: the park no longer represents the ideals of those who fought for it. He says the plan to build housing does.
“If one were to wander into Berkeley and come across that park, you would have no idea what happened there 50 years ago. We actually want to change that,” Mogulof says. “We want to make sure people understand what went on there. You can’t do that today.”
But if you do stumble into People’s Park, at just the right moment, you can still find acts of resistance.
The People’s Park Committee meets here every Sunday. They build benches, garden, and organize against the plans for development.
Lisa Teague is with the committee. Shortly after she moved to the Bay Area in 2009, Teague became homeless. She eventually found housing right across the street from People’s Park. She says this greenery gave her a space to heal. She still comes out here in the morning with buckets of water to tend to the plants.
“I’ll you what, I’ve had some nervous breakdowns at that stage, more than once, and none of these people were judging me,” Teague says, pointing to the stage at the park. “Now so much of my found family has been found at the borders of this park.”
Aiden Hill, another member of the People's Park Committee, is on the stage during the rally. “They won’t be able to stop [us] just like they couldn’t stop [us] in the 60s,” he says. "And if they can keep trying to claim it, if they keep trying to push us out of it, we’re going to fight back with everything we have.”
UC Berkeley’s Board of Regents will have the final say on the project. That’s expected later this year and construction won't start until 2022.
This story was originally published in September 2019 but has been edited with updates.