I was already on hormones and in transition when I participated in the Battle For People’s Park in 1969. I went full time between its wind down and Stonewall. For me People’s Park and the idea of “The Commons” have always played an important role in shaping me.
A year before Kent State, police shot at protesters in California, killing one. A new oral history of the clash is a searing read
Sat 6 Jul 2019
On 4 May 1970, the Ohio national guard shot at hundreds of students protesting against the invasion of Cambodia, wounding eight and killing four. Kent State was seared into the national consciousness. The US government had authorized the killing of its own (white) children.
But what many might not know is that a year earlier in Berkeley, California, police opened fire with buck and bird shot on a large crowd of young protesters seeking to keep open People’s Park, an impromptu community garden on land UC Berkeley wanted to use. Fifty people were hit.
James Rector, a 25-year-old visitor from San Jose, was killed. Alan Blanchard was blinded. Donovan Rundle was shot point blank in the stomach and almost bled to death. After two dozen surgeries, he would live with chronic pain for the next 50 years.
“Bloody Thursday”, 15 May 1969, was the day the Vietnam war came home. The streets of Bohemian Berkeley, the New Left’s west coast HQ, became a bloody war zone. Martial law was declared, a curfew imposed and national guardsmen with unsheathed bayonets and live ammunition occupied the town. A military helicopter doused the campus with tear gas. Many members of the Alameda county sheriff’s department had just come home from Vietnam. Some later admitted that they treated antiwar students like Viet Cong.
This pivotal event in 60s history comes back to life in an excellent new oral history, The Battle for People’s Park, Berkeley 1969, by Tom Dalzell. The book recounts the chaotic 40 days and nights from 20 April to 30 May 1969 with detail that reads like a gut punch. A large-format book, lavishly printed with hundreds of never-before-published color photographs, it is a hybrid oral-visual history that reads like watching a documentary.
People’s Park evokes haunting memories of Kent State. Republican governors in California and Ohio were running re-election campaigns and rallying their base by demonizing the student movement. The chancellors of UC Berkeley and Kent State were out of town on the days of the shootings, contributing to disorder, handing law enforcement greater rein.
In his foreword to People’s Park, Todd Gitlin explains that California’s governor, Ronald Reagan, ran his 1966 campaign on making welfare “bums” go back to work and cleaning up “the mess in Berkeley”. By the time he was running for re-election he had all but granted the national guard and law enforcement officers permission to shoot to kill: “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with, no more appeasement.”