"If there has to be a bloodbath, then let's get it over with." -President Ronald Reagan
I had some inkling of an idea about the story behind The People's Park, but I had no idea the extent of that scary situation in 1969 just a few miles from where I sit right now:
During its first three weeks, People's Park was enjoyed and appreciated by University students and local residents alike. Telegraph Ave. merchants were particularly appreciative of the community's efforts to improve the neighborhood. Objections to the expropriation of University property tended to be mild, even among school administrators.
Governor Ronald Reagan had been publicly critical of University administrators for tolerating student demonstrations at the Berkeley campus, and he had received enormous popular support for his 1966 gubernatorial campaign promise to crack down on what was perceived as the generally lax attitude at California's public universities. Reagan called the Berkeley campus "a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters and sex deviants."
Reagan considered the creation of the park a direct leftist challenge to the property rights of the University, and he found in it an opportunity to make good on his campaign promise. Reagan decided to put an end to People's Park, and he proclaimed "If there has to be a bloodbath, then let's get it over with."
Governor Reagan overrode Chancellor Heyns' May 6, 1969 promise that nothing would be done without warning, and on Thursday, May 15, 1969 at 4:45 a.m., he sent 250 California Highway Patrol and Berkeley police officers into People's Park. The officers cleared an 8-block area around the park while a large section of what had been planted was destroyed and an 8-foot tall perimeter chain-link wire fence was installed to keep people out and to prevent the planting of more trees, grass, flowers and shrubs.
Beginning at noon, approximately 3,000 people jammed into nearby Sproul Plaza at U.C. Berkeley for a rally, the original purpose of which was to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict. Several people spoke, then Michael Lerner ceded the Free Speech platform to ASUC Student Body President Dan Siegel because students were concerned about the fencing-off and destruction of the park. Siegel said later that he never intended to precipitate a riot; however when he shouted "Let's take back the park!," police turned off the sound system. This angered the crowd, and they responded spontaneously, moving down Telegraph Avenue toward People's Park chanting "We want the park!"
Arriving in the early afternoon, protestors were met by the remaining 159 Berkeley and University police officers assigned to guard the fenced-off park site. Protestors opened a fire hydrant, the officers fired tear gas canisters, some protestors attempted to tear down the fence, and bottles and rocks were thrown. A major confrontation ensued between law enforcement and the unruly crowd. Initial attempts to disperse the protestors were not successful, so more officers were called in from surrounding cities.
Reagan's Chief of Staff, Edwin Meese III, was a former district attorney from Alameda County, where he had established a reputation for firmness in dealing with those protesting the Vietnam War at the Oakland Induction Center and elsewhere. Meese was put in charge of governmental response to the People's Park protest, and he called in the Alameda County Sheriff's deputies, which brought the total police presence to 791 officers from various jurisdictions.
In keeping with Governor Reagan's "bloodbath" statement, the police were given carte blanche to use whatever methods they chose against crowds that swelled to approximately 6,000 people. Officers in full riot gear (helmets, shields and gas masks) obscured their badges to avoid being identified and headed into the crowds with nightsticks swinging.
The most aggressive were the Alameda County Sheriff's deputies—later dubbed "The Blue Meanies"—who resorted to using shotguns loaded with "00" buckshot. "00" buckshot consists of lead pellets that are much larger, and thus more lethal, than the birdshot that is occasionally used for crowd control. The Alameda County Sheriff's deputies used shotguns to fire "00" buckshot at people sitting on the roof at the Telegraph Repertory Cinema, fatally wounding student James Rector and permanently blinding carpenter Alan Blanchard. Neither man was a protestor.
As the protestors retreated, the Alameda County Sheriff's deputies chased them several blocks down Telegraph Avenue as far as Willard Junior High School at Derby Street, firing tear gas cannisters and "00" buckshot into their backs as they fled. At least one tear gas cannister landed on the school grounds. Many people, including innocent bystanders, suffered permanent injuries, some with as many as a hundred lead pellet wounds in their scalps, necks, backs, buttocks and thighs. One man, John Willard, lived for years in intractable pain with lead pellets lodged near his spine.
At least 128 Berkeley citizens were admitted to local hospitals for head trauma, shotgun wounds, and other serious injuries inflicted by law enforcement. The actual number of seriously wounded was likely much higher, because many of the injured did not seek treatment at local hospitals to avoid being arrested. Many more protestors and bystanders were treated for minor injuries. Local hospital logs show that 19 police officers or Alameda County Sheriff's deputies were treated for minor injuries; none were hospitalized.
The authorities initially claimed that only birdshot had been used as shotgun ammunition. When physicians provided "00" pellets removed from the wounded as evidence that buckshot had been used, Sheriff Frank Madigan of Alameda County justified the use of shotguns loaded with lethal buckshot by stating "... the choice was essentially this: to use shotguns—because we didn't have the available manpower—or retreat and abandon the City of Berkeley to the mob." Sheriff Madigan did admit, however, that some of his deputies (many of whom were Vietnam War veterans) had been overly aggressive in their pursuit of the protestors, "as though they were Viet Cong."
Governor Reagan declared a state of emergency in Berkeley and sent in 2,700 National Guard troops—ironically some Guardsmen were student protestors called to active duty. The Berkeley City Council voted 8-1 against the decision to occupy their city, however this vote was ignored. For two weeks the streets of Berkeley were barricaded with rolls of barbed wire, and freedom of assembly was denied as National Guard helicopters sprayed tear gas on anyone who gathered in more than small groups.
On Wednesday, May 21, 1969, a midday memorial was held for student James Rector at Sproul Plaza on the University campus. Rector had suffered massive internal injuries from his shotgun wounds, finally dying at Herrick Hospital on May 19. In his honor, several thousand people peacefully assembled to listen to speakers remembering his life. Without warning, National Guard troops surrounded Sproul Plaza, donned their gas masks, and pointed their bayonets inward, while helicopters dropped CS gas directly on the trapped crowd. No escape was possible, and the gas caused acute respiratory distress, disorientation, temporary blindness and vomiting. Many people, including children and the elderly, were injured during the ensuing panic. The gas was so intense that breezes carried it into Cowell Memorial Hospital, endangering patients, interrupting operations and incapacitating nurses. Students at nearby Jefferson and Franklin elementary schools were also affected.
During the occupation, National Guard troops were stationed in front of Berkeley's empty lots to prevent protestors from planting flowers, shrubs or trees. Young hippie women taunted and teased the troops, on one occasion handing out marijuana-laced brownies and lemonade spiked with LSD. A few stripped to the waist and danced for the young recruits, who tried to hide their smiles from superiors. Citizens who dared ask questions of National Guard commanders, or engage them in debate, were threatened with violence.
A curfew was established, and protestors jumped fences after dark to plant flowers in the guarded lots. Guardsmen destroyed the flowers each morning. Protestors, their faces hidden with scarves, goaded and harassed police and National Guard troops. Hundreds were arrested, and Berkeley citizens who found it necessary to venture out during curfew hours risked police harassment or beatings.
The battle lines were drawn, Flower Children versus The Establishment; the conflict mirrored widespread 1960s societal tensions that tended to flow along generational lines regarding the war in Vietnam, race relations, sexual mores, women's rights, traditional modes of authority, experimentation with psychedelic drugs and opposing interpretations of The American Dream.
On May 30, 1969, 30,000 Berkeley citizens (out of a population of 100,000) secured a Berkeley city permit and marched without incident past barricaded People's Park to protest Governor Reagan's occupation of their city, the death of James Rector, the blinding of Alan Blanchard and the many injuries inflicted by law enforcement. Young girls slid flowers down the muzzles of bayonetted National Guard rifles, and a small airplane flew over the city trailing a banner that read, "Let A Thousand Parks Bloom."
The events at Berkeley during May, 1969 foreshadowed an even more violent confrontation in Ohio less than a year later. On May 4, 1970, the same societal tensions that precipitated "Bloody Thursday" erupted once again at Kent State University in an incident that came to be known as the Kent State Shootings. There, National Guardsmen armed with high-powered rifles fired without warning into a crowd of students protesting the bombing of Cambodia, killing four students and seriously wounding nine.
No police officers, Alameda County Sheriff's deputies or National Guardsmen were disciplined for their actions. The violence at Berkeley and Kent State did, however, cause America to reexamine its conscience with respect to its treatment of disaffected American youth. The next few years brought an end to the Vietnam War and the flowering of a broad array of societal changes: minority rights, women's rights, citizen review boards for law enforcement, less lethal crowd control methods and an increased tolerance of public dissent and diversity in American life.