The People’s Park was supposed to be a fun project, until Reagan sent almost 800 police officers to stop it.
“A park will be built this Sunday between Dwight and Haste,” read a short piece in the Berkeley Barb on April 18, 1969 with the headline “Hear Ye, Hear Ye.” It described the patch of land where the park would be as a “swamp” owned by the University of California, Berkeley. In a year, the university planned to build a “cement type expensive parking lot.” The paper invited people to keep that from happening: “On Sunday, we will stop this shit. Bring shovels, hoses, chains, grass, paints, flowers, trees, bull dozers, top soil, colorful smiles, laughter and lots of sweat.”
About a hundred people did show up that Sunday to start building what would become People’s Park — and over the course of about a month, hundreds more contributed time, energy, and supplies. The mood between park builders and university officials was tense, and rumors began to circulate that the university planned to seize the land back. (They had already put a fence around it.) Another piece ran in the Barb insisting that the park’s builders would not “let the university piss its fascist thing on our flowers of freedom.”
The tension was exacerbated when during a campus rally the University of California student body president expressed concern about the destruction of the park and shouted to the thousands assembled “Let’s take the park!” The crowd began making its way to the site, chanting “We want the park!”
Soon after, California Governor Ronald Reagan got involved. Regan had campaigned in 1966 on a promise to “clean up the mess at Berkeley,” which was home to hippies and leftists. He called the campus “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants” and asked, “How far do we go in tolerating these people & this trash under the excuse of academic freedom & freedom of expression?”
To quell the impromptu protest (which would later be called the Battle for People’s Park, Reagan (and his Chief of Staff, Edwin Meese, a notorious hippie-hater) sent in hundreds of police officers, authorizing them to do whatever they deemed necessary. The total police presence was close to 800. Many wore riot gear, and used nightsticks and shotguns to “pacify” the crowd of nearly 6,000–128 of whom were admitted to local hospitals, while 51 were treated for gunshot wounds. One 25-year-old student, James Rector, died. The sheriff would later admit that some of the police officers had used excessive force on protesters, “acting as though they were Viet Cong.” (Some of the officers were Vietnam veterans.)
Eventually, Reagan declared a state of emergency sent in the National Guard to restore order. They remained in Berkeley, camped out at People’s Park, for 17 days. A decade later, after much struggle, the university capitulated to the park activists, and it became the site of an organic garden, and home to many of the city’s free spirits and houseless residents. It has remained a potent symbol of the divide between the “people” and the “establishment.” This year, the university unveiled plans to build housing where the park now stands.