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Monday, July 6, 2020

“People’s Park” – An Enduring Memory After 45 Years

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May 22 and 23, 1969 are days that I will always remember. I was a sophomore at UC Berkeley. The Vietnam War was raging. A third world college strike against the university had shut down classes earlier that year. Tension could be cut with a knife on the Berkeley campus and on campuses across the nation at the end of a tumultuous decade.

Several blocks south of the Berkeley campus and one block east of Telegraph Avenue an empty block of land owned by the University had been taken over by community folks who had created what is still known as “People’s Park.” It was a peaceful place. There was a vegetable garden, and play equipment and swings had been donated. Communal meals were cooked and shared. Some slept on the grounds.

A week earlier, on May 15 just before sunrise, however, University of California police had been ordered to evacuate the park and erect a fence. Word spread quickly and the community erupted. The Berkeley police department called for assistance from the Alameda Sheriff’s department, and Governor Ronald Reagan called up the National Guard. Overnight Berkeley became an occupied city.

Amidst the tumult that day, UC Student Body President Dan Siegel exhorted the crowd in Sproul Plaza to go “take back the park.”

The combined police forces responded by dropping tear-gas from a helicopter over the campus in violation of international law and by firing bird-shot and buckshot into the crowd killing one man, James Rector, who was innocently observing the march from a rooftop, and injuring dozens.

The over-reaction and death enraged the Berkeley community. A week later, on Thursday, May 22, a peaceful march was called and I decided to join it. Our purpose was to politely ask shop-owners in downtown Berkeley to close their stores for the afternoon in memory of the killed man and in protest of the police over-reaction.

As hundreds of UC students and faculty walked quietly and legally on sidewalks, we were directed by police from one street to another and finally into an open parking lot adjacent to the Bank of America. There, 482 students, faculty and (as it happened) one member of the media were surrounded. The police informed us that we were under arrest.

We were loaded into police buses to carry us one hour southeast to the Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center, a minimum security prison, in Pleasanton, California. Once we arrived inside the prison gates, the bus stopped and the door opened. A guard entered and screamed orders at us. He threatened physical harm to anyone who did not do exactly as he commanded. I descended dutifully into a fenced compound where I saw 150 others lying belly-down next to one another, much like a Vietnam War body count, in neat rows. Everyone’s faces were turned to the left and guards were slapping their Billy clubs into their hands while cursing us and screaming threats that should anyone move or lift his head he would be beaten. Some were.

I assumed my place in the body formation and, terrified, dutifully did not move for eight hours, the gravel digging into my face, my bladder bursting, the inmates surrounding the compound taunting us for hours (I would learn much later that the prisoners were promised time off for good behavior if they harassed us), and the guards always screaming threats. No guard ever spoke to us in a normal speaking voice. They screamed incessantly like drill sergeants.

I was booked and finger-printed at one in the morning and was led into a barracks as part of a group that included a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle who had discarded his press identification when we were herded into the Bank of America parking lot. He was the first to be bailed out, and Saturday morning the Chronicle’s bold-lettered headline read – “I WAS A PRISONER AT SANTA RITA.” He described in detail everything that had happened in my particular barracks.

I was bailed out at two PM on Friday. Charges were eventually dropped for lack of evidence.

The intended impact of the experience, however, had registered. I had never before or since felt as frightened as I did on that day. One guard came within inches of my face and screamed that he was going to kill me. I learned that fear can lead us to feel and behave irrationally and against our own best interests.

Some regard fear as the most effective organizing principle in the building of community. This is a false belief. Rather, kindness, empathy and compassion are the virtues that not only distinguish us as human beings but are the essential building blocks for a community that values each individual as endowed with infinite value and worth by virtue of being created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image.

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