Anniversary: In the 60s, disagreement over who controlled a muddy plot of land erupted into a riot.
BERKELEY — Standing on the bright green grass of People’s Park, sun dappling his balding head, soft breezes tugging at this designer tie, Dan Siegel isn’t exactly the picture of a revolutionary soul on fire.
But 30 years ago this spring, Siegel was a counterculture catalyst, the man whose exhortation to “Take the park!” was the precursor to a bloody clash between University of California students and police that left one man dead, another blinded and a city locked in martial law.
So much has changed since, but Siegel’s commitment to the struggle over who should control People’s Park — the university officials who paid for it or the community activists who transformed it — remains.
“As you get older, you get a sense of history,” he says.
People’s Park began quietly.
The university purchased its 2.8 acres in 1967 as a dormitory site. Officials bulldozed a line of apartment buildings, then left the lot to devolve into a muddy, rutted eyesore that was used as an informal parking lot.
Meanwhile, Berkeley’s thriving activist community, born of the 1964 Free Speech Movement and fortified by anti-Vietnam fervor, had decided the spot would make an excellent park for “the people.”
To that end, leaders put an ad in the underground Berkeley Barb urging people to come to the park — “the trip belongs to whoever dreams.”
On April 20, 1969, hundreds of people responded, putting on a backbreaking demonstration of flower power as they dug a pond, laid sod and put up play equipment.
Wendy Schlesinger, a student activist at the time, would later write in her journal: “I could hardly believe my eyes. Right in the middle of anarchist, polarized, confused Berkeley, people got themselves together instantly without any director.”
The harmonious convergence didn’t last long.
Early in the morning of May 15, Siegel, then a second-year law student living a block from the park, walked out to pick up his newspaper and saw highway patrolmen watching work crews build a chain-link fence around the park.
Siegel wasn’t sure what was going on but knew he didn’t like it, so as president-elect of the student body he took the microphone at the regular noon rally on campus and began to speak “very generally although heatedly.”
The fate took a hand. Just as he delivered the line about taking the park, university police yanked the power to the sound equipment, turning what had been just another line into a clarion call for action.
When the marching protestors ran into a line of sheriff’s deputies clad in riot gear, “all hell broke loose. It was totally out of control,” he says.
Sheriff’s deputies fired shotguns at protestors. One, James Rector, who was watching from the roof of a theater, died a few days later; an artist was blinded.
Jim Chanin, now an Oakland lawyer, was near the theater when the shooting started.
“I saw people who were bleeding. It was like you’d see in some sort of totalitarian country,” he says. “It was like, here I was brought up in the’50s — Mom, Dad, apple pie — and I’m seeing something that is completely at odds with that. It was only later that I became really angry.”
Gov. Ronald Regan sent 2,000 National Guard troops to occupy the city for 17 days. A nightly curfew was imposed. Meetings of more than three people were banned. In the first week after the riot, 1,000 people were arrested.
Images from those days of thunder: Helmeted guardsmen clutching bayoneted rifles form a long, serpentine line across a campus plaza, inches from students; a helicopter flying low over the campus, spewing CS tear gas.
Ray Colvig, a retired university spokesman, says he remembers reporters coming into the public affairs office bleeding from birdshot wounds and filing their stories “in true war-correspondent fashion.”
In 1972, anti-war demonstrators tore down the fence, and over the years the park turned into a sort of no man’s land. From time to time, the university would try to assert its property rights only to be met with vigorous protest.
By the early 1990s, the park had fallen into decay, a weedy lot frequented mainly by transients and drug dealers.
But over the past few years, volunteers and city departments that manager the park for the university have cleaned up the trash, chased out the drugs and brought the lawns and shrubs back to life.
“It’s a beautiful place,” says Lisa Stephens, who has led the effort to revive the land and is helping organize a 30th anniversary celebration for Sunday.
On this afternoon, scruffy teenagers separate snarling dogs near office workers enjoying a noontime break.
Looking back, Siegel sees himself as older and wiser, but still crusading for change through is practice — he often takes on the university in employment cases — and in his position on Oakland’s school board.
“I don’t feel like I imagined I would feel 30 years into the future in 1969, he says. “I feel energetic and enthusiastic and optimistic, and taking on the state of public education in Oakland is probably no more foolhardy or ambitious than taking on ending the war in Vietnam.”