By: Megan Vered
A muddy, rutted piece of land stood vacant in the center of our community for over a year. For over a year we listened while university committees, community groups, and others proposed the building of a park. We heard the university protest that it had no funds, that studies would have to be made, committees formed. Finally, we took the land. We tended it, loved it, planted trees, grass and flowers on it, made it into People’s Park.
~1969 Mural, Author Unknown
On page eighty-six of the book People’s Park is a black and white photo of my best friend Danza, taken by an unknown photographer. She stands in the foreground with two other girls, surrounded by a blur of bodies. The rounded collar of her white cotton blouse, covered in tiny scalloped lace, peeks out from beneath a dark jacket, as if she had intentionally placed a layer of protection over her naiveté. Her hair is parted in the middle, pulled away from her standout cheekbones, her mouth shaped into a soft O, as if she were singing an aria. Behind her, arms are raised skyward, and where you might expect clenched fists, you see instead a display of fingers flashing the peace sign.
On the cover of the book, published in November 1969, a darkened figure of a young man with long hair, bellbottoms, and aviator shades is framed by a halo of light, a burst of sunshine above his head. He holds a string of love beads like an offering. You would never imagine that this laid-back scene would give way to what became known as “Bloody Thursday,” the day that Berkeley residents took to the streets to protest the takeover of People’s Park, a seemingly insignificant plot of land south of the UC campus.
I have held the book in my hands so many times since Danza’s death, and the black and white photos always trip me back in time. Danza and I had not participated in building the park, but at age fifteen we readily adopted the role of young activists, having fallen under the influence of counterculture beliefs. Convention had been unraveling since junior high and we considered ourselves part of the antiestablishment movement, intoxicated by a sense of higher purpose, smacked upside the head with the need to change the world. Growing up in Berkeley in the sixties, I was used to marches, protests, and picket lines being part of the landscape of my youth. Questioning authority and standing up to the status quo was in my DNA. If I’d been my older sister’s age, my memories might have landed on dance cards, cotillions, and homecoming dances. The totems of each generation weave their own narrative.
White roses tucked behind our ears, Danza and I joined the swell of bodies that pivoted together from Sproul Plaza toward Bancroft and crawled like an enormous caterpillar down Telegraph in the direction of the park on Dwight. Thousands of protestors of all ages—a stewpot of bellbottoms, army jackets, miniskirts, and love beads—moved en masse chanting, “We want the park, we want the park.” Others watched in solidarity from the roofs of buildings along the street, holding homemade signs: “Give us the park,” “Soldiers scare me!” “Fence pigs not parks,” “Flowers are the root of all good.” Flowers were everywhere—in a priest’s collar, a professor’s suspenders, a medic’s buttonhole, peeking out from behind people’s ears, and adorning hats.
Danza’s arm pressed against mine, our bodies wedged between a sweaty, shirtless man and a woman in a sheer black bra with a pin over her nipple that read “Defend the Park.” The pungent odor of patchouli and pot trailed behind them. Dense clouds of marijuana smoke rose upward. I’d become so used to these cloying scents—overshadowing even the flowery haze of my mother’s French perfume—they hardly fazed me.
The story of People’s Park had all the elements of a page-turning protest novel. On April 18, 1969, the Berkeley Barb, an ardently followed alternative newspaper, stated: “a park will be built this Sunday.” Local citizens landscaped and planted, turning a neglected plot of land owned by the university into a thriving green space. Berkeley administrators assured residents they would take no action without prior notification. Yet on May 15, 1969, a month after the park had been tenderly brought to life, the university sent a construction crew without warning to bulldoze the lot. The crew arrived at six in the morning and by ten thirty had encircled the entire park with spiky stakes. They erected an eight-foot metal fence while California Highway Patrol and city police officers stood guard.
Danza and I maneuvered our way through the mass, walking gingerly on the dank, sticky pavement. She was the sophisticated, sultry beauty, the one with the green light ability to dive into a crowd and make the moment her own. How often I—small for my age and not yet fully developed—had tried to emulate her, hoping to channel her beauty and grace. Danza’s maturity held the torch, while my innocence kept things from going up in flames.
We passed the Campus Smoke Shop, Layton’s Shoes, Fraser’s Contemporary Design, and the Forum where people engaged in deep conversation over hand rolled cigarettes and bitter espressos, substances way over my head. What had once been an upscale shopping area was now an eccentric picnic of street vendors, hippie shops, and coffee houses. Concert posters for groups like Velvet Underground and Purple Earthquake as well as political flyers and personal notices—people looking for rides, housing, jobs—were stapled to telephone poles and taped onto store windows. Hippies with oversized backpacks and mangy dogs gathered on blankets, plucking guitar strings and blowing harmonicas. Addicts with hollowed out faces drifted up and down the street in search of spare change and a burnt spoon. Dogs had marked every block—this was before the days of pooper scoopers when dogs soiled the sidewalks without regulation. I pulled a strand of freshly washed hair across my face, the infusion of my sweet Aquamarine shampoo masking rank odors. I moved closer to Danza and matched her stride. I loved being next to her. Like two jagged atoms, we formed a beautifully perfect molecule.
Helmeted police armed with telescopic rifles crouched on rooftops all along Telegraph, staring down on us as we marched. The roar of metallic bells from the Campanile announced the noon hour. Dissonant notes glided and collided, dissipating into the din of the crowd. It felt like a century had passed since I’d handed the elevator operator a dime to ride up to the viewing deck. From my high perch in the clouds I’d stand on tiptoe and watch people below scurry like tiny ants. Sucking in a lungful of air, I would scream, but nobody looked up, the sound of my little girl voice dissolving into the thin blue sky.
We had no organization, no leader, no committee. The park was built by everyone and we all of us together worked it out. We were told we hadn’t filled out the right forms, hadn’t followed the correct procedures, hadn’t been responsible, hadn’t been patient. We had asked the wrong questions and built a beautiful park. We used the land. We hadn’t tested and analyzed the soil. We planted things and they grew. We hadn’t run a feasibility study. We had enough labor freely given to build the park.
~1969 Mural, Author Unknown
Older guys with long hair and ratty beards held bullhorns to their mouths. We’d been trained from a young age to avoid eye contact with the dirty old men who littered Berkeley buses and streets with lewd commentary, but these guys appeared to be upstanding protestors.
“Take back the park!” They yelled.
“Take back the park!” We responded.
Fists pumped the air, punching holes in the sky.
I stood on tiptoe, feeling tipsy, shifting my weight. I was tightly sandwiched by the horde of people, many of whom were a full head taller than me. My silver peace sign necklace snugged up against my throat, reminding me of our purpose. Danza clung to the bell sleeve of my green and orange paisley mini dress. I held the elbow of her suede jacket. Beneath the surface of our change-the-world bravado, we were still budding fifteen-year-olds, nestlings that had not yet learned to survive on our own. Earlier that week, while our friends were doing a colorful mixture of drugs, sex, and mayhem, we’d been pushing metal carts up and down the hallway at Herrick hospital dressed in candy cane smocks and white stockings, hair pulled back into ponytails tied with pink ribbons. In theory we were there to help sick people, but maybe on some level we were preserving our innocence, embracing one final interlude of sweetness, trying for one last moment—in our well-starched pastels—to buck the pulsing tide of change.
Just that morning we’d been hanging around Telegraph, eating glazed donuts and dancing to the Temptations’ latest album at Leopold’s Records. Now we were giving in to the swarm of the crowd, the surge of voices. Swarm and surge. Swarm and surge. Swarm and surge.
“Take back the park!” Activists yelled.
“Take back the park!” We responded.
We were of, for, and about the people. Tanked up and triggered, our fists pounded the air with authority. My cheeks felt feverish. A gigantic bubble popped in my chest, big as a dozen pieces of pink Bazooka gum. I can’t be sure if we were truly concerned about this controversial little plot of land or just swayed by counterculture frenzy, but I channeled Jane Fonda and Joan Baez who had led protests on the campus steps. My body was on autopilot. If I stopped walking, would the power of the crowd propel me forward like a windup toy? I giggled at the image of the two of us in a store window—Danza and Megan, revolutionary windup dolls, pumping fists and spurting slogans. Just like a tree that’s standing by the water we shall not be moved.
Protestors reached the highest exhilaration point, spinning on a mad carnival ride. The crowd suddenly became agitated. Danza, who was always quicker to sense trouble than I was, pressed her mouth against my ear, “Meh-Meh, look!”
As we approached the park, people waved banners and torches above their heads and yelled, “Power to the people!” “Off the pigs!” Rocks flew. Police in flak jackets armed with tear gas launchers and shotguns formed a human barricade. They were anything but the friendly public servants of my childhood. Demonstrators had turned on a fire hydrant at the corner of Haste and Telegraph and when police intervened to shut it off were pelted with rocks and bottles. Protestors smashed the windows of a Highway Patrol car, overturned a Berkeley municipal car, and set it on fire.
“Let’s get out of here.” I stumbled west away from the park, my breath coming in clipped waves. I lost hold of Danza’s elbow. Her face got sucked into the roaring crowd. “Danza!” I called, but my voice vanished. The bubble in my chest exploded. I clung to my silver peace sign, as if it might shelter me from the erupting violence.
I tried to get back to Danza, but the surge of the crowd tugged at me, strong as the undertow at Stinson Beach that had killed a boy in my neighborhood when I was young. I thought I saw the back of her head, the collar of her jacket, but the scene had become such a blur I no longer knew what I was seeing. I’d never dropped acid but thought this is what it must be like, images pooling and bleeding into each other. Without Danza’s protection I felt unarmed. My emotions jostled like rocks in a tumbler, a random collision of jasper, tiger’s eye, and amethyst churning and chafing against one another. I wanted to go home.
Ordinarily I would have walked north through the campus, but blockades had been set up and I was herded west toward the bay. My childhood had been safe, characterized by freedom to wander. Even in the depths of darkened nights, Danza and I used to wrap ourselves in blankets and wander the hills, soaking up the sparkle of the San Francisco Bay. Now, in one afternoon gone awry, we’d been stripped of our basic liberty to come and go without interference.
Having grown up in Berkeley, I knew my way around and zigzagged my way in the direction of home. At the corner of Oxford and Cedar, I headed east toward the hills, a feeling of dread lodged in my stomach. I kept telling myself Danza would be fine. In retrospect, we should have identified a meeting place in the event that we became separated, but we were fledgling revolutionaries.
We later learned that at two thirty that afternoon Governor Reagan had called in the National Guard. They took over University Avenue near the campus—a line of muscular soldiers on alert, guns slung over their shoulders. They confiscated cameras and blocked the streets leading in and out of Berkeley. In the snap of a finger, we were living under martial law. Berkeley had been a breeding ground for counterculture activity like the Free Speech Movement, but I’d never come close to experiencing this level of threat. In the Berkeley of my childhood, we never locked our doors even when we went away on vacation.
The soldiers stood in formation, bicep to bicep, gaining strength from the collective weight of taut muscles. My pace quickened. Loitering would make me appear suspect, though I was a tiny fifteen-year-old girl, alone, without a crowd. Heart sprinting in my chest, I looked from the soldier’s fixed faces, features accentuated by late day sun, to their camouflage uniforms. An unnatural collision of colors. There was no hope of crossing the divide between us. Still, I looked into the gray eyes of one with a prominent cleft in his chin. Silently, I sang: I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside. I like to think that I paused long enough to climb under his skin like I try to do with people I do not understand. After all, beneath his green fatigues and my little hippie dress, we both had beating hearts.
A helicopter circled over the city advising against loitering, now prohibited in the Berkeley vicinity between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. Five days later, Governor Reagan would order National Guard helicopters to drop tear gas, choking the city in chemical clouds. The National Guard would stay on our streets for several more weeks after the march, UC Berkeley’s most violent confrontation in its history. Dressed in tie-dyed shirts and long flowing skirts, girls bared their midriffs and placed flowers in the muzzles of National Guard guns. Days were unseasonably balmy; evening fog hung around us like a heavy coat.
Police Seize Park. Shoot At Least 35: March Triggers Ave. Gassing; Bystanders, Students Wounded; Emergency Curfew Enforced.
~The Daily Californian (UC Berkeley student newspaper) May 16, 1969
We were to learn about the extent of the violence. Birdshot escalated to buckshot. Fires erupted. One of our classmates threw a brick through the Bank of America window and in turn was shot in the leg with a rubber bullet. What began as a peaceful protest to save an idealistic gathering place culminated in the death of one bystander, the blinding of another, the wounding of over one hundred more, and by the end of the day, a State of Emergency and a curfew, although the Berkeley City Council symbolically voted eight-to-one against both. Reagan prohibited any “participation in a meeting, assembly or parade in or about Berkeley, including the campus.” Violation of these regulations would be considered a misdemeanor.
We’d entered in peace, lit up with optimism, and left, dreams disrupted. It is sobering to think about the risks we took, pushing back against the establishment for a symbolic cause that had no bearing on us. We didn’t consider that we could get hurt, although the following day classmates who’d been teargassed strutted through campus, wearing the experience like a badge of honor.
Recently, I came across a black and white photograph of the Campanile taken on May 20, 1969, five days after the People’s Park protest. The hands on the clock read 1:10. A helicopter hovers next to the alabaster tower, blades swirling. A noxious plume of tear gas spews from its bowels. Stop, hey, what’s that sound. My memories fade into evenings of fog clinging to the cupola. Today, the Campanile remains the focal point of the Berkeley campus, glorious as a midnight star suspended in the sky.
I have always wished Danza and I had stayed together that day so that I would have a keepsake of two beautiful girls with nothing but life ahead of them. I have also wondered who took her picture that afternoon in the park and, in one click, captured the opposing forces that defined her life: her seductive light and her stark resolve. Was the photographer merely taken with her bone structure as we all were, or did he see the hidden stop-and-go messages in her eyes? We all witnessed her predilection for complex communication when she performed in school plays. As we grew older, I came to know her many faces and saw that what vibrated inside her contributed not only to her ability as an actress, but also to her charm. People thought her physical beauty alone was the magnet, when in reality it was the mosaic beneath the surface that drew us all toward her, a magical assemblage of contradicting fragments, smooth and rough, shiny and dull, opaque and transparent.
People’s Park now stands empty and guarded. The park died, the idea that created it lives. Let a thousand parks bloom!
~1969 Mural, Author Unknown
The mural commemorating Bloody Thursday, by an anonymous artist, has since been painted over. I have only seen a photograph online of the roughly hewn message written in black capital letters on a whitewashed brick wall. Weren’t we all anonymous back then, nameless people marching in a herd? Even Danza, whose photograph lives on in a book, was never identified by name.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the People’s Park demonstrations. What became a scruffy 2.8-acre way station to wanderers is now being prepped for student as well as homeless housing, but not without controversy, which seems to sprout naturally from this maligned plot of land. An historical mural near the park chronicles the people’s movement from inception to demise and pays homage to James Rector, the young man who died from shotgun wounds during the protest. I wonder if today’s UC Berkeley students are aware of the park’s contentious history.
Eventually I lost Danza forever. I was by her side when, at age forty-two, she died after a hard-fought battle with lymphoma. Even though Danza is no longer alive, I remain captivated by her russet eyes, lustrous hair, and the tiny freckles that dotted her nose. We will forever be the girls who roamed the streets of Berkeley in miniskirts, braless and barefoot, drunk on hope.
Megan Vered is an essayist whose first-person writing focuses on family, friendship, faith, and the fantasia of her youth. Her work has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Lake Effect, Silk Road Review, and the Brevity Blog, among others. Megan holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives with her husband and West Highland White Terrier, Hamish, in Marin County, California, where she serves on the board of the UC Berkeley Library and Heyday Books. She leads local and international writing workshops as well as online reading forums. www.meganvered.com