Advertisement

Temper Tantrums Over a Dystopian Nightmare : People’s Park: The dream has become a blight and the fight to save it serves no one.

Ruth Rosen, a professor of history at UC Davis, was at Berkeley in 1969

Once again, there are riots in the streets of Berkeley. Activists start fires, trash windows, loot stores. The cause? People’s Park, a two-block area owned by the University of California. Twenty-two years ago, in the spring of 1969, Berkeley exploded over this same plot of land. But there ends the similarity.

In 1969, a group of student radicals and counterculture activists wearied by war protests decided to turn a swampy plot of land into a community park. True, a few cynical activists hoped it would ignite a riot, but hardly anyone knew that then. For most people, the park became an oasis of peace and a collective spirit, a place for adults and children to enjoy themselves among the new swings and winding paths. Sympathetic faculty brought seedlings, graduate students designed the landscape and thousands helped unfurl rolls of sod. Communal dinners fed hundreds of young people, many of whom were using drugs to gain an altered state of consciousness. In the evenings, they danced to rock music, hoping to demonstrate, peacefully, the meaning of the slogan, “Make love, not war.” It was utopian, naive, silly, but surprisingly inspiring. It gave people worn down by the seeming futility of anti-war protests a glimpse of community life. At the very least, it was a harmless alternative to violent anti-war activity.

There was one serious problem: The University of California owned the land and the UC Regents, under Gov. Ronald Reagan, wanted it back. When they surrounded the park with a fence, predictable riots broke out and Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies started shooting. The police killed one young man and others still carry buckshot in their bodies. What had been a youthful utopian experiment turned ugly and violent. Gov. Reagan sent in the National Guard. For 17 days, troops occupied Berkeley with fixed bayonets. Helicopters sprayed a highly toxic form of tear gas over peaceful demonstrations on the campus. To resurrect the initial impulse behind the park, community activists and students held a peaceful parade that drew 50,000 people from all over the West.

Astonishingly, 20 years passed and the park issue was never really resolved. The university never built anything on the land. The fence eventually came down and as the years sped past, most of the land was leased to the city. The homeless, the jobless, the insane, and drug dealers gradually drifted into People’s Park. It now belonged to the casualties of the 1980s--young men who dealt drugs, exposed themselves to women, panhandled passersby and threatened those who didn’t give--and exuded a menacing atmosphere. No responsible parent brought children to this park. No sane woman crossed it unescorted. This was not the utopian People’s Park that brought a city together. It was a dump resented by neighbors and tolerated by guilty liberals.

Advertisement

And so it remained, until the UC Berkeley administration--again under pressure from a GOP-dominated Board of Regents--decided to build volleyball courts on its portion of the land. A new laboratory or dorm would have been less provocative and also would have met more serious campus needs. But this was a bureaucrat’s idea of how to finesse the issue while easing out transients and the homeless.

A few aging radicals indifferent to the well-being of the rest of the neighborhood have now united with Berkeley’s hundreds of homeless, many of them in a confrontational mood, to make the park a live political issue. Their heated political rhetoric has made the neighborhood a war zone.

This time, however, the park elicits little community support. Some activists argue that they have at heart the interests of the homeless and jobless. People who know better argue that the park doesn’t seriously address these problems and that it had long ceased to be a community park. True, the construction of volleyball courts is an insulting way to make this statement. But temper tantrums in the streets have only alienated one of the most liberal communities in the nation. Saving the park, which had become a dystopian nightmare, will serve neither the insane nor the homeless. It will only serve a small group of drug dealers, young punks and middle-aged radicals more interested in confronting the authorities than in improving the condition of society’s weakest.


Advertisement