Believe it or not, when I first moved out to California in 1976, age 19, I actually went door-to-door as a volunteer canvassing for Tom Hayden. I believe he was running for State Senator (he lost).
It was me and my radical activist sister and her boyfriend and a bunch of other budding young idealists. I jokingly referred to our organization as Young Zealots for Hayden.
You ever look back at your youthful self and it’s like looking at a completely different person?
My favorite Tom Hayden story:
In 1969 during the People’s Park riots Hayden was holed up somewhere in Berkeley in an underground bunker, man, writing some kind of revolutionary manifesto for The People. He had been trying to enlist the Black Panthers as kind of a guerrilla army to protect the hippies from the pigs. And he was trying to talk the Panthers into shooting down the police helicopters that kept hovering over the Park.
One of the Panther leaders — I think it might have been Bobby Seale — said to Hayden: “That’s just like you, Tom. Get a nigger to pull the trigger.”
(story from DESTRUCTIVE GENERATION by Horowitz & Collier)
My second favorite Tom Hayden story:
After the People’s Park riots, Hayden got a big house in Berkeley and started his own political commune. With him as the leader, natch.
Things were going great. Until the other members of the Collective concluded Hayden was one of them evil White Male Oppressors. And they kicked him out of his own commune.
Hayden slunk back down to Los Angeles. And, after licking his wounds, embarked on his next career as a professional politician.
People’s Park. When something becomes heavily symbolic and iconic, it can be difficult to separate the myth from reality. People’s Park is like that. It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. One thing’s for sure. People’s Park is embedded in Berkeley’s history and lore. And it exerted a powerful effect in transforming Berkeley into the town it became. As sort of a mecca for ’60s-style radical/liberal politics and the hippie counterculture. The People’s Republic of Berkley, and all that.
Created in 1969 it would forever be symbolic of that whole period and all it represented. Originally it was a vacant lot owned by the University of California. UC Berkeley. But, spurred on by the burgeoning wave of hippie idealism and revolutionary fervor that was sweeping the Bay Area at the time (the “Woodstock Nation” was just beginning to flex it’s muscle) The People decided to liberate The Land from The Man. They ripped out the asphalt, planted a bunch of trees and plants. And declared that People’s Park had been born. “Let a thousand Parks bloom!”
Naturally, the University balked at the idea of ceding this very valuable piece of property to a bunch of rabble-rousing hippies. But guess what? The hippies had no intention of giving it back. Historically, the times were exactly ripe for a confrontation between the counterculture and the mainstream culture. The hippies versus the straights. The “Generation Gap.” All that.
Ronald Reagan, in his campaign for governor of California, had made “cleaning up the dirty hippies in Berkeley and forcing them to take a bath” (that line always got huge cheers at his campaign rallies) a key plank in his platform. And after getting elected he made good on his promise. He sent in the National Guard to forcibly reclaim the land. Telegraph Avenue was blanketed with tear gas. During the course of what became known as the People’s Park Riots, the police opened fire on the rock-throwing demonstrators, injuring many, blinding one and killing one, James Rector, a UC student who was watching the melee from the roof of the building next-door to Fred’s Market, becoming the enduring martyr of the moveme
People’s Park instantly became a cause celeb among the counterculture. John Lennon urged the People’s Park demonstrators to “man the barricades with flowers” during his Bed-In for Peace media campaign. Pure grooviness. A benefit concert for People’s Park featured the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller and Creedence Clearwater Revival (not a bad line-up for 3 bucks — 1970 prices). Meanwhile, the famous radical activist Tom Hayden (later to become Mr. Jane Fonda) was holed up in a bunker somewhere, writing the People’s Park Liberation Manifesto, and trying to enlist the Black Panthers as sort of a guerilla army to defend the hippies and shoot down the cop helicopters that were hovering over the Park. This was war!! To which Black Panther leader David Hilliard famously replied: “That’s just like you, Tom, to get a nigger to pull the trigger.”
In the face of massive support from the Berkeley community, the University backed down. And for the next couple of decades People’s Park would be wholly operated and maintained by the People’s Park activists. And in the process it became a symbol of The People taking back the country from the evil corporations. Capitalist Pigs and all that. “Right on!”
Periodically, the University would make overtures to reclaim the Park, only to be met by fierce opposition from the Berkeley political activists. So it was kind of a Cold War stand-off. Eventually, the University conceded defeat (seemingly, though trusted by nobody) and agreed to maintain People’s Park as a park. They built bathrooms and basketball courts and over-saw the Park maintenance.
And how did it all end? Today, People’s Park is sort of a homeless squat campsite. At any given moment there will be a 100 to 200 homeless people basically living in the Park. They set up their campsites during the day. And move out at the 10 o’clock curfew to sleep on neighboring sidewalks and doorways.
Most of the conflicts with the police nowadays involve relatively mundane issues. The cops will give the homeless tickets if they “leave their stuff unattended” or amass too much stuff (you’re allowed to have “as much stuff as you can carry” according to current laws). The cops basically prune the herd to prevent the homeless from setting up permanent living structures in the Park. Which we’d do if left to our own devices. And the cops are constantly called in to deal with the endless fights that erupt between the drunk and drugged-out and mentally-ill that are always a part of the “homeless community” (so-called). So it’s a little bit of a bring-down from the heroic conflicts with The Man back in People’s Park’s glory days.
It’s hard to say what Berkeley thinks of People’s Park today. I’m sure many of today’s UC students consider it an eye-sore. A mecca of crime and drugs and weird bums. A place they’re afraid to go in. “They should build student housing.” Most of today’s students were born in the 1990s. And probably half of them are recent immigrants who’s families have only been in America for a decade or two. So you wonder how much understanding or affinity they have for “Berkeley in the ’60s” and all that represents.
Meanwhile, the University is itching — as always — to get all the “bums” out of the Park and develop it into something more lucrative (housing, shops, etc.). Probably playing a waiting game. Figuring eventually all the political activists will grow old and die. And they’ll be able to re-claim the Park. Bull-doze the place. And put up a commemorative plaque honoring it’s legendary history. Teach a course about it as part of the curriculum, Berkeley-101.
And, as ever, life in People’s Park remains a surreal experience. Yesterday I was walking across the Park. There was a bunch of tweakers hanging out on the lawn. Suddenly one of them caught on fire. Another of the tweakers grabbed the flaming tweaker and rolled him across the lawn. Successfully extinguishing the fire. No harm no foul. They went on with their business. And I trotted over to Hate Camp to hang out with Hate Man and the boys. You have many such moments hanging in People’s Park. Sort of “Did I just see what I think I just saw” moments. People’s Park.
But ya’ know? It’ still a beautiful park. Full of green grass and green plants and blue skies. In the middle of a fairly harsh urban setting. Full of mostly gray concrete. So I’m damn glad it’s still there. 45 years later. People’s Park. “Let a thousand parks bloom.”