This column will be different than most of the history columns I’ve done. It’s coming from more of a personal perspective, and it’s going to compare the Occupy Wall Street-type protests happening in Sacramento and Davis today with my experiences with the People’s Park events and battles that took place in 1969 in Berkeley. Are people still protesting about the same things, in the same way, these days? Are city and state governments still responding in the same ways?
For research I visited the Occupy Sacramento and Occupy Davis encampment sites, talked to people and took some photos. To refresh my memories of People’s Park, I looked at some of my old underground newspapers, the photo book “People’s Park,” and my old photos of the time.
Many aren’t familiar with the People’s Park events of 42 years ago.
The University of California, Berkeley, had acquired through eminent domain approximately three acres of land to develop just off Telegraph Avenue and not far from its campus. It tore down some existing housing there, but let the land lie unused for several years, and it became cluttered with debris. Remember this was during the freewheeling sixties and the air was full of youthful exuberance, experimentation, and departures from the conventional.
Some community members took matters into their own hands and decided to turn the land into a park. After a push from the local underground newspaper, the Berkeley Barb, hundreds of young people showed up to turn the land into a Shangri-La, complete with trees and plants, benches, and playground equipment for children. It was a place to play a guitar or a game of chess, a place to take your lover. There was a lot of hand-wringing from University and city officials about this improvisation, and negotiations were ongoing about whether to allow this, and if so, how to formalize an agreement between the park’s organizers and local officials.
Unfortunately, then-California-governor Ronald Reagan thought that the University of California system had been too permissive regarding protests, calling the Berkeley campus “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters and sex deviants.” He overrode the decisions being made by campus administrators and sent local police cadres to fence off and uproot the park, and prevent it from being re-taken. This provoked a major outcry among young people, some of whom threw things at the hundreds of police and sheriff’s deputies sent in to show who was boss. A number of protestors and even bystanders were shot with real bullets (not rubber bullets) by the police, and one man died and another was blinded. Tear gas swirled around downtown Berkeley for days. The National Guard, mostly young guys about the age of the protestors, was brought in for two weeks and used bayonets on the ends of their rifles.
As a returned Viet Nam vet suddenly involved with the turmoil as a news photographer, I felt I was in more danger in Berkeley than I had been in ‘Nam.
As time went on, all the trouble and turmoil gradually receded. The University never developed the land (although it tried a paid parking lot and volleyball courts for a while), and today on the same spot is … People’s Park, open to all. The homeless have been major users. To most young people in Berkeley today, the park is just another urban park. It’s still owned by the University.
Fast forward to today, where resurgence began with a protest encampment near Wall Street in New York City. I believe it was precipitated by the Arab Spring movements which toppled repressive governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, with rebellion continuing in Syria and Yemen today. The Occupy Wall Street movement soon spread to San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland – and then to Sacramento and Davis.
I decided I needed to visit the latter two locations to talk to people to see if things had changed much. The first day in Sacramento, in Cesar Chavez park downtown, not knowing who was who, I ended up talking to the homeless contingent there, which had been there even before the protest people showed up. They had mixed feelings about the activists. On one hand, the intent young people brought food with them. On the other hand, the newcomers were giving first place in the chow line to those who helped out with the protest. In fact, the man running the food table was a homeless man who had joined forces with the protestors. Also, the homeless were worried about the police kicking everyone out.
The next day, a Saturday, I interviewed several of the protestors. One of the changes these days is that none of them want to be identified as leaders and they don’t want to issue manifestos and demands. They want decisions to be arrived at through consensus and meetings. At least in Sacramento and Davis, the occupiers don’t want to confront and battle the police, but they do feel a Free Speech right to camp out overnight in the parks. They want to erase the impression by some that they’re all unemployed leftist radicals out to make trouble. For example, I spoke with an employed married couple who were holding up signs on the edge of the park.
Another change is the immediacy of communications. In the 1960s movement people communicated by telephone, words on paper, and face-to-face meetings. There were a few left-leaning radio stations such as KPFA in Berkeley. Nowadays, the Internet has changed everything, where video of demonstrations and repression can be seen worldwide, instantly. Tweets, instant messaging and e-mail connect people.
I must admit that when I photographed protests in the 1960s, I sometimes felt that marchers and various people in the “movement” wanted to provoke the cops and get people bloodied and hurt, resulting in charges of police brutality and drawing more people into the strife. I also disliked the marchers who’d go around in mindlessly waving Chairman Mao’s red book and chanting “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” (Ho Chi Minh was the leader of communist North Viet Nam, which the U.S. was at war with). These days I recognize that there are a lot of resistance people out there who are more idealistic and impractical than I am, who believe in the power of one (or a few) to get things done, and will press on even though there’s little hope of changing things and achieving anything close to victory.
Besides the basic issue of returning People’s Park to the people, what issues were Berkeley activists concerned with back in the 1960s? Top issues then were the Viet Nam war, which went on for about 10 years (along with its associated military draft); racism and civil rights; gay and lesbian rights; women’s rights; sexual freedom; the use of mind-altering drugs such as LSD; police brutality; healthy living; and questioning what was most important: materialism, money and status – or becoming self-aware, independent, and relevant.
Still, the People’s Park people were primarily focused on one piece of land in Berkeley. On the other hand, the “Occupy” people I talked to in Sacramento and Davis recently are upset by more general political issues, such as the fact that one percent of Americans control about 40 percent of the nation’s wealth.
Said Frank Barie at the Sacramento encampment, “I want people to not go to bed hungry at night. We were born on this earth with the right to be comfortable, to be fed, to be educated. We have to care about our neighbor the same way we care about our mother. And when we all do that again, we won’t need the government.”
Said his wife Jennie Barie, “We can’t afford our politicians any more (in Sacramento). They have approved over $500,000 for an exploratory committee … for the stadium they want to build here. Yet they didn’t approve $150,000 for the homeless overflow shelter.”
Christopher MacDonald, one of Occupy Sacramento’s spokespeople, said, “In America we’ve had this very apathetic attitude: ‘Oh, well, we elected them, let them solve it,’ obviously that doesn’t work. My generation is finally recognizing that we have responsibilities as citizens of this country and of this world. I expect … we’re going to see a lot more in the way of exposing the more corrupt politicians and corporations that are in this area.”
C. J. Kelly creates signs and graphics for the Occupy Sacramento effort. She too is dismayed by what she calls the corrupt big-money system in our politics. “The system is broken and it could be fixed,” she says, “and it could be fixed with democratic action.”
Next door in Davis, an encampment of a dozen or so tents was located next to the busy farmers’ market on a Saturday. One of the campers, Bernie Goldsmith, an unemployed attorney, had plenty of personal views to relate. He said democratic institutions have been “hijacked by the wealthy elite, the people with so much money it breaks the imagination to even ponder what they can acquire with it.”
“This is an anti-corruption protest,” he says.
For example, he said “U.C. Davis exemplifies corruption, the same corruption that’s affecting corporate America.”
He feels that extravagantly paid administrators made the University of California into a diploma factory, extracting tuition dollars in exchange for granting degrees, or licenses to obtain a job.
He thinks Americans have come to think of capitalism as synonymous with democracy.
“The truth is that democracy is not capitalism, and capitalism is not democracy,” he said.
To think that the Occupy Davis people are socialists, communists, anarchists or revolutionaries is wrong, he says. He sees the “Occupy” concerns as injustice, inequality, and the increasing difficulty of making a decent living. He says our economic system is being monopolized by an elite few who are out of touch and don’t represent the majority of Americans.
“The purpose of Occupy Davis is to translate private suffering into a public spectacle. … (And) this is as public as you can get,” says Goldsmith.
To answer the question of how governments are responding to the protests, we’ve seen how Berkeley was turned into a battleground by Governor Reagan, who viewed young activists there as enemies. Similarly, in Oakland recently, saying they were responding to public safety concerns, Oakland officials brought in hundreds of police from all over the Bay Area to evict people from an occupied park, which had the reverse effect, resulting in the use of tear gas, people getting clubbed, and a military vet getting a serious head injury. They had forgotten the lessons learned from the People’s Park episode.
At Occupy Sacramento, there have been regular arrests of those why try to camp out in Cesar Chavez Park overnight, resulting in numerous court cases which will clog the judicial system. Only in Davis, not surprisingly, do the city police and the Occupy occupants have a standing truce, where no one has been arrested, and participants have an information table and post signs.
Whether the Occupy movement will still be around a year from now, no one knows. But never underestimate the power of passionate, smart and motivated young people.