Last week on a quick trip to the San Francisco Bay area, my wife Barbara and I decided to visit our alma mater, UC Berkeley. I was there from 1968 to 1972 and she was there from 1970 to 1974.

I had not walked on campus since I graduated. Neither had she. So, with excitement we went to tour the campus and the south side along Bancroft and Telegraph Avenues.

Very little has changed in all these years. There’s one new building on campus, a new art museum on the west side of the University, and a few new businesses on the south side. The student body does look a bit different demographically – they’re all young, but we were then too, and when I was a student I didn’t think so much about the homogeneous demographics.

My years there were tumultuous, to say the least. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. The Vietnam War was raging. There was a Third World College strike that shut down the University  and People’s Park put me in jail.

People’s Park was located on a University owned vacant city block south of the campus and just east of Telegraph Avenue that had been taken over by community members who planted gardens, brought in playground equipment for children and created a community kitchen for homeless people and vagabonds. However, at 6 am on May 15, 1969, University police expelled the squatters and put up a fence to keep everyone out. Members of the community were enraged and the student body president, Daniel Siegel, a law student at Boalt Hall, called upon the crowd in Sproul Plaza to “go take the park.” The masses walked down Telegraph chanting and a riot resulted. One man, James Rector, was killed by police as he watched from the top of a building. Police reinforcements were called in from surrounding municipalities as well as the Alameda County Sheriffs Department who students called “Blue Meanies” because of their blue uniforms and Beatles influence. Things were getting out of hand and then Governor Ronald Reagan called out the national guard. A helicopter flew over campus and, contrary to Geneva Conventions rules against doing so on civilian populations, sprayed tear-gas over hundreds of unsuspecting students. A photograph of the helicopter appeared the next day  on the front page above the fold in the New York Times.

People’s Park was located on a University owned vacant city block south of the campus and just east of Telegraph Avenue that had been taken over by community members who planted gardens, brought in playground equipment for children, created a community kitchen for homeless people and vagabonds. However, at 6 am on May 15, 1969 University police expelled the squatters and put up a fence to keep everyone out. Members of the community were enraged and the student body president, Daniel Siegel, a law student at Boalt Hall, called upon the crowd in Sproul Plaza to “go take the park.” The masses walked down Telegraph chanting and a riot resulted. One man, James Rector, was killed by police as he watched from the top of a building. Police reinforcements were called in from surrounding municipalities as well as the Alameda County Sheriffs Department who students called “Blue Meanies” because of their blue uniforms and Beatles influence. Things were getting out of hand and then Governor Ronald Reagan called out the national guard. A helicopter flew over campus and, contrary to Geneva Conventions rules against doing so on civilian populations, sprayed tear-gas over hundreds of unsuspecting students. A photograph of the helicopter appeared the next day  on the front page above the fold in the New York Times.

Berkeley had become an armed camp. A week after Rector was killed, on Thursday, May 22nd, a peaceful march was called through downtown Berkeley to ask (politely) business owners to close down in protest to the killing and the occupation of the town. I participated as did hundreds of others who were shocked by what we believed was a massive overreaction by the authorities.

Police had blocked off streets and forced us eventually into an open parking lot at noon at the Bank of America off Shattuck – all 482 of us – and we were arrested and taken by police buses to the Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center in Pleasanton, California (what a name for a town with a prison), a minimum security prison. I was there overnight before being bailed out for the exorbitant sum at the time ($800). My mother heard that I had been busted and had called an attorney friend in LA who called a lawyer colleague in Oakland who got a bail bondsman who paid my bail. All charges were eventually dropped – by the way.

I was traumatized by that experience. As we descended from the police bus that afternoon, we were forced to lie for hours in a gravel courtyard with our heads turned to one side resembling a body count in Vietnam, until we were booked. Guards circulated with their clubs screaming at us at all times and beat anyone who dared to move  or lift their heads. The food they served was uneatable but we were forced to eat everything on our plates by more screaming guards who were ordered to do everything possible to intimidate us. They succeeded with me!

I recalled all this as I walked on campus. I remembered as well grassy knolls where I would read and study between classes on warm fall and spring days, routes I would take to and from my residence, friends who would congregate in Sproul Plaza to meet for coffee in the student union who I haven’t seen in 45 years, donuts I’d buy in a cart at the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph, the student union where I’d sign up for San Francisco Philharmonic ushering tickets, girlfriends and romances, and my many great professors in anthropology, art history, music, history, and politics that made my time at Berkeley so meaningful and enriching.

I asked Barbara as we drove to the airport , “Is there any period in your life that you would relive if you could?” She searched her memory and came to the same conclusion as I did: “No. I like my life now and I just want to continue to move forward. There’s no going back.”

 

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