What I Learned at One of the First Occupations: People’s Park, Berkeley 1969

By Don Pelton (2011)


One killed, thousands tear-gassed at People’s Park

The recent Occupy Wall Street protests spreading across America — and particularly the violence in Oakland — have made me think again about my experience as a California National Guardsman in a battalion activated by then Governor Ronald Reagan to help quell the riots at People’s Park in Berkeley in May of 1969.

What I learned from that experience is that — in all these demonstrations, whether fundamentally peaceful or not — there are always a few people on each side of the conflict who are hell bent on violence.

I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley in the late 1950s and early 1960s. By 1969 I was a graduate student in US history at San Jose State College. It felt like a strange irony then when — as a student — I was called to active duty to help quell a student riot (later I’d learn about the provocative, if not riotous behavior of the police). My sympathies were in a constant state of flux during the week we spent in Berkeley.

What was the issue? Wikipedia describes what, in retrospect, must surely have been among the first “occupy” movements:

In 1956, the Regents of the University of California allocated a 2.8-acre (11,000 m2) plot of land containing residences for future development into student housing, parking and offices as part of the university’s “Long Range Plan for Expansion.” At the time, funds were lacking to buy the land, and the plan was shelved until June 1967, when the university acquired $1.3 million to take the land through the process of eminent domain. After taking control of the land, neighborhood residents were evicted and demolition of the existing homes began.

By 1967, the university had altered its plan; the new plan was to build a student parking lot and a playing field on the land. Demolition of the existing residences took more than a year, and the university ran out of development funds, leaving the lot only partially cleared of demolition debris and rubble. It remained in this state for over a year, and as winter began the muddy site became derelict with abandoned cars.

On 13 April 1969, local merchants and residents held a meeting to discuss possible uses for the derelict site. Michael Delacour presented a plan for developing the under-utilized, university-owned land into a public park. This plan was approved by the attendees, but not by the university. Stew Albert, a co-founder of the Yippie Party, agreed to write an article for the local counter-culture newspaper, the Berkeley Barb, on the subject of the park, particularly to call for help from local residents.

Ronald Reagan was already doing his first John Wayne imitation:

During its first three weeks, People’s Park was used by both university students and local residents with Telegraph Avenue merchants appreciative of the community’s efforts to improve the neighborhood. Objections to the expropriation of university property tended to be mild, even among school administrators.

Governor Ronald Reagan had been publicly critical of university administrators for tolerating student demonstrations at the Berkeley campus, and he had received enormous popular support for his 1966 gubernatorial campaign promise to crack down on what was perceived as the generally lax attitude at California’s public universities. Reagan called the Berkeley campus “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters and sex deviants.” Reagan considered the creation of the park a direct leftist challenge to the property rights of the university, and he found in it an opportunity to fulfill his campaign promise.

Governor Reagan overrode Chancellor Heyns’ May 6 promise that nothing would be done without warning, and on Thursday, 15 May 1969 at 4:30 a.m., he sent 300 California Highway Patrol and Berkeley police officers into People’s Park. The officers cleared an 8-block area around the park while a large section of what had been planted was destroyed and an 8-foot (2.4 m) tall perimeter chain-link wire fence was installed to keep people out and to prevent the planting of more trees, grass, flowers and shrubs.

Bloody Thursday

Arriving in the early afternoon, the protesters were met by the remaining 159 Berkeley and university police officers assigned to guard the fenced-off park site. The protesters opened a fire hydrant, the officers fired tear gas canisters, some protesters attempted to tear down the fence, and bottles, rocks, and bricks were thrown. A major confrontation ensued between police and the crowd. Initial attempts by the police to disperse the protesters were not successful, so more officers were called in from surrounding cities. At least one car was set on fire.

Reagan’s Chief of Staff, Edwin Meese III, a former district attorney from Alameda County, had established a reputation for firm opposition to those protesting the Vietnam War at the Oakland Induction Center and elsewhere. Meese assumed responsibility for the governmental response to the People’s Park protest, and he called in the Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies, which brought the total police presence to 791 officers from various jurisdictions. Under Meese’s direction, the police were permitted to use whatever methods they chose against the crowds, which had swelled to approximately 6,000 people. Officers in full riot gear (helmets, shields and gas masks) obscured their badges to avoid being identified and headed into the crowds with nightsticks swinging .”

Reagan_Law_and_OrderHere’s what I remember about Reagan at that time. I remember him going on television and saying, “If they want bloodshed, let them have bloodshed.”

I thought, “Hey, that’s my blood you’re talking about. Who do you think you are, John Wayne?”

The whole experience reminded me of a scene out of Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22.

I was sent one day down to the Brigade Headquarters at the Berkeley yacht harbor and — while I was waiting to pick up some papers — I overheard one zealous officer talking to his men:

“Remember men, use the maximum force necessary.”

“Uh, sir,” said one of his men, “don’t you mean ‘The minimum force necessary?'”

“No, private, I said ‘the maximum force necessary,’ and that’s what I mean.”

“Dimwit,” I thought.

One day, several of us drove past People’s Park in a “deuce-and-a-half” (a two-and-a-half-ton Army truck). I was in the back of the truck with a couple of other privates. Two Oakland cops in my platoon, also called to active duty as privates in the Guard, were up front in the cab, next to the driver. As we drove past the protesters, those of us in the back held up the two-fingered peace signal, while the two cops in the cab flipped them off with the familiar one-fingered salute. It was surreal.

The newspapers had been reporting on the riot, and often mentioned “rock-throwing students,” which sounded almost benign.

Then I found out what sort of rocks those were. A Guardsman from another platoon showed me his helmet, which had been hit by a “rock” thrown by one of the students. His helmet had a grapefruit-sized deep indentation in the top where he had been hit by a “rock.” It was clear to me — it would have been clear to anyone who saw it — that without his helmet, he would have suffered a very serious, if not fatal, blow.

From that moment on, I realized that there were idiots on each side of this conflict who were eager to commit serious violence.

Reagan was the most conspicuous idiot on the government side.

A few student idiots, less conspicuous but potentially just as lethal, were willing to discredit their cause by committing violence from their side.

Of course, ultimately the armed forces — police and military — always have more firepower.

What is the lesson for today?

Most populist uprisings, no matter how legitimate and peaceful in general, usually attract a few fringe hangers-on who are eager to commit lethal violence.

And on the other side, a few rogue cops are often eager to commit  more than their share of lethal violence, even against entirely peaceful demonstrators, as in Oakland recently and repeatedly.

We must try not to make generalizations about the issues at stake in these populist uprisings based on the inevitable fringe elements on each side.

And we should remember too that great moral authority accrues to those who — like Ghandi and Martin Luther King — are relentlessly committed to non-violence, no matter how great the provocation.

The Amazing New Science of the American Dream

“If Americans want to live the American Dream, they should go to Denmark”

So says Richard Wilkinson in his TED Talk below. Wilkinson is Professor Emeritus of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham and co-author of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, a study of the pernicious effects of inequality in modern industrial democracies.

A whole array of social pathologies — including infant mortality, homicides, mental health, teenage births, life expectancy, etc. — are significantly worse in more unequal societies, regardless of the absolute level of wealth of that society as measured by GDP per capita.

In other words, poorer but more equal societies (like Denmark) fare better on this scale of social health than do richer but more unequal societies (like the U.S.).

If you want to live the American Dream, move to Denmark.

What, if anything, does this have to do with the Occupy Wall Street movement?

Just this: Many fearful critics of that movement[ ((See, for instance, cartoonist Bob Crabb’s recent Halloween cartoon))] [ ((See also “Eric Cantor criticizes ‘wealth redistribution’ and Occupy protesters during University of Michigan speech“))] are afraid that the protesters want simply to redistribute wealth, rather than — as is actually the case — make sure that the rules of the economic game are applied more equally and fairly.

In other words, fairness at the starting gate of the economic race — not absolute equality of wealth at the finish line — is the demand.

Professor Wilkinson’s research, which he describes clearly in this short TED Talk, illuminates vividly the unrest we see all about us now.

His work, though not limited to the U.S., could also be thought of as a “Science of the American Dream,” and should interest anyone who is worried about why that dream is dying.

Bill Moyers Explains the Commons in a Personal and Touching Way

Bill Moyers explains The Commons in a personal and touching way:

In his Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, historian Gordon Wood says that our nation discovered its greatness “by creating a prosperous free society belonging to obscure people with their workaday concerns and pecuniary pursuits of happiness.” This democracy, he said, changed the lives of “hitherto neglected and despised masses of common laboring people.”

Those words moved me when I read them. They moved me because Henry and Ruby Moyers were “common laboring people.” My father dropped out of the fourth grade and never returned to school because his family needed him to pick cotton to help make ends meet. Mother managed to finish the eighth grade before she followed him into the fields. They were tenant farmers when the Great Depression knocked them down and almost out. The year I was born my father was making $2 a day working on the highway to Oklahoma City. He never took home more than $100 a week in his working life, and he made that only when he joined the union in the last job he held. I was one of the poorest white kids in town, but in many respects I was the equal of my friend who was the daughter of the richest man in town. I went to good public schools, had the use of a good public library, played sandlot baseball in a good public park and traveled far on good public roads with good public facilities to a good public university. Because these public goods were there for us, I never thought of myself as poor. When I began to piece the story together years later, I came to realize that people like the Moyerses had been included in the American deal. “We, the People” included us.

Read Bill Moyers’ full essay here.

Why Does Obama Support Wall Street, Not Democracy in Greece?

In an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, Michael Hudson, distinguished research professor of economics at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, explains why President Obama and Tim Geithner are pressuring Europeans to impose “debt peonage” on Greece:

MICHAEL HUDSON: The reason there have been all of these demonstrations [in Greece] is the same reason that the Occupy Wall Street movement is in New York and the rest of the United States. The frustration is not only at the financial overhead, the debt overhead; it’s at the political fact that there is no choice. Both the Conservative Party and the Socialist Party in Greece, just like the Republicans and Democrats here, are both taking the side of the banks. So people don’t even have a chance to express a democratic alternative to essentially being ground down by debt peonage and letting the economy polarize even further between creditors and debtors.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of President Obama being there, and what this means—the meeting of the G20, what is happening in Greece—for the United States?

MICHAEL HUDSON: He’s making the threat that Europe has to cut its own throat in order to save the United States hedge funds and banks from taking a loss on the Greek bonds that they’ve insured. One of the reasons that people have been willing to buy Greek bonds is they bought credit insurance. And the European banks, mostly—maybe not Barclays or Deutsche Bank, but most banks—are not willing to write credit insurance, because everybody at the Böckler Foundation conference here in Berlin, every single economist says there is no conceivable way in which Greece can pay its debts. But the American hedge funds and bankers have come in and said, “We’ll write a guarantee.” Then they lean on President Obama and Tim Geithner to tell the Europeans: “You have to make Greece pay, so that we win the bets that we’ve made, because if we lose the bets, then we go under and the stock market crashes, and a lot of people can’t collect on their money market funds.” So this is just naked brute force that Mr. Obama is doing. He’s basically telling Europe, “Don’t go the democratic route. Support Wall Street.”

Watch the complete interview here:

Occupy the Banks: Strategies for Transformation

Reprinted from Yes! Magazine (October 28, 2011)

By Gar Alperovitz

Beyond revolution and reform: Gar Alperovitz on how we can fundamentally transform our financial system.

Photo by Bogie Harmond (Click for more information)

The “occupations” now building around the country are a necessary and justified response to the outrages of a political-economic system that substitutes posturing for decision-making, looking the other way as the top one percent runs off with almost a fourth of the nation’s income and more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. The largely student/youth organized efforts might even be historic—if, that is, they come to terms with the reality that the challenge we face is systemic, not merely political and, that the crisis is also highly unusual in its demands.

For over a century, liberals and radicals have seen the possibility of change in capitalist systems from one of two perspectives: the reform tradition assumes that corporate institutions remain central to the system but believes that regulatory policies can contain, modify, and control corporations and their political allies. The revolutionary tradition assumes that change can come about only if corporate institutions are eliminated or transcended during an acute crisis, usually but not always by violence.

But what happens if a system neither reforms nor collapses in crisis?

Quietly, a different kind of progressive change is emerging, one that involves a transformation in institutional structures and power, a process one could call “evolutionary reconstruction.” At the height of the financial crisis in early 2009, some kind of nationalization of the banks seemed possible. “The public hates bankers right now,” the Brookings Institution’s Douglas Elliot observed. “Truthfully, you would find considerable support for hanging a number of bankers…” It was a moment, Barack Obama told banking CEOs, when his administration was “the only thing between you and the pitchforks.” But the president opted for a soft bailout engineered by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers. Whereas Franklin Roosevelt attacked the “economic royalists” and built and mobilized his political base, Obama entered office with an already organized base and largely ignored it.

When the next financial crisis occurs, and it will, a different political opportunity may be possible. One option has already been put on the table: in 2010, thirty-three senators voted to break up large Wall Street investment banks that were “too big to fail.” Such a policy would not only reduce financial vulnerability; it would alter the structure of institutional power.

Still, breaking up banks, even if successful, isn’t the end of the process. The modern history of the financial industry, to say nothing of anti-trust strategies in general, suggests that the big banks would ultimately regroup and reconcentrate and restore their domination of the system. So what can be done when “breaking them up” fails?

Click for more information about North Dakota Bank

The potentially explosive power of public anger at financial institutions surfaced in May 2010 when the Senate voted by a 96-0 margin to audit the Federal Reserve’s lending (a provision included ultimately in the Dodd-Frank legislation, which was designed to protect American taxpayers and consumers from financial corruption and to make the financial system more accountable)—something that had never been done before. Traditional reforms have aimed at improved regulation, higher reserve requirements, and the channeling of credit to key sectors.

But future crises may feature a spectrum of sophisticated proposals for more radical change offered by figures on both the left and right. For instance, a “Limited Purpose Banking” strategy put forward by conservative economist Laurence Kolticoff would impose a 100-percent reserve requirement on banks. Because banks typically provide loans in amounts many times their reserves, this would transform them into modest institutions with little or no capacity to finance speculation. It would also nationalize the creation of all new money as federal authorities, rather than the banks, would directly control system-wide financial flows. A variety of respected liberal as well as conservative economists have welcomed this strategy—including five Nobel laureates in economics.

On the left, the economist Fred Moseley has proposed that, for banks deemed too big to fail, “permanent nationalization with bonds-to-stocks swaps for bondholders is the most equitable solution…” Nationally owned banks, he argues, would provide a basis for “a more stable and public-oriented banking system in the future.” Most striking is the argument of Willem Buiter—the chief economist of Citigroup, no less—that if the public underwrites the costs of bailouts, “banks should be in public ownership…” In fact, had the taxpayer funds used to bail out major financial institutions in 2007–2010 been provided on condition that voting stock be issued in return for the investment, one or more major banks would, in fact, have become essentially publicly controlled banks.

Unknown to most Americans, there have been a large number of small and medium-sized public banking institutions for some time now. They have financed small businesses, renewable energy, co-ops, housing, infrastructure, and other specifically targeted areas. There are also 7,500 community-based credit unions. Further precedents for public banking range from the loan-making Small Business Administration to the activities of the U.S.-dominated World Bank. In fact, the federal government already operates 140 banks and quasi-banks that provide loans and loan guarantees for an extraordinary range of domestic and international economic activities. Through its various farm, housing, electricity, cooperative and other loans, the Department of Agriculture alone operates the equivalent of the seventh largest bank in America.

The economic crisis has also produced widespread interest in the Bank of North Dakota, a highly successful state-owned bank founded in 1919 when the state was governed by legislators belonging to the left-populist Nonpartisan League. Over the past fourteen years, the bank has returned $340 million in profits to the state and has broad support in the business community as well as among progressive activists.

Legislative proposals to establish banks patterned in whole or in part on the North Dakota model have been put forward by activists and legislators in Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Maine, and Massachusetts. In Oregon, with strong support from a coalition of farmers, small-business owners, and community bankers, and backed by State Treasurer Ted Wheeler, “a virtual state bank” (that is, one that has no storefronts but channels state-backed capital to support other banks) is likely to be formed in the near future.

How far the various strategies may develop is likely to depend on the intensity of future financial crises, the degree of social and economic pain and political anger in general, and the capacity of a new politics to focus citizen anger in support of major institutional reconstruction and democratization.

Check back next week for part two of this three-part series.

Gar Alperovitz is the Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political-Economy at the University of Maryland and co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative, is author, most recently, of America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty and Our Democracy; and (with Lew Daly) of Unjust Deserts: How the Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance. He is working on a new book on systemic institutional change. This article first appeared in Dissent Magazine.


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Occupy Sesame Street

There’s no corner of our civic life — even the wee corner of Main Street and Sesame Street — that’s unaffected by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

From http://www.tauntr.com/blog/occupy-sesame-street-gets-violent

From http://www.tauntr.com/blog/occupy-sesame-street-gets-violent

And here’s an “Occupy Sesame Street” Halloween “costume:”

OWS Oakland Takes Over City — Thousands Show Up, Shutting Down Businesses and One of the Biggest Ports in the Country

Reprinted from Alternet (November 2, 2011)

By Joshua Holland

Calling the protests a “general strike” resulted in an unbelievable amount of media coverage — a victory for the Occupy Movement.

Perhaps as many as 15,000 people participated in actions across Oakland today, with small marches peeling off to protest in front of banks or “occupy” foreclosed homes. There were probably eight to ten times the number of people in the streets of Oakland today as I’d seen during past OWS actions.

Did a small group of activists manage in just 5 short days of organizing to bring about the first general strike in the United States in generations?

Not exactly. But while there was no broad, city-wide general strike of the sort last seen in this country in 1946, one shouldn’t judge the effort a failure. A day of scattered actions across the city culminated in a massive “occupation” that shut down the Port of Oakland, the fifth busiest container port in the country. When it was announced that operations had been suspended for the night, thousands of people partied around trucks halted in their tracks, celebrating a victory in their struggle with authorities that began with the violent eviction of Occupy Oakland last week. The Oakland police, and Mayor Jean Quan, stung by negative press stemming from the clashes, essentially gave the port to the movement.

Since the Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947, unions have been forbidden from participating in general strikes, but there was no doubt that the longshoremen were firmly on the side of the protesters. The occupiers arrived in waves, and at first small groups blocked the entrances to port facilities, letting workers out at the end of their shifts, but preventing their replacements from taking the next shift. One by one, longshoremen arrived to find a picket line blocking their entrance. In every case, they expressed solidarity — honking their horns and in some instances getting out and talking to the protesters, and then pulled a u-turn and went home — their contracts specified that they wouldn’t be required to work if there was a disturbance at the port.

Poster by Edd Baldry (Click for more information)

Throughout the day, about half of the businesses in downtown Oakland are shuttered, many with signs expressing solidarity with the occupiers. The city’s economy may not have been brought to a halt, but it was not functioning to full capacity.

Angela Davis gave a rousing speech at 9:30 this morning to kick off the day’s proceedings. A “children’s march” circled Frank Ogawa Plaza – renamed Oscar Grant plaza by the protesters in honor of the young man shot to death by BART police on New Year’s 2009. They chanted “Play Nice and Share!”

A group of high school students told me that their principal had circulated a memo giving them the day off. Calls to the school district to find out today’s attendance figures weren’t returned at press time, but the Los Angeles Times reported that 16 percent of the city’s teachers didn’t show up for work. There were many children and young people in the crowd, many attended by their parents.

Police maintained a minimal presence throughout the day. There were a few scattered acts of vandalism — windows were broken at two banks (I understand that in one case the windows belonged to a neighboring company) but there was no violence, and the protests were remarkably up-beat throughout the day. It stood in marked contrast with the heavy-handed crowd control seen the week before.

Calling this day of protests and direct actions a “general strike” may have raised the bar too high, but it also resulted in an almost unbelievable amount of media coverage – far more attention than protests against the Iraq war attended by hundreds of thousands ever received. In that sense today could be seen as a major victory for the Occupy Movement. This may have provided a model for other occupations to follow in the coming months.

Organizers say they plan on calling for a larger general strike in Oakland in January, presumably with more lead time to organize.

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter.

“I Don’t Want Everybody to Vote”

The audio is out-of-synch with the video in this 32-second clip from a 1980 speech by Paul Weyrich in which he explains why the GOP benefits from low voter turnout. (Low voter turnout, by the way, goes a long way toward explaining the enormous GOP gains in the 2010 midterm elections).

But it’s worth listening to Weyrich, cofounder of the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, ALEC and other conservative organizations, as background to understanding the current legislative initiatives within GOP-governed states nationwide to disenfranchise and impede voters (see “Additional Resources” below).

Additional Resources:

Current Crisis “70 Times Larger” Than S&L Fraud of the 1980s

Here’s William K. Black, one of the regulators who helped convict nearly one thousand perps in the S&L meltdown of the 1980s and author of “The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One,” speaking about the current crisis and how to deal with it (about 4 minutes):

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