By Don Pelton (2011)
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.
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 .”
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.