In April 1969, one hundred Berkeley community activists transformed a vacant parcel of University of California owned land east of Telegraph Avenue and called it “People’s Park.” Homeless and transient individuals slept there, the hungry ate donated food, street people hung out smoking weed, and children played on donated playground equipment. At night, young people built camp fires, sang with guitars, and all was peaceful.
At 6 am on May 15, 1969, however, University of California police cleared the land of squatters, erected a fence, and claimed that the University needed the land to build student housing. A large protest crowd gathered at noon in Sproul Plaza, and the student body president exhorted: “Let’s go take back the park!”
As hundreds of protesters marched down Telegraph Avenue, police fired tear gas, buckshot, and bird-shot into the crowd wounding many and killing one man, James Rector, who stood passively on his apartment building roof watching the protest below on the street. Police claimed that he fired upon them. Upon investigation, he had no gun.
The next week, Rector’s killing and police over-reaction all set within the context of a tense decade of American history characterized by the JFK, RFK, and MLK assassinations, the civil rights struggle, and Vietnam War protest drew thousands of demonstrators into the streets. The Berkeley Police Department could not handle the swelling numbers of protestors and called for assistance from other East Bay police departments. Governor Ronald Reagan deployed 2000 National Guard troops to keep order. Berkeley became an armed camp.
On Thursday, May 22, 1969, a week after the Rector killing, 50 years ago this week, I joined a peaceful noon march with 500 faculty, students, and Berkeley residents through downtown Berkeley calling upon shop-owners to close for several hours in memory of James Rector.
The police directed us down one street and then another until finally pushing us into a cleared Bank of America parking lot. They informed us that we were under arrest for unlawful assembly, failure to disperse, and creating a public nuisance. Hundreds of National Guard troops surrounded us with unsheathed bayonets. The police loaded us into buses bound for the Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center, a minimum security prison in Pleasanton, California, 50 miles southeast of Berkeley.
When we arrived at the prison, we were forced to lie face down in neat rows inside a gated gravel yard surrounded by barbed wire with guards clapping their Billy-clubs against their bare hands and screaming at us threats and obscenities.
At midnight, after lying in one position for eight hours and shivering in 50 degree weather, the guards finger-printed, booked, and took me to a barracks. I lay down on a vacant bunk and fell asleep.
At 4 am, a screaming guard burst into the barracks and ordered us to stand at attention, keep our mouths shut, do exactly as he ordered, and run at break-neck speed to the dining hall for breakfast. The food was heavily salted, peppered, and uneatable. Those who refused to eat were separated and physically abused.
We were threatened continually by screaming guards. I was released on $800 bail (an exorbitant sum in those days) Friday afternoon through an Oakland bail bondsman my mother hired and driven me back to Berkeley. All charges were dropped eventually on “insufficient evidence.”
This 36-hour experience terrified me and transformed me into a political activist. For the first time in my life, I experienced police tyranny and empathized with the terror felt every day by African Americans who face racist police brutality. I felt an identity with my fellow Jews who suffered Nazi and Soviet persecution. And I sympathized with the Vietnamese who were brutalized by American soldiers, some of whom were guards at Santa Rita.
Much has changed for the better in fifty years in this country, yet much remains the same for far too many people. When police harass African American men, when the US government mistreats political asylum seekers, separates and cages children of color at the southern border, the fear and outrage I felt so long ago returns as if the events of 50 years ago occurred only yesterday.
This half-century ago experience is why I signed five separate amici curiae briefs on behalf of immigrant Muslim and Central American refugees against the Trump Administration, and why I support political asylum for these people fleeing for their lives from their countries of origin. It is also why we must elect a new president and a new senate majority in 2020 of men and women who are sensitive to human suffering and who eschew the inhumane treatment of the “other.”