People’s Parking Lot: Returning to Berkeley and recalling the end of the ’60s

May 20, 2019 | 3 comments

I’m flying from Seattle, Washington to Oakland to attend the graduation of my nephew from the University of California, Berkeley on what is coincidentally the 50th anniversary of People’s Park.

As I drove to the airport, our local Pacifica station was broadcasting a scratchy on-the-spot dispatch from the day bulldozers plowed the park and sheriff’s deputies shot and killed student James Rector on behalf of Governor Reagan and the Regents.

Today, People’s Park is home to the homeless.

As I pass the SubPop boutique in SEATAC airport, it occurs to me that “Ronnie and the Regents” would have been a good name for a grunge band. I’m happy that the SubPop label, once home to Nirvana and Soundgarden, survived long enough to become an airport caricature of its once rebellious self. I guess we all did.

2019 will see the 50th anniversary of many monumental events such as the hopeful moon landing, the muddy miracle of Woodstock and our loss of innocence at Altamont. 1969, with its peaks and valleys, was the year that the sixties ended. The silent majority had already voted overwhelmingly for Nixon and every student that Ronald Reagan tear gassed brought him one vote closer to the White House.

Peoples Park mural recalls the day of Ronnie and Regents and the bulldozers.

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Without Reagan’s ascent, the battle for the neglected piece of land that became known as Peoples Park would have been lost in the scribbled footnotes.

The sixties were a period of old-fashioned, “analog” government spying on activists. We now live in a period where we handover our digital data willingly, happily exchanging our privacy as I did in the airport when I submitted to fingerprinting and retinal scans in order to circumvent the annoying security line. Always in a hurry, I would have offered my DNA to skip that line.

Speaking of twisted strands, People’s Park is now a gathering place for the homeless, dispossessed and disoriented. Locals consider it dangerous and, once again, the Regents want to build on it. I wonder if the harried students passing by know of the park’s history or just know avoid its seedy presence.

The distinguished Chancellor’s commencement address tried to instill a sense of Berkeley’s rebellious, iconoclastic tradition, but the message might have been lost in the rain which cut the ceremonies short. As Cal’s 150th graduating class danced in the downpour, I couldn’t help but wonder if a harder rain might be coming.

Berkeley was once the campus Reagan called “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants,” most of whom are now on Medicare. Fifty years on, the last of the millennials have now left the temple.
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R.S. Gompertz is a native of Southern California who currently lives and writes in Seattle. He recently completed a tour of Mexico and South America during which he spent several weeks in Cuenca. His most recent book, “Life’s Big Zoo,” is available on Amazon. For more information about his life, work and travels, click here.

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