Monday, April 19, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Berkeley Battling Over People's Park 30 Years After Clash

The AP

BERKELEY, Calif. - Standing on the bright green grass of People's Park, sun dappling his balding head, soft breezes tugging at his designer tie, Dan Siegel isn't exactly the picture of a revolutionary soul on fire.

But 30 years ago this spring, Siegel was a counterculture catalyst, the man whose exhortation to "Take the park!" was the precursor to a bloody clash between University of California students and police that left one man dead, another blinded and a city locked in martial law.

So much has changed since, but Siegel's commitment to the struggle over who should control People's Park - the university which owns it or the community activists who transformed it - remains.

"As you get older, you get a sense of history," he says.

People's Park began quietly.

The university purchased the 2.8-acre site two blocks from the campus in 1967 as a dormitory site. Officials bulldozed apartment buildings, then left the lot to devolve into an eyesore used as an informal parking lot.

Meanwhile, Berkeley's thriving activist community, born of the 1964 Free Speech Movement and fortified by anti-Vietnam War fervor, had decided the spot would make an excellent park for "the people."

To that end, leaders put an ad in the Berkeley Barb underground paper urging people to come to the park - "the trip belongs to whoever dreams."

On April 20, 1969, hundreds of people responded, digging a pond, laying sod and putting up play equipment.

The harmonious convergence didn't last long.

The morning of May 15, Siegel, then a second-year law student living a block from the park, walked out to pick up his newspaper and saw police watching work crews build a chain-link fence around the park.

Siegel wasn't sure what was going on but didn't like it, so as president-elect of the student body he took the microphone at the regular noon rally on campus and began to speak "very generally, although heatedly."

Just as he delivered the line about taking the park, university police yanked the power to the sound equipment, turning the line into a clarion call for action.

When the marching protesters ran into a line of sheriff's deputies clad in riot gear, "all hell broke loose. It was totally out of control," he says.

Sheriff's deputies fired shotguns at protesters. One, James Rector, who was watching from the roof of a theater, died a few days later; an artist was blinded.

Gov. Ronald Reagan sent 2,000 National Guard troops to occupy the city for 17 days. A nightly curfew was imposed. Meetings of more than three people were banned. In one week, 1,000 people were arrested.

Images from those days: Helmeted guardsmen clutching bayoneted rifles in a long line across a campus plaza; a helicopter flying low over campus, spewing tear gas.

In 1972, anti-war demonstrators tore down the fence, and over the years the park turned into a sort of no-man's land. From time to time, the university would try to assert its property rights only to be met with vigorous protest.

By the early 1990s, the park had fallen into decay, a weedy lot frequented mainly by transients and drug dealers.

But over the past few years, volunteers and city departments that manage the park for the university have cleaned up the trash, chased out the drugs and brought the lawns and shrubs back to life.

"It's a beautiful place," says Lisa Stephens, who has led the effort to revive the land and is helping organize a 30th-anniversary celebration on Sunday.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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