Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Berkeley in Turbulent Times Part 2

Please read Part 1 below first

There was an afternoon TV talk show at the time called THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW. He took a real chance and invited John Lennon and Yoko Ono to co-host the show for an entire week. They could invite anyone they wished to be quests. They had Jerry Rubin, Chuck Berry, some guy with something called an alpha-wave machine—you get the picture. With my hero John Lennon and offbeat guests, there was no chance I could miss this. So, a sign was posted on the shop door: “Due to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s appearance on The Mike Douglas Show every afternoon this week, Rag Theater will close at 2pm Monday through Friday. Regular hours will resume next week. Thank you.” These were not just times of dreams but also freedoms. The freedom of not conforming but adjusting everything in your life to suit you and the relaxed lifestyle, up to and including business interests.
As much as I was enjoying work and my newfound tranquility, a reward that meditation brought, this was not a stress-free time. There was much unrest in the always political and radical haven of Berkeley. And I jumped in with both feet. I got involved in protests. The hot button issue of the day was, of course, the war in Vietnam. We also protested for the rights of women, blacks, gays, and all Americans.
I attended every anti-war rally I could. I even lent a hand in organizing some of them. It was on this front that my inner struggle resurfaced. My Spiritual Compass believed in peaceful demonstrations and in setting the proper tone for all the world to see. On the other hand, the Inner Bad Boy’s slogan was “Peace Now or I’ll Hit You With This Baseball Bat!”
Over the years, it has baffled many as to how, during those turbulent times, so many supposedly stoned individuals could become so passionate and organized. We may have been stoned some of the time, even a lot of the time, but we were never apathetic. In fact, activism was part of the theater; it went hand in hand with the social changes we were striving for.
Some of the rallies were peaceful and quite beautiful. Many were held in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park with musicians like Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, the incomparable Joan Baez, and many more, leading the chants and making great music. Others were comprised of local protest singers, poets, and humorous clowns like Wavy Gravy, and Berkeley’s own, X Swami X, who brought the message home through the use of words and humor.
However, there was an ever-growing mistrust of government, particularly the Nixon White House, that reached a fever pitch, especially on college campuses across America, that inevitably boiled over into clashes between protestors and authorities. One of the most intense and drawn out of these played out in Berkeley.
People’s Park was born by default on a piece of land, just under 3 acres, along Telegraph Avenue. The University of California had purchased the parcel from homeowners and others using its power of eminent domain, displacing the residents. In 1968, the existing buildings were bulldozed, but due to lack of funds, the empty field was left unused, becoming debris-strewn. With the following rainy season, it quickly turned into a muddy eyesore. Finally, in April of 1969, area merchants, citizens, and students, organized and began a beautification program, planting trees and shrubs, transforming it into a neighborhood park.
People from all races and economic backgrounds joined together, supplying materials, gardening, and contributing food for what became a free kitchen, creating an isle of peace for one and all. That is, until the University raised the money to carry out its expansion plans. After much civic discourse between UC and the townsfolk who had gone to the effort and expense of creating it, including a student vote that came down in favor of keeping the park, the University’s Chancellor promised to hold off on plans until an accord could be reached.
However, then-Governor Ronald Reagan, who took office on a popular get tough on protesters campaign, framed the situation as a leftist challenge to the University’s property rights. The contentious rhetoric escalated. So did tempers.
“It’s nothing but a safe haven for commie sympathizers,” the governor stated. “If there has to be a bloodbath, then let's get it over with.”
In the early morning hours of May 15, 1969, Reagan ordered hundreds of police officers to clear the area around the park. Much of what was planted was destroyed and a wire fence was installed to keep people out.
Within hours, a few thousand citizens and students gathered nearby for a rally, which turned into a march through the streets toward the park, with protesters chanting “We want the park!” As the now unruly crowd approached, they were met with police tear gas and nightsticks. Protesters threw rocks and bottles, and tried tearing down the fence. Their numbers grew to 3000. When backup police teams arrived, all in all, nearly 800, they went in swinging. Sheriff’s deputies, later called “Blue Meanies,” fired shotguns loaded with large buckshot, injuring hundreds. During one skirmish, they fired at a small group watching from a nearby rooftop, killing one student, and permanently blinding a carpenter. Neither had been there to protest.
Governor Reagan declared a state of emergency, sending in 2700 National Guard troops. The streets were barricaded with barbed wire, and helicopters sprayed tear gas on any group that began to assemble. On May 30, a citizens group was granted a city permit to assemble, and nearly a third the population of Berkeley marched past the park, protesting the occupation of the city, as well as the death and injury caused by authorities.
The National Guard occupied Berkeley for weeks. The government’s mission to take back the park succeeded, and the land remained fenced off. In May of 1971, on the first anniversary of the riot, there was another demonstration, but to no avail, the park remained fenced in and off-limits.
In 1972, in response to the Nixon Administration’s escalation of the Vietnam War and the mining of Haiphong harbor, I participated in the organizing of a public protest. Flyers went up all over Berkeley, and word spread (all the way to the governor’s mansion in Sacramento). As thousands gathered in the streets, Reagan lost no time in sending in the National Guard again, equipped with tear gas and accompanied by police in full riot gear. This time, we were determined to voice our protest in a non-violent, “Gandhi-like,” way. We believed that peace could only be achieved through peaceful means.
“Let’s not stoop to their level and become like them,” one of the organizers announced to the crowd through a bullhorn. “The world will be more sympathetic to our cause if we remain calm.”
Arm in arm, we marched through the streets to the park, which had now become a greater symbol of protest over our government’s foreign policy in Vietnam. As much as we tried to keep things peaceful, the hostility between the National Guard, the cops, and the protesters, pent up from the previous riots and the constant sight of the wasted, unused park, busted wide open. Fires broke out, heads were cracked, and I personally will never forget the effects of the tear gas. The worst of the violence broke out as we tried to take down the fence, but we managed to tear it down.
Afterward, the city of Berkeley and the university worked out a lease agreement that allowed the park to be used by the community and, for a time, to be administered by a citizen’s council. Over subsequent years, the park has remained a point of contention. The university has tried to reclaim the land several times for various uses, but each time has met with community resistance and solidarity.
Today, the park, though still university-owned, is open to locals, with a community garden, a free food kitchen, a basketball court, and other offerings.
After things settled down, I began to immerse myself more deeply in my spiritual studies of the Path. I meditated twice daily. I attended Satang (union with the truth) twice a week, where initiates would meditate, then hear a taped reading or message from Master. Afterward, I would usually light up a cigarette. One day, as I did, our group leader explained that intoxicants slowed progress. I decided to quit. I put out my cigarette, threw away the pack, and didn’t touch another for almost 4 years. I read Masters books and listened to his talks and became more and more absorbed in the Path. When it was announced that Master was about to visit the U.S., with a stop in the Bay Area, we all eagerly awaited. Meeting him in the physical and being in his presence for a couple of weeks was like being at the source of all bliss. I felt spiritually and psychically charged (I would joke that “Master Charge” was the only credit I had at that time). I knew I needed more, that this course of study, this way of life, was so right for me, so I decided to follow Master to India, where he had his international center, and where many other initiates were living and studying.
My Berkeley period was a time of discovery. Discovering a new way of life, the Berkeley way, and discovering the Path, gave me a fresh outlook and made me more whole. If this wasn’t HOME, I was now a little bit closer.

This is an excerpt from my book "I Just Happened To Be There," which my agent is about to shop, look for Part 2 soon. Go to Aug 09 on this blog to see "What's In My Book" for more of the books contents.

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