1969 – My Year of Living Dangerously

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By Ron Munden – May 6, 2020

I recently scanned a set of photographs I shot of a People’s Park march while attending the University of California, Berkeley.  I decided to google “people’s park Berkeley”.  Reading these articles brought back a lot of old memories – things that I have not thought about in many years. I decided to write them down.

I attended Berkeley in 1968, 1969, and 1970 – some part-time and some full-time.  There were protests on campus during all those years but 1969 was the most interesting and as it turned-out the most dangerous.  Here is what I remember.

First, I was never a protester.  Although by 1969 I had decided that the US could not win the Vietnam war and we needed to get out, the Navy was paying me to go to school so I did not think I should spend time protesting.  While I was a civilian, I thought I should act like the naval officers I knew and keep my thoughts to myself and support the current policies of the United States government.

Second, I considered myself a street photographer.  By this time, I had photographed war protests at UT Austin, Klu Klux Klan parades, Hell’s Angles and Black Panther events.  So, if there was a protest and I was in the area I was probably going to be at the event.

It seems like 1969 was a continuous set of protests at Berkeley.  

Early in the fall of 1968 some black group was always protesting something.  The details are not important.  All that is important is that their method of protesting was blocking students from walking through Sather Gate.  They formed a line, linked arms and would not let people pass.

I found out about this when I tried to walk through Sather Gate on my way back to the Naval Architecture building.  I was stopped and told that I could not pass.  Since I had come to campus from the shipyard I was dressed in slacks, a sports shirt and dress shoes.  I turned around and found another way to get back to the Naval Architecture building.

I was 25 years old at the time and not very mature. I did not want any black, white or green guy telling me I could not go though that gate.  When I got back to my apartment that night, I told the story to a friend that lived in the apartment above me.  He said he might could help me out.

The next time I went to class I wore my new outfit – blue jeans, a leather jacket and steel-toed boots.

I did get stopped again and was told I could not go though the gate.  I said, “I’m going through the gate.”   In the short pause that followed I calculated the trajectory of my steel-toe boot into the exposed shin of the guy immediately in front of me.  But the line parted and I walked through.  I never got to try out my new boots.

This protest ended in a week or so but my new outfit began my only outfit on days I was on campus.  Little did I know at the time, but the campus was about to become a war zone.

War protests began to increase at the beginning of 1969.  From what I saw there was a lot of yelling and foul language but no weapons on the part of the students.  I never knew what provoked the escalation on the part of the police but suddenly there was police officer presence on campus.  As I recall they were state troopers. Tear gas was used by the police.  I can state that as a fact because I was present when it happened on more than one occasion.

Then came the helicopter.  Many reports say it was tear gas.  I think it was pepper spray.  It makes no difference because both caused burning eyes and a runny nose.  Also helicopters tear gassing people is an imprecise science.  They couldn’t control where the wind carried the gas.  So, you could be sitting in class and your eyes would start burning because the gas would have gotten into the ventilation system for the building.

And then came People’s Park.

People’s Park was one square block of land located a couple of blocks off campus.  The land had been vacant for years.  A group of locals constructed a swing set and a couple of other structures on the property.  It was known as hippie park and then became People’s Park.  Everything was going fine until the University announced they were going to build a parking garage on the property.  There were protests and the police came down with a hammer.

I never understood why things escalated so quickly until recently.  The article, “The Battle for People’s Park, Berkeley 1969” provided the best explanation I have heard.  The article is now posted on the website.

Anyway, Governor Ronald Reagan ordered out the National Guard and they came on campus.  Now it was the National Guard that was blocking Sather Gate and this was really scary.

I know military discipline when I see it.  The security for Mare Island Shipyard was provided by Marines so there was a Marine barracks on the base.  I saw military discipline every day.

The California National Guard in 1969 was mainly comprised of guys who signed up so they could avoid the draft and going to Vietnam.  They were the keystone cops and in no way resembled a military unit.  This is the group that Reagan sent onto campus with live ammunition and fixed bayonets.

Let me make my point.

One day I was trying to get back to the Naval Architecture building and I found the path blocked by about 25 National Guardsmen with rifles and fixed bayonets.  I walked up to see why the route was blocked.  About 10 yards in front of the National Guard there was a group of four guys yelling at them.   About 5 yard behind the four guys was a group of students looking on just like me. 

One of the loudmouths make a particularly distasteful comment to one of the National Guard.  They broke formation and charged the loudmouth with fixed bayonets pointed at the loudmouth.   Wisely, the loudmouth breaks and runs as do the other three loudmouths and the students behind them.

By this time, the other 24 Guardsmen have all broken formation and are going in all directions chasing students.  When I noticed a Guardsmen moving toward me, I exited stage right with him in pursuit.  At 25 I was still a good sprinter.  Even in my steel-toed boots I left him in the dust.

Another day trying to get through graduate school.

With this as background

When I heard that the People’s Park protest had scheduled a march for Saturday, I thought there would be more confrontation between the protesters and the state troopers/National Guard – a perfect photo op.

Armed with my Nikon F and as much film as I could afford, a friend and I went to Berkeley to shoot.

Wow! I was surprised.  Overnight the mood of the protesters had changed.  They were the hippy flower children I had met in Haight Ashbury in 1967. There was no yelling at the police. When a marcher would pass a policeman they would hand him a flower.  When a marcher passed a National Guardsman some marchers put the stem of a flower in the barrel of the rifle being careful not to hurt themselves on the fixed bayonet.

This is the People’s Park march I photographed on that Saturday in 1969.


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