18 August 2015

The Berkeley Barb, People's Park, & Four Teenagers

This week the long-gone Berkeley Barb commemorated 50 years since its first publication. For those who have never heard of the newspaper:

“The Berkeley Barb was launched by Max Scherr on August 13, 1965, and was one of the earliest underground newspapers to serve the civil rights, anti-war, and countercultural movements in the Sixties. For 15 years, from 1965 to 1980, the Barb was a voice for a generation looking to change the world.

The Barb mixed radical politics with psychedelic art, guerrilla comics, local happenings, opinions, reviews, advice, personal ads, and frequent calls to protest. It offered its readers an unabashed alternative to the conformist mainstream press. At a nexus between Free Speech and the Sexual Revolution, the Barb trumpeted the irrepressible passions of the American counterculture.” Berkeley Barb
A request was sent out for reminiscences. The following is a bit of back story to the article, V-Sign Downs Rifles, in the May 28-29, 1969 issue.

     May 1969 – People’s Park protests are in full swing. Tanks roll up University Avenue and Berkeley is occupied by the National Guard.  Guardsmen line the streets of downtown and the UC campus. Berkeley High School students walk by the jeeps and tanks and troops to get to classes. After school, many walk the few blocks up to Cal to participate in the protests. 
rt-lft: singing-Danza, (Marcus' hand on shoulder),kat,?
Danza, Marcus, Kat, and Candy, 15 and 16-year-olds from BHS, head up to the chancellor’s house to join in a peaceful protest against the occupation of Berkeley and the People’s Park situation. They are some of the first to arrive.
     The National Guard are already staged in front of the chancellor’s residence, equipped in full riot gear: bayonets, gas masks, and helmets. There are a lot of them.   
     Soon many more Cal students and others begin to gather on the lawn in front of the house. Many hold signs and chant. As the crowd grows, the four BHS students at the front began to feel the bumps and jostling, and the tension increases.  The National Guardsmen are given orders to form a solid line, don their gas masks, hold their bayonets at the ready.
      The Berkeley High kids are well-versed in protests. They have participated in them since 7th grade. They know the risk of being on the front line. There is always someone in the very back who decides to throw a brick, or a bottle or a rock. And then the folks in the front get clobbered, and tear gas is thrown, and mayhem takes over. And there goes the peaceful protest.

      One of the BHS kids looks around at the growing tension and has an idea. Let’s start singing patriotic songs. The friends agree. The choice for the first is The Star Spangled Banner, Followed by My Country ’Tis of Thee, America, This Land is Your Land, and others.

     Soon, the entire group of protesters are singing along. The BHS students have another idea: Let’s sit down. And then the whole crowd sits down. 
     The National Guard guys start to relax. First one takes off his gasmask and helmet and backs away. Then another, and another. Their lines loosen up. A mellow mood envelops the crowd. After a few more songs, the protest crowd begins to dissipate, everyone in a good mood.

Candy,Kat,Danza,(Daily Cal photo)
    The BHS students are elated. They actually prevented heads from being cracked, tear gas from being thrown, and arrests from being made. Only those four knew that they were the ones who had done it; and that was enough. That’s just what teenagers did in Berkeley in the 60’s.

The Berkeley Barb reporter who wrote about the incident didn’t know about the high school students part in preventing another bloody incident. But the photographer, Alan Copeland, managed to get their picture. Should anyone know if Mr. Copeland is still around, please drop me a line.