Claiming Turf in Berkeley
Six weeks before Chicago, the headlines in the Bay Area undergrounds read WAR DECLARED! I forget why we called it the First Battle of Berkeley, it was typical of the time: we swarmed into the street, the police attacked to disperse us, a good many windows got broken, also some heads. July 4th was coming up, and we were demonstrating for our community's right to close Telegraph Avenue to traffic and bold a public festival. Since they weren't into shooting us yet, they gave us the street for a day. Our celebration was pleasant, and I wandered home, thinking about Independence Day, to write a piece for the paper.
There is a deeper context to this battle than one hears in the immediate political conversation, on the streets or in our forums. To begin with, it's an episode in a struggle for ghetto self-rule. For our Berkeley community, of which Telegraph is the commercial and cultural center, is a first-class ghetto. No matter that its inhabitants are young rather than black, or that membership is voluntary. (Even this may not be true, for many in their twenties feel strongly that urban life is impossible outside of our peculiar supportive communities.)
Such ghettos are new to history, and the change they portend may have properties that aren't described by any classical model of revolution. The Battle of Berkeley is more than a ghetto self-rule struggle -- it is an expression of a future-oriented nationalism, an episode in our blind searching-out of forms for our growth. More than revolutionary politics or human rights of expression are involved, an emerging culture's survival is being tested out. For who can doubt that if enough of our heads get bashed senseless, a deep weariness will descend to fragment us beyond hope and into impotence, and the dawning of the new be again delayed?
A new culture, in the full strength of that term, is being born through us. Lately it has flowered in urban community, in high arts and home arts and beauty and some thought: and a glad flag has been raised in our home-seeking hearts, its emblem still seen dimly. And we have been moving to claim the heartland of its birth, our Home Turf -- the campus Plaza has been shakily secured for four years, and now we move on Telegraph.
Consider the history of our intense and growing territoriality. For years our only public expression was political, and struggled for a physical toehold on the edge of the campus.
October 1964. The Administration decides to take away our space. We resist. Free exercise of political rights on the Plaza is decreed, enforced by popular support. The Plaza is ours, and we'll talk there as we please, by the laws we recognize. Our bodies on the line, to defend a public space.
April 1966. A nighttime VDC rally in support of striking Saigon students is held on Telegraph, choking the Avenue. There is no permit. Cops club the microphones silent, confiscate them. We disperse and reform at City Hall, fruitlessly.
November 1966. Police come on campus to remove an antiwar table from "our" Student Union -- which we have paid for and supposedly run, but whose space we cannot control. Their arrests trigger the university's second strike, which comes off fairly well but gains us no space.
April 1967. We formed the Better Berkeley Committee and spent a year of fruitless dicking-around with the City government -- committees, reports, petitions -- trying for an experimental closure of Telegraph, as a mall and for festivals. Finally someone printed up 500 buttons saying simply TELEGRAPH / APRIL 9. And on that day of good music and public grass, 3,000 friendly people closed the street and played, unmolested. (The Haight beat us to the streetclosing act by a week, but theirs got a bit smashed up by the heat.) We are temporarily bought off from regular trespass by the City's offer of Provo Park for Sunday rock concerts -- a territory the Berkeley High kids had already somewhat liberated, where we tasted our first tear gas in 1965.
October 1967. We're trying to close down the Induction Center, we need a place to gather, to discuss and decide. The Plaza is sanctified by our use. Court order forbids us, but the university helps fudge the interpretation so we aren't molested. Why? Because the 6,000 clustered in that shallow bowl of night make it quietly quite clear once again that we will defend our right to that place against clubs, tear gas, and perhaps death.
That is the leading edge of the present feeling about Telegraph Avenue, after this latest Battle. There is no mistaking the mood that grows in Berkeley, and only much cost will change its direction even temporarily. We are acting out a deep territorial imperative -- a new culture must control its birthground to control its own growth. And much of our longing for an open space which is fully our own comes from our sense that in it will crystallize that community we so strongly anticipate, and whose fragments, frustratingly incomplete, nourish us now.
In Berkeley as elsewhere we are liberating territory in which to build and play and heal and learn. Free territory for these life-functions of community and culture comes in other forms than physical space. With underground papers, rock stations and films, we have staked out a corner of Medialand, in which our control is still uncertain. And in the hundreds of free universities we begin to explore the unknown landscape of our necessary education.
As people decide to stay on in Berkeley, they build to a critical culture-producing mass. A non-campus community develops and displays itself. And the turf we decide to claim as our own expands off-campus; we move on Telegraph. The kinds of things we do on that turf, the social myths we try to act out, become more diverse and broadly humane. Creative/joyous Community. Revolutionary Community. Are our efforts feeble? We have few models, and we're coming up from a long blind despair. Are our examples ludicrous? Don't laugh, they're all we've got. And if Telegraph is not ours, what is?
The victory of this Battle of Berkeley -- to come back to that -- is not in civic politics, where our quite rational arguments and allies got a few liberal Councilmen to switch votes and prevent a Fourth of July Massacre. It lies in this: the volatile edge of our disorganized community's will claimed Telegraph for our play and got it, IN PUBLIC. We have staked claim to our piece of turf and given notice that we will push for it; the threat of our bloodied presence and retaliation is full and credible. And this goes a long way toward shaping our consciousness, our sense of our interests, direction, and center. For some spaces of land do have special meanings and social powers.
Right now we use our turf at their mercy, and they clearly want to club the shit out of us -- the broad violence of the old culture gives a clue as to how deep our change runs. Moves are under way to try to ratify our claim politically: the Peace and Freedom Party /Black Panther proposal for local community-controlled police is one such.(*) A good political solution seems unlikely, though to get the city to give us the street seems possible, some time in the future.
4 July 1968
(*) [Community control of police became the key issue of the April 1971 city elections. The issue failed, but radical Councilmen supporting it were elected, beginning the eventual progressive takeover of the Council.]