The Significance of People’s Park — Now More Than Ever

People from all over the world were coming to the Bay Area for the poetry and music, for the recognition of Howl as free speech, and for the chance to participate in a cultural change that has never stopped, any more than has the university’s ham-handed efforts to repress it.

by SLAPP-suit defendant Carol Denney

“If government is compelled to guarantee the truth of its factual assertions on matters of public interest, its speech would be substantially inhibited, and the citizenry would be less informed.” — San Francisco Appellate Court Judge Donald King, rejecting the appeal of the summary dismissal of the SLAPP-suit defendants’ suit for defamation against the University of California, now immortalized on a T-shirt.

On January 10, 25 years ago, my phone rang early in the morning and a voice at the other end said I was being sued for 25 million dollars by the University of California. I was expected to appear in Oakland Superior Court. They were just letting me know.

I think I said “thank you.” I hung up the phone and then it rang again. This time it was David Nadel, the owner of Ashkenaz, saying, “Did you just get a weird phone call?” I said, “Yes.”

He said he’d pick me up and we went down to Superior Court in his green pickup truck. We had no idea what was going on. I’m not sure how, but we had three lawyers of our own there, people we’d been working with to assist jailed People’s Park demonstrators.

The attorneys were standing in the corridor flipping hurriedly through the complaint against us, mainly for speaking at commission meetings and writing letters about the park’s history. We were characterized as key leaders of a violent conspiracy.

David Nadel ran a dance club. He really took time to prepare the musical groups that played at Ashkenaz. If a band’s demo proved completely ignorant of how to play a two-step for a Cajun dance, he would make sure that the band knew which band to listen to and not to pitch themselves as a dance band until they’d learned how to play a two-step.

I was a folk-singing church secretary. We were pretty organized, but were both completely nonviolent. The people who liked to break windows and set things on fire never listened to a word we said.

David was shot to death in 1996 by an angry club attendee, an irony for a nonviolent man who dedicated his life to music and dance, so people can only listen to his legacy now. They still don’t listen to me.

When they sue you in civil court you don’t get an attorney, the way you do, or the way you used to, in criminal court. So when a big corporation like Monsanto sues a spindly little group of environmentalists for what they put on a flier, it’s a method to cost them money, soak up their time, plant confusion. And it’s called a SLAPP-suit: a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.

It’s usually a big, wealthy, private corporation that launches a SLAPP-suit against its critics. It isn’t usually a university, a public university, funded by taxpayers who constantly hear how strapped it is for state funds. According to SLAPP-suit experts, who became like family over the next few years, this suit was something different.

We had to raise more than $100,000 just to pay court fees and attorneys along the way — or be forever branded as key leaders of a violent conspiracy. We educated thousands of people about UC’s publicly funded SLAPP-suit against us, just a continuation of its shameful history of suppressing free speech.

Most people were outraged at the waste of public money. UC spent over three million dollars suing a dance club owner and a folk singer, our co-defendants Bob Sparks and Mike Lee, and 50 Jane and John Does (a tactic that typically is used as a legal way to reserve a lawsuit’s place for even more defendants).

It scared people.

It took the University of California, my alma mater, months to legally serve us our papers. On that first day in Superior Court, the attorneys we’d been working with figured out that we had not yet been technically served and told us at some point to back slowly out of the courtroom and get the hell out of there just to stall for time.

David and I moved quietly out the back of the courtroom and then bolted through the crowded corridors and ran all the way up the circular parking structure to where we’d parked the green pickup, dodging three-piece-suited attorneys all the way up. When process servers came up to People’s Park and asked people “is Carol Denney here?” or “is David Nadel or Bob Sparks or Mike Lee here?” everybody would claim to be us, whether they were the wrong gender or not. We had killer solidarity in those days.

But that’s not why I’m speaking out now. In 1967, when UC used eminent domain to bulldoze all the housing on the block between Haste, Bowditch, Dwight, and Telegraph in the middle of finals for the students who lived there, they claimed they really needed it for — and this is where it got ambiguous — office space, for sports courts, or some project to be named later. Their plans were so ambiguous, and there was so much plentiful office space and land they’d already acquired, that the systemwide UC regents blew them off and wouldn’t vote them any money to develop anything.

 

A man reads amidst the springtime greenery of People’s Park, one of the many ways people enjoy their Park. Photo by Lydia Gans

 

The Berkeley administrators who bulldozed the housing in 1967 weren’t afraid of the housing. They were afraid of the culture on the southside of campus and across the bay. The minutes of their meetings at the time are comic proof that they considered the culture itself a threat.

People from all over the world were coming to the Bay Area for the poetry, for the music, for the recognition of Howl as free speech and handing out fliers as a civil right, and for the chance to experience and participate in the embrace of a cultural change that has never stopped, any more than has the university’s ham-handed efforts to repress it.

UC Berkeley administrators bulldozed the housing in 1967, but even the UC Regents recognized they had no real need for it, given the high vacancy rates for office space, and didn’t vote them any money to build anything there. So the land sat empty. So the people built a park. And that’s how it all began.

A very offended UC Berkeley felt the need to squash — a garden. A garden which, to them, represented an anti-authoritarian culture, but a garden nonetheless, which is a city landmark now not because of any particular bush or flower or tree, but because of its cultural significance not just to our own community but to people all over the world.

They bulldozed all that housing in 1967. And now guess what they want to build? Anybody? That’s right, housing. Because the landmark park they still try to cripple and thwart any way they can — just try to get a permit for a concert — still is respected as the place where people came together as volunteers to remove the broken glass and rebar and build something together.

People’s Park’s cultural significance is at its beginning. We’re in a position now, if we remember our history, to renew our commitment to working together to affirm our community’s values, protect the rights of our most vulnerable, and equally important, dance to the music.

People always ask: How did the SLAPP-suit end? It isn’t really over. We forced the UC officials to remove the sand volleyball courts that they had forced on the park, mostly because protecting the volleyball courts from comedic adulteration with funny slogans and signs cost the taxpayers over two million dollars within six months, a cost which doesn’t even include the people they actually paid to play volleyball.

It’s thanks to the depositions in the SLAPP-suit that we learned details like this. The University of California created an office of public information because we made it look so bad. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. because we’re all paying for that, too.

And I got this T-shirt. I mean, David Nadel and I had these T-shirts printed up after the court drop-kicked our suit for defamation — the thing about us being leaders of a violent conspiracy. (See the opening quotation from Judge Donald King above.)

But the comedy of being called a violent conspirator wears off after awhile. It was harder to get a job, and people think you’re ill-tempered, as you can imagine. But as much as we were maligned, hogtied (in my case), forced to raise over $100,000 to defend not just ourselves and our co-defendants but People’s Park itself on behalf of not just this community but a world of people who, unlike the University of California even today, recognize its significance in history, we were up to the task.

People’s Park is still the Berkeley landmark it became in 1984. Is it still culturally significant? We’re about to find out from you, the people who may not even realize how much they have benefited from People’s Park’s place in history over the years.

The university’s own proposal admits they have seven other sites on which to build housing. I would gently suggest they use one of the other sites. And I hope my new mayor, my new city council, and all my fellow citizens join me in this respectful suggestion so that we can continue to honor our history, our culture, our fallen, our gardens, and still dance to the music.

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