"Becoming a Communist"—An excerpt from From Ike to Mao and Beyond

From Chapter Nine
Becoming a Communist

 

People’s Park

During this period we still maintained our connections to the Berkeley movement, and in fact the RU* had collectives in Berkeley. When the oil workers strike broke out in Richmond in 1969, we went and talked about that to people in the student movement and others in Berkeley and mobilized people from the campus and among other forces in Berkeley and around the Bay Area to come out to Richmond in solidarity with the strikers. Simultaneously, there was a Third World student strike at San Francisco State, which was a very crucial struggle, and there was a similar strike at UC Berkeley. We developed ties with people in these strikes and also helped mobilize people from these struggles to link up with the strike of oil workers. And people in the RU were continuing to build the anti-war movement in Berkeley and other parts of the Bay Area. Those of us based in Richmond at that time took part in that in various ways, both building opposition to the war in Richmond itself but also being involved in other protests and demonstrations around the Bay Area more generally.

And then People’s Park broke out. I was actually out of the Bay Area when it initially jumped off. As I recall, people associated with Jerry Rubin,21 Stew and Judy Albert and some others, discovered this property that the university owned but was not using at that time, just a little bit off campus in the Telegraph Avenue area, which extends out from the south end of the campus. The university was planning to turn this into a parking lot, and these activists took the initiative to turn it into a park instead.

This developed into a major battle because the university was completely unyielding and was determined to “pave paradise and make it a parking lot,” as the Joni Mitchell song says. The university administration threw down the gauntlet, and the people who were building People’s Park refused to back off and carried forward what they were doing—and it became a gigantic struggle. That might sound a little improbable, but if you think about the context of things at that time and that the people involved were part of a broader movement, you can see why other people—even if they weren’t actively involved at first or didn’t think that was the main kind of activity that people should be directed toward—would still see this, in a broad sense, as part of the whole movement that they were part of. Thousands of people saw it that way.

And when the university moved against People’s Park and brought the police down on it, people responded accordingly. This developed into a major struggle in which eventually the National Guard was called out. As a result of and through the course of this whole struggle, there was actually a form of martial law implemented in Berkeley during this period. People were forbidden to gather in crowds of more than a few. If you gathered on the street corner, the police would come and break it up. People would come by on motorcycles with stacks of literature and throw them on the corner and then drive off, and then other people would scramble, pick them up, and distribute them, because you weren’t even allowed to do that. I remember driving somewhere in Berkeley and getting caught in a traffic jam, and I saw this cop standing out in the street—he had a gun pointed at somebody. So I got out of my car, and the cop wheeled and pointed the gun at my head. This kind of thing was going on throughout the city.

So things became very intense, and we in the RU decided that even though this wasn’t the form of activity that we would have put our main energies into or focussed our attention on, and we weren’t the initiators of this by any means, once it became a much bigger issue it was important to relate to it. So we put out leaflets and tried to mobilize as many forces as we could to support this struggle. I remember we put out one leaflet to the National Guard itself, because a lot of the people in the National Guard were not really “gung-ho” types—quite a few of them were sympathetic to the struggle and some of them were even people who had been involved in the movement. This leaflet had a drawing showing a normal person going through changes as they got into their National Guard uniform and were mobilized against the people, with this National Guardsman ending up as a pig—and the message was: don’t let this happen to you. We passed out thousands of copies of that leaflet, to people in the National Guard as well as others. And we put out a number of other leaflets as well, calling on people to support the battle for People’s Park.

Even though I was living in Richmond at that time, I myself got actively involved as the People’s Park struggle crescendoed. At the high point of the struggle there were tens of thousands of people mobilized, with many of them demonstrating at the fence that the university had put up around People’s Park to keep people out. I remember being right at the fence, and the National Guard was on the other side, inside the park, with their weapons loaded. We were shaking the fence, and it was swaying, almost coming down. And it was very clear that had we brought the fence down, they were going to open fire. This was even before Kent State and Jackson State. It was also clear that people were not prepared to take that next step, that it would have been a massacre that people weren’t prepared for. So that didn’t happen. People shook the fence, but they didn’t knock it down.

Confronting the Implications

During that upsurge around People’s Park, a guy named James Rector was killed in one of the demonstrations. I was in that demonstration, but a few blocks away from where he was killed. That was a very heavy thing, obviously. That same day, the police not only shot live ammunition at people but also fired a lot of tear gas. And they had started using these tear gas grenades instead of just tear gas canisters. These were more dangerous because they not only had the tear gas and all the effects of that, but they would explode, on a delay. I remember the same day that James Rector got killed, I picked up one of these tear gas grenades to throw it back at the cops, and it exploded in my hand—and it took me about two or three seconds to work up the nerve to look and see if I still had a hand. Then I discovered that it was just a tear gas grenade, and my hand was still there.

As a footnote to that story, my father was a judge then and the deputy in his courtroom was a member of the county sheriffs who’d been mobilized as part of the police force attacking the demonstration that day. He came into court and in a nasty way said to my father, “How’s your son?” And my father didn’t know anything about this, so he said, “What do you mean?” And the deputy came back, “Oh, we were watching a film of the People’s Park demonstrations the other day, and we saw that your son picked up a tear gas grenade and it went off in his hand.” And my father told me later that he was very upset by this.

The tear gassing affected thousands of people, and many people had this experience of these tear gas grenades going off near them, if not literally in their hands. But the James Rector murder by the police was yet another step, another outrage, beyond that.

People had to confront the implications of this, but generally they were not freaked out by it. From the time I started working with the Black Panther Party, and as the struggle intensified and the repression became much harsher and more intense, I think many people sensed the high personal stakes, even the risk of death. And, in fact, during that time I knew that there were attempts to set me up to be killed. But I don’t remember, to be honest, a lot of talk among activists about dying or the fear of dying.

To tell the truth, I felt, and most of the people I knew felt—and this might sound like a funny word in this context—very joyous about being involved in the struggle. We weren’t in it because it made us feel good, but the fact is that you felt as if your life mattered and counted for something. I remember demonstrations where we chanted, “The whole world is watching.” And, with the May Events in ’68 in France, the Vietnamese people (who were obviously waging struggle on a whole other level), the struggles in Latin America, the things going on in the U.S. and, for people like me, the Cultural Revolution in China—with all that going on, you felt you were part of a whole wave of people who were trying to change the world, were determined to make a much better world. So that’s what motivated you, and sure, I think there was a feeling that you could die, but I don’t think that preoccupied people. And I don’t remember talking about that a lot. The thought would go through your mind, but we were motivated in a different way and weren’t thinking that much about whether we might die.


*The Revolutionary Union (RU) was a newly formed communist organization--and forerunner of the Revolutionary Communist Party--in which Bob Avakian played the key role.[back]

Footnote

21. Jerry Rubin, along with Abbie Hoffman, had founded the Yippies, a group that tried to infuse radical and confrontational politics into the hippie communities that had grown up around the U.S. Rubin and Hoffman played a major role in the Democratic Convention of 1968 and were subsequently tried for conspiracy, along with Bobby Seale and others, in a very wild trial. They were convicted, but the convictions were eventually overturned.  [back]