Berkeley People’s Park Riots, 1991
(Part 1 of a four-part series. Next: The Police).
This is not a story about the 1991 People’s Park riots as such; it’s really an extended photo essay about the occupation of Berkeley in August 1991. A version of this was first published on my old Pandemonia site in 1994; this is a long-overdue aesthetic and technological update to that original version, but it hews pretty closely to the original’s content and aims.
The images included here are a small selection of the photos I took that week, divided a bit arbitrarily into “Police”, “Places”, and “People”. And yes, they’re not technically very good, but they’re all I’ve got. There’s also a simple gallery to go with this essay, but the images there aren’t meant to supersede the ones here and in the next few posts.
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I missed the first few People’s Park riots on Telegraph Avenue completely — I’d be playing cards in the evenings with friends in the Milano, and I’d emerge into the night on Telegraph and notice that there’d been another riot…. I’d feel a little stupid, looking at the glass-strewn streets, and I’d wonder how I could miss the sounds of rioting only a few hundred yards from the cafe, but hey, this was Berkeley, we have riots here all the time, and a certain studied nonchalance is probably the best attitude anyway. Another day, another riot… and besides, most of the riots to date had been little more than drunken frat-boy binges or nihilist and pathetically dissolute punk protests.
This time it was different. It was the season for serious protest now — UC Berkeley wanted People’s Park back, and the people of People’s Park didn’t want to let them have it back. Never mind that People’s Park at the time was a sometimes intensely unpleasant place to be: squalid, garbage-strewn, chaotic, and full of people (not just the homeless) looking to pick a fight with almost anyone who didn’t look or think like themselves (cynically: Berkeley writ small, in other words). Never mind all that: this was People’s Park, this was history — Berkeley History — a fairly potent symbol of the 60′s and later struggles against the University and authority in general, and by now a haven for the homeless and various political groups.
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So this time I decided to play photo journalist — something I’d never done before — and walked or cycled around Berkeley with my camera taking photos of whatever happened. I knew almost nothing about how to take these sorts of photos, and I had no press acreditation. But I did know the issues, I did recognize many of the key players, and it was all happening on my home territory (at the time I lived in downtown Berkeley, and I sold jewellery, T-shirts and photos part-time for other people on Telegraph).
After several confusing nights of trying to dodge police, actually see the rioters, and follow the protestors, it became clear that for me the real story wasn’t the riots, it was the week-long occupation of (Berkeley) Southside by some 600 police, and how it felt to live in this occupation, being forced to show IDs when walking down your own street, or having to justify to some faceless out-of-town cop your decision to work or shop on Telegraph Avenue. At one stage some twenty or thirty police were on every block of Telegraph, just watching you walk or talk, or sometimes edgily harrassing random passers-by. The atmosphere was tense and bitter; this was our city, boarded up and invaded, and both the rioters (a very small minority of the People’s Park brigade) and the police were either outsiders or generally unwelcome. So after the initial frenzy I deliberately steared clear of covering the actual riots and demonstrations (everyone else took photos of them and their aftermath), and concentrated on the police and people. I did manage to get a few photos of events while taking other shots, though; some of them are shown here.
The other story, of course, was that while the riots were the big news on all the TV newscasts and made great front-page headlines in the papers, it was the peaceful but often chaotic demonstrations that were really significant (no surprises there). The riots depressed most of us; the occupation was even more depressing.
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