The year was 1968, the place, Berkeley, Telegraph Avenue. The activists in Berkeley, including me, had petitioned the city of Berkeley to allow the closing of Telegraph Avenue between Bancroft and Dwight Way, an area of about five or six blocks.
I was fifty years old, and my son was eleven, attending a Berkeley public school. I was directing traffic on Dwight Way and Telegraph in my A-line mini-dress, and the time came for our speaker to address the crowd. We assembled, peacefully, in front of Cody’s Bookstore, and our speaker mounted the platform. He had hardly begun to speak when a policeman mounted the platform, and through a megaphone, declared, “This has been declared an illegal assembly; you have five minutes to clear the area.”
I looked around; we were surrounded by cops, and we panicked. We ran, into alleys, into buildings, followed by cops with their clubs raised. We heard gunshots, and later discovered that one of the activists, on a rooftop, had been shot. He died.
Shortly after we started to run, National Guard helicopters hovered overhead and started to spray the street with tear gas. When I got home later that afternoon, I discovered that the tear gas had drifted all over Berkeley, and my son came home from school with his eyes inflamed, tears streaming down his face.
The following day, Governor Ronald Reagan ordered a shut-down of Berkeley for six p.m. and stationed troops at the foot of University Avenue in the Marina. They traveled in jeeps with fixed bayonets up University Avenue to Telegraph. I had friends who were conservative Republicans who became radicalized on the spot. Several friends were arrested and taken to Santa Rita prison
Several groups re-organized themselves, and in the afternoon, young women came to Telegraph Avenue, where the troops were stationed, put flowers in the muzzles of their guns, and distributed chocolate chip cookies laced with marijuana, which we called “Maryjanes.” There was much banter and singing, but the next day the young troops were replaced with Alameda County deputies, all of them men over fifty.
Eventually, irate citizens of Berkeley stormed City Hall, and demanded an end to the occupation of Berkeley. Newspaper and television coverage helped to encourage the protests, but the prisoners in Santa Rita had to appear in court and pay a fine before they were released.
Were the acts of civil disobedience effective? Mario Savio and the University of California students did manage to have public teach-ins, but there were no significant changes in the college curriculum. The entire experience was a deep and lasting one for the participants, but as a force for change, I’m not sure if it made much difference.
No acts of civil disobedience result in immediate changes in public policy, but they create pressure on those in power, and are necessary for maintaining morale among the citizens of any country.