This story is a snap shot of a pistol flare exploding in a clear night sky, competing with the stars then burning out, ashes falling to earth. That’s how I view Leila’s life. I watched from the middle of a white capped sea, used her glow to find safe harbor.
This is Leila’s story, and my story mixed together, a mosaic in time, on the canvas of California.
I was born and raised in Oakland California, and became a teen in the late 60’s, when San Francisco and Berkeley were rowdy neighbors. It wasn’t so much that you could hear a ruckus produced by them, as you could sense electricity in the air coming from their direction. It was reminiscent of the charge that gave life to Frankenstein, the product of something provocative, and scary, with a magnetic force that undeniably pulled and tempted.
From the comfort of our home, Oakland seemed immune to the unruliness of its surroundings. Our city had its own infamous celebrities, the Black Panther Party, and the Hells Angels, but they paled in nefarious popularity when compared to our neighbors, San Francisco to the West, and Berkeley on our Northern border, were out of control and being overrun with hippies, drugs, and riots, if the Oakland Tribune and the nightly news were to be believed.
The commentary from my conservative Republican parents, and the extended family members strewn around in the East Bay, helped to solidify my impression, that Haight-Ashbury was the flower power heart of San Francisco, and Berkeley was a haven for dangerous dope smoking radicals, a mysterious village run amuck.
As a young teen, I would have slandered both cities if asked my opinion.
Those beliefs were reinforced late one evening in 1969, when I was a freshman in high school, sitting in the backseat of a car with a group of friends from Skyline High, as we drove to Berkeley during the People’s Park demonstration. We wanted to see what tear gas, riots, and paddy wagons full of hand cuffed demonstrators looked like in real time. All the hoopla, over a patch of land, was broadcasted each night on the news.
The conflict began with a congregation of people, consisting of students, city residences, and merchants, who wanted to keep 2.8 acres of vacant land, near campus, as a park. The UC Berkeley Regents, who owned the property, had plans to build student housing on it, and expand. The Berkeley Barb (an activist counter-culture newspaper) helped stir, and promote the controversy.
There were weeks of contention, back and forth, pro-park fliers wallpapered the downtown area around campus, Telegraph to Euclid Ave. The whole city was dragged into the conversation, and fringe groups who couldn’t pass up a good political brawl hopped into the mix.
A meeting was held on campus, where the newly named People’s Park contingency argued with the UCB Board of Directors, a tug of war, the landowners versus the squatters. Hundreds attended the public forum, the suited authorities, and a rag tag army of Berkeley folks with signs and petitions. When it was apparent the pro-park people weren’t going to back down, UC Vice Chancellor Earl Cheit promised to hold off construction, while the People came up with a plan to use a portion of the land as a park.
There seemed to be a solution on the horizon when then California Governor Ronald Reagan incited a riot. Reagan called the Berkeley campus "a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters and sex deviants." He considered the Vice Chancellor’s promise, to hold off on any action, bowing to the demand of extremist. So, he sent 300 California Highway Patrolmen, and the Berkeley Police to the property, where an 8- foot tall chain-link fence was erected and corralled the land. By the end of the day 3,000 people descended on Telegraph Ave, Haste and Dwight, to protest, and a melee ensued.
From the safe distance of Oakland, and the ignorance of being a teen, it looked like a wild reckless party. So, on a May night in 1969, a car full of Skyline High School kids rolled into town to check things out.
My heart pounded mightily in my chest during the field trip, because the National Guard had been summoned to help control the gigantic mass of protestors. The militia wore riot gear with clear plastic facial masks that magnified their frightened and angry faces. They carried Billy Clubs and rifles loaded with rubber bullets that hung across their chests. Their arsenal included bazookas that fired tear gas canisters into the swarms.
I’d sat in my living room the night before and witnessed a Billy Club Ho Down on TV. The swinging of batons looked almost choreographed, and mingled with a hail of bricks thrown from the tops of buildings by the angry mob. Cars were overturned and set on fire. Neither side of the conflict took the time to sort out innocent bystanders, so I knew we were risking a cracked head, arrest, or a rock in face by going on the adventure.
There was a curfew in place, and that was another reason to worry. We were voyeurs and trespassers, a car full of knuckleheads on a mission to see mayhem.
The kid who was driving, our tour guide, said we were coming on close to the park. I didn’t know the area, but it didn’t look much different than Oakland, big old houses and apartment buildings up and down the city blocks. I thought we might be lost, because the streets were dark and abandoned. I expected to see wild people running around, throwing bricks and being chased by cops, noise and chaos. The quiet dark streets and the tension made me think of an old black and white war movie, a spy at the border kind of thing, and a soldier hiding behind a building with a rifle. It was eerie.
We turned a corner and found our mission hampered by serious looking barricades set up in the middle of the street. The driver backed up, and went down a few blocks, and turned right. Roadblocks were set up there too. It was decision time, did we push forward by foot, or try another route. I wasn’t about to get out of the car, but worried the others might and I would either have to follow or sit in the car in a strange neighborhood alone. I wanted to go home.
Fortunately, no one wanted to get out of the car, and be that adventurous. The mission was a bust. However, we did see a foggy haze lingering in the dark silent streets, swirling at the feet of barbed wire barricades. We assumed it was tear gas, and felt relieved that we had witnessed some evidence of the riot. It was probably fog from the Bay, but we were impressed, had a story to tell our friends at school the next day.
Later we would learn a student, James Rector, had been shot and killed by police that afternoon.
The evening escapade to the view the People’s Park riot in ’69 had been my only personal experience of Berkeley until I fell in love with Jim, a UC Berkeley student.
When he and I began dating in 1971, eating fondue at the Melting Pot, a sidewalk café, around the corner from Telegraph Ave, and enjoying candlelight dinners at his flat, Berkeley had mellowed out, had become a quiet city with a liberal mindset, seeking inner peace and personal freedom, enhanced by the fragrance of patchouli oil and the smell of pot, and was dusting itself off from the revolutionary rubble of various demonstrations, trying to look normal.
There were stragglers who held tight to the wild days of the revolution. They walked aimlessly up and down Telegraph Avenue, the two blocks near campus, passing out fliers for one cause or another. They bumped shoulders with the burned out shells of homeless looking people, who’s perspective on reality was permanently altered by the use of LSD, and schizophrenia. Both groups in the walking parade were to be avoided. The slightest word or glance in their direction could set them off on a triad with spit, like old Yeller at the end of the movie.
Despite all the negative preconceived opinions as a kid, I ended up living in Berkeley. Immediately after high school graduation, at seventeen years old, I sauntered into Berkeley, tagging along after a rocky romance. I moved into Jim’s flat on Panoramic Way in the Berkeley Hills. A little over a year later, he was gone, and a plague of doubt and confusion collided with my world. That’s when I met Leila. I was a walking wounded in the war of love and life, and might not have survived emotionally had it not been for her.
These events transpired almost forty years ago, but they are still colorful pictures in my mind. So, I’ve created a photo album with words, as a legacy, and to collect puzzle pieces. This story is a document to Leila’s brilliant life, and how she sacrificed her light. A spark from her lit my way.
Some things in life are never fully resolved, like People’s Park.