Dan Siegel on Free Speech and People’s Park 48 Years Later

By Michael Taylor

Five questions for Dan Siegel, famous as an articulate firebrand on the UC Berkeley campus during the heady 1960s. He is now 71 and is a civil rights attorney in Oakland. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

In the spring of 1969, when you were studying law at Boalt Hall, a dispute arose over People’s Park. More than a year earlier, the university began clearing the park, which was just south of the campus, of old housing as part of a long-range redevelopment plan, but funding stalled and the park became a 2.8-acre junkpile of abandoned cars, garbage, mud and the remnants of partially demolished structures. In an act of civic pride and energy, an ad hoc group of students, local residents and merchants decided to turn the derelict land into a public park. But UC decided it was going to be a sports field and put a fence around the property. Things were at a benign standstill on the morning of May 15, when Gov. Ronald Reagan dispatched the National Guard. Ultimately, one man was shot to death (by police) and thousands protested while Alameda County sheriff’s deputies with shotguns fired into the crowd.  You were at the center of it all, even to the extent of sparking the historic march from Sproul Plaza down three blocks to People’s Park. Tell us about that day and how you feel about it nearly 50 years later.

At the time, I was a second-year law student and was president-elect of ASUC [Associated Students University of California].That vacant lot had been repurposed by the community as a park and it was a very pleasant and constructive locus of activity. They had filled in the ruts, put up playground equipment, and everybody seemed to be having a good time. I couldn’t understand why it made the university people so uptight. That day, there was going to be a rally at Sproul Plaza – indeed, there was a rally every day. I went there and a student I knew said, “Dan, you’re the president-elect [of ASUC]. You should speak. So I got up there around 12:30 p.m. and I said a lot of things about how disturbing it was that the university was taking over the park. I believe what I said then was, “let’s go down there and take the park.” What happened next was very surprising: the police turned off the sound equipment. There were a couple of thousand people drifting around and we started walking toward People’s Park. I think the demonstration was appropriate. The people had a right to be angry.

Given the tug-of-war over the park, what was at stake that day?

The most important issue was whether students and other members of the campus community had the right to use University of California property for free expression and reasonable activity. It was one in a series of disputes between students and the UC administration—the Free Speech Movement, the Third World Strike, whether to hire professors of color, students pledging to resist the draft.

What, if anything, did this have to do with free speech and the Free Speech Movement?

It had to do with the issue of student self-determination, with expressive behavior, not political speech. We wanted to express ourselves by creating a park, for a practical purpose. The student movement in the 1960s was a political movement that had a strong cultural basis to it. In the Bay Area, it was joined to the youth movement that stressed sex, drugs and rock and roll, the kind of hippie culture that flourished in the Bay Area. This was a precursor to today’s issues of urban farming and community gardens. People looked at it in that way. Free speech in a broader sense means the right of the community to make decisions on how land is to be used going forward. When you look at the Free Speech Movement —and I felt this acutely when I was at Cal —our efforts to express ourselves about Vietnam got diverted to fighting UC about the use of university property and People’s Park was another chapter of that.

Earlier this year, speaking events on the Cal campus by two conservative figures, Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter, were canceled after university officials, in the face of demonstrations, said they could not guarantee that the speeches would be safe and peaceful. How do you contrast the People’s Park days with this recent controversy over whether conservative figures should be invited to speak at Cal?

I don’t know if there’s any connection. The fact that some conservatives and some Republicans have decided to make Berkeley a testing ground for their political initiatives seems really contrived. It seems like people from outside Berkeley are using Berkeley to push an agenda. What was going on around People’s Park legitimately flowed from what was taking place in the Berkeley community. It really came from the authentic student movement of the time.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times 11 years ago, you said People’s Park “has now become this somewhat forlorn urban park… It’s a place that no longer reflects the will for independence of the campus community. I think today if the university turned off its Wi-Fi, they’d get bigger demonstrations than they would for People’s Park.” Do you think that quote applies to the park’s condition today and, if so, where is the park today? What are the lessons to be learned from People’s Park?

I feel the same way as I did 11 years ago. The park is a gathering for people who live in that place. It’s a place for the homeless to gather. There’s open drug use. As for the lessons to be gained from all this, to be provocative, I’ll paraphrase Mao (Zedong) and say that political power grows from the barrel of a gun. Political power in the student movement flowed from the number of people we were able to mobilize. The university backed down from plans to build a soccer field at People’s Park. When I [look at the period of] 1964 to 1970 and see that in the spring of 1970 we could use any campus facility we wanted to use, that was because of support from students. It was remarkable, in the three years I was there, to have campus demonstrations of 3,000 or 4,000 students. Thousands of people in the Greek Theater or Edwards Gymnasium. It showed our support. And the outrage.

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Thank you Dan for your continued activism and your example of what it means to be a citizen.
I remember Dan and those times very well, having been a student at Cal then. Well thought-out answer on the question about the conservative speakers.
Ah yes, I well remember the march to “take the park” after Dan’s speech in Sproul Plaza. Also remember the heliocopter spraying tear gas on us in the Plaza a few days later. And how could I forget being a part of the march on Shattuck business district, where hundreds of us were rounded up and bused to Santa Rita Prison, where we were forced to lay out face down on a gravel yard for over an hour? Four years later, I was awarded a check for $150 for “cruel and unusual punishment” as part of a class-action suit against the Sheriffs Dept. Between the radical politics, The Pill, consciousness experimentation, encounter groups, and watching the birth of bands like Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, and The Grateful Dead>> What a powerful time to come of age!
I was a student then too, and also one of the very few who was in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), graduated and went on to serve 30 years in the Air Force. So, I have a different perspective. Everyone who spoke at a noon rally in those days knew it would most likely lead to violence, as it was usually the speaker’s intention. Dan’s motives were no different that day when he said “let’s go down there and take the park”. The interviewer should have asked him if, after 50 years, he still feels that violence is the answer, if he doesn’t get his way. But, he answers that himself a bit later with his paraphrase from Mao (Zedong). As for the violence against the conservative speakers, I will rewrite Dan’s words when he responded that not allowing conservative speakers to speak has no connection to the free speech movement and apply them to the free speech movement: “The fact that some liberals and some leftist politicians have decided to make Berkeley a testing ground for their political initiatives seems really contrived. It seems like people from outside Berkeley are using Berkeley to push an agenda.” My point is not to debate what was right or wrong 50 years ago but only to say there were and always will be two sides„ something many at CAL still don’t want to believe or allow. I spent 30 years in the Air Force (along with numerous other veterans) to protect those two (and more) sides. Why are the students and faculty at CAL so opposed to hearing another view? I thought that is what institutions of higher learning were all about, although I did have a very difficult time hearing even a centrist view during my four years there. Finally, violence is never the way to express civil disobedience (Martin Luther King knew that). OK, I will await the firing squad from the other 99% of the readership who agree with Mr Siegel.
Robert, Thank you for your dedicated career service in the Air Force. Time has shown us that significant numbers of the vets who served in Vietnam have paid the price of post-traumatic stress disorder and had trouble integrating back into the work and social world upon their return. Too many of the older guys who are now homeless are vets of Vietnam. Iraq vets are presently suiciding in unprecedented numbers and are unable to get the mental health care they need from the VA. There is no question that at Berkeley during those years, the ROTC building was an easy target for war protestors. It was pummeled on a regular basis. And, when in the minority, as you were, it is tough not to take personal what was meant as protest toward our country’s presence in Vietnam. There were, as you know, over 58,000 casualties from the war in Vietnam. No of us who were protesting could tolerate what was happening there—either to kids our own age or to the Vietnamese. Dan Siegel obviously doesn’t need me to defend him. But the reality is, in the courts, he fought for (and won) the right to become licensed as an attorney. He stayed in the community and worked to help people and the causes he believed in. He made a decent living along the way. He’s run for office. He’s done what most of us would consider a pretty good job of adjusting to the world we live in. He did NOT become a drop-out nor did he become a violent revolutionary. I think we all understand there are two sides. Yes, during these very trying political times, it’s easy for polarization to take place on both sides. It’s tearing our governing bodies apart, so that they become ineffectual in getting much accomplished. It’s tearing families apart, to the point of giving up on each other. And I can tell you from my own psychotherapy practice, it’s troubling a lot of people who—between the politics of terrorism and lone-wolf shootings—are anxious, depressed, and have given up much hope for politicians bringing us together. With hindsight, we know that Vietnam vets and all those serving in the armed services were never given their due upon returning during those years. They were never welcomed back to their country. And I believe it had definitely had to do with why so many had trouble re-integrating into society. I know it’s 48 years later, but thanks again for your service.
As this page is not for debates I will make this my last comment on this subject. Steven, thank you for your reasoned reply and appreciation for my service and those of all vets who served their country and are still paying the price for that service. The point of my previous comment was only to express my disappointment that nothing seems to have changed over the last fifty years at CAL. Apparently, opposing views are still not tolerated and violence is still an acceptable form of dealing with those opposing views, as evidenced by the violence over the recent conservative speakers. Moreover, Dan’s interview seems to be written as a tribute to those who feel that way. I never took anything personally during my days at CAL and still don’t. I will always look back fondly at those days. My mom, dad and brother went to CAL and my Aunt taught there for many many years until she passed away. My aunt marched with Martin Luther King and knew the power of non-violent civil disobedience. I too wish the country were not so polarized and know that listening to, and respecting, all views, even if we disagree, would go a long way toward that. I had no problem with any of the different views while a student at CAL and still don’t. That is why I have great friends on the left and right and everywhere in between. Tolerance and respect—no matter who you are or what you believe—if we could get that taught at CAL and seen throughout, the polarization that you speak of would melt away. We will never get everyone to believe and do exactly the way we believe and do but we can learn to appreciate the differences.
As this page is not for debates I will make this my last comment on this subject. Steven, thank you for your reasoned reply and appreciation for my service and those of all vets who served their country and are still paying the price for that service. The point of my previous comment was only to express my disappointment that nothing seems to have changed over the last fifty years at CAL. Apparently, opposing views are still not tolerated and violence is still an acceptable form of dealing with those opposing views, as evidenced by the violence over the recent conservative speakers. Moreover, Dan’s interview seems to be written as a tribute to those who feel that way. I never took anything personally during my days at CAL and still don’t. I will always look back fondly at those days. My mom, dad and brother went to CAL and my Aunt taught there for many many years until she passed away. My aunt marched with Martin Luther King and knew the power of non-violent civil disobedience. I too wish the country were not so polarized and know that listening to, and respecting, all views, even if we disagree, would go a long way toward that. I had no problem with any of the different views while a student at CAL and still don’t. That is why I have great friends on the left and right and everywhere in between. Tolerance and respect—no matter who you are or what you believe—if we could get that taught at CAL and seen throughout, the polarization that you speak of would melt away. We will never get everyone to believe and do exactly the way we believe and do but we can learn to appreciate the differences.

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