On August 25, 1992, a 19-year-old woman named Rosebud Abigail Denovo broke into the campus home of Chang-Fin Tien, chancellor of the University of California. Denovo, a member of the People’s Will Direct Action Committee, was the self-appointed judge, jury, and executioner in the trial of Tien—enemy of the people. An Oakland police officer, called to the scene, intervened before she could carry out her mission. She lunged at him with a machete, whereupon he shot her dead.

Found on Denovo was a note with the message: “We are willing to die for this land. Are you?” By “land” she meant specifically People’s Park in Berkeley. Denovo’s revolutionary career had begun a year earlier in response to the university’s decision to build volley ball courts in the park. At the time of her death she was awaiting trial on a charge involving possession of explosives—with the explosives had been a hit-list of campus officials. On news of her death 150 supporters rioted in the park. It is fair to say that Denovo, born in 1973, died m the 1960’s.

The question of volleyball courts in People’s Park seems terribly trivial for a serious revolutionary, even one as obviously psychotic as Denovo. But an examination of the history of that park reveals why its future has become a subject of such bitter and violent argument, to the cynic, it seems peculiarly fitting that the hallowed ground of 60’s protest should be transformed into a playground for 90’s narcissists. But that is a simplistic assessment.

Local legend has it that the park grew out of the campus Vietnam protest. In fact, the antiwar movement at Berkeley was neither as popular nor as heroic as sentimental 60’s rebels would like to believe. Students in the 1960’s, most of them protected by draft deferments, cared less about the Vietnam War than they did about promoting 60’s nihilism—sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.

That nihilism was the progenitor of People’s Park. In early 1967 the hippie haven of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco began to crumble under the weight of curious tourists, unscrupulous drug dealers, and hard-core heroin addicts. The hippies fled to the cheap housing and tolerance of Berkeley across the bay. The Haight’s sordidness soon followed them; Berkeley’s crime rate soared.

Berkeley’s tolerance had limits. Conservative Republicans, always a force in the city, demanded that the university, which owned the slum housing where many of the hippies lived, take action. In late 1967 a decision was made to demolish an entire block north of Telegraph Avenue, thus forcing the undesirables out under the guise of urban renewal and university expansion—good liberal causes.

The university had funds to demolish, but none to build. A year later, the site was nothing more than a muddy parking lot. Michael Delacour, boutique owner and urban rebel, decided to seize the lot for “the people.” The Berkeley left, always game for an opportunity to confront authority, rallied behind him. Leading the populist challenge was a Who’s Who of 60’s radicals—Jerry Rubin, Stew Albert, Ibni Hayden, Bobby Scale et al. John Lennon, during his “bed-in” with Yoke Ono, sent a message of support.

On April 20, 1969, hundreds of activists, fired by a spirit of 60’s cooperation, invaded the lot armed with picks and shovels. A tractor materialized from nowhere. Those who were not stoned out of their minds worked very hard, but—true to the times—with little discipline. Gradually, a park of sorts took shape. But in its inspiration lay its weakness: it was the product of innocent anarchism, lacking plan, purpose, or future.

For the left the park symbolized the best of 60’s values: people power and ecological harmony. For the right it represented subversion and decadence. It had to be destroyed. Caught between these two sides was then chancellor of the university, Roger Heyns. Experience had taught him not to underestimate the power of youthful protest. But neither could he ignore the authority of the state of California and its governor—Ronald Reagan—who controlled the university’s purse strings.

The left rallied, the right fumed, and Heyns dithered. On May 15, at the request of the Republican mayor, 250 police from various forces took over the park. They were eventually challenged by 4,000 demonstrators who had cleverly seized the high ground. Neither side subsequently displayed restraint. Demonstrators tossed bricks and rocks from the rooftops. The police, increasingly frustrated, used tear gas, then birdshot, then buckshot. As time passed their aim became more random, their range ever shorter. One rioter was killed, another blinded.

Later that night, Reagan sent in the National Guard. For the next 17 days, Berkeley was a war zone. The action of the military is best described as bizarre. On one occasion, guardsmen threw tear gas canisters into a crowded lecture hall, then held the doors shut to prevent escape. On the 20th, in an obviously premeditated action, soldiers cleared university buildings, then blocked all the main campus exits. A bewildered crowd of students, staff, and passersby watched in disbelief as a National Guard helicopter sprayed gas.

Reagan won his little war, but he lost the hearts and minds of local residents. They never forgave him. In the Reagan presidential landslide of 1984, Walter Mondale won 83 percent of Berkeley’s votes. As for People’s Park, the university realized that the wisest course was to leave the site alone. Never properly landscaped, it became Berkeley’s ugliest and most important park—informally dedicated to the memory of James Rector, the slain protester.

People power had won. A makeshift children’s play area was built, along with a speaker’s stand and a community garden. A recycled clothes bin appeared and remained for years. But the spirit that had inspired the park dissipated in the “me” decade of the 1970’s. The sybarites took over: it became a place for drug deals, loud music, and exhibitionism. Creating a better life gave way to creating a better high. In the 1980’s it remained a place for drugs, but drugs of despair, not decadence. Heroin and crack replaced pot, LSD, and cocaine. For most, the park became a disappointment and an embarrassment. But for some it remained a shrine.

The city and the university, believing that a generation is long enough for emotions to cool, decided in 1991 that the time had come to make something of the park. But when the university started to build volleyball courts last summer, Berkeley radicals reacted to the invasion of their sacred ground like Sikhs to the storming of the Golden Temple. Trouble erupted on August 3, 1991. A huge crowd surged down Telegraph Avenue, where it confronted over 200 police in full riot gear, armed with rubber bullets, stun guns, and truncheons. Surveillance helicopters whirred overhead; tear gas poisoned the air. It was like old times.

On my first trip into Berkeley during the summer of 1991, I shared a seat on the train with a woman burdened with leaflets rallying comrades to “the defense of People’s Park.” One had to be impressed by her dedication. She could not have been more than 20 years old. Like her comrade Denovo, memories of the struggle came to her secondhand—perhaps from her mother or father. She saw herself as the defender of that golden decade of hope and social responsibility. For the past year she and her friends have maintained a permanent demonstration in Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. They recruit new activists among pimple-faced first-year students who listen to Maggie’s Farm on CD. Agitation remains the soul of Berkeley.

For Denovo the volleyball courts symbolized an ethos so evil it had to be crushed. Her fellow activists share her ideals, if not her self-destructiveness. They keep on keepin’ on, clinging desperately to tawdry symbols of a decade that exists only in their imagination. Defending an unsightly vacant lot seems a strange wav to uphold the 60’s spirit.

What is the myth and what the legacy of the 1960’s? Berkeley’s decision to improve the park was taken after a lengthy democratic planning process, which was itself a creation of the 1960’s campaign for greater political participation. The decade popularized ideas about beautifying one’s living space and creating public leisure sites for everyone to enjoy. The 60’s also saw the beginnings of the health consciousness movement—natural food, relaxation, exercise. Perhaps it is not entirely sacrilege that the people should play volleyball in People’s Park.