Berkeley Heretics

As part of my research into the life of Isaac Bonewits, I watched the film Berkeley in the Sixties, At about the 1:39 mark, I grabbed for the remote control and paused the film. I couldn’t believe it.

The date is May 11, 1969. The event is the consecration of People’s Park in Berkeley, CA. On the screen was almost the exact image of a photograph from Isaac’s files. There was Richard York, minister of the Free Church, wearing a colorful 60s-style interpretation of an African robe, reading a blessing over People’s Park. On the left is Father Jim Conway, a Roman Catholic Priest. And on the right…

In the photographs Isaac saved, Isaac is standing on the right, wearing a short-sleeved green shirt, looking like a dorky college student with a minister’s collar. It’s unusual to see Isaac in a religious ceremony wearing the most conversative clothing, which is why the picture stuck in my memory.

I went to my computer and looked up the photograph. I’d include it here, but the copyright situation is muddled. Isaac saved the picture from a magazine (Ramparts), but no other information about it: the full name of the magazine, the photographer, nor anything else I can use to track down permissions. Whether the picture can be included in the biography will rest with the publisher’s permissions editor.

I started up the movie again, hoping to catch a glimpse of Isaac in it. If the camera just panned a little more to the right…

No. There’s a half-second glimpse of his right shoulder, but that’s it.

That brief moment of fun was not all I got from Berkeley in the Sixties. Isaac had saved several articles about the consecration of People’s Park, but I had thought it was because he was mentioned in many of them (with his name mispelled “Isaac Bonowiz”). One article suggested that the consecration was Isaac’s idea. At the time, Isaac’s days as a Satanist were behind him, but his journey into Druidry had not yet begun; he identified himself as Minister of the Universal LIfe Church. That’s all I knew about it.

Now I know that the People’s Park was the center of the most violent conflict of the Berkeley student movement.

Let’s back up a bit. In 1967, the University of California at Berkeley acquired a 3-acre plot of land south of the Berkeley campus through eminent domain. They evicted the residents, tore down the homes, and planned to turn the plot into a parking lot and playing field. They ran out of money, leaving it a field of debris, rubble, and abandoned cars.

In April, 1969, over 100 people from both UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement and the local Hippie community occupied the property. They cleaned up the lot, planted sod, and turned it into the People’s Park.

The UCB Regents didn’t like this one bit. They recognized that the park would be used as an off-campus location for student rallies; they had enough problems trying to control protests on campus. The University announced that they were going to build a sports field on the property. The students naturally objected, and they began negoiating with UCB as to what was to be done.

The purpose of the May 11 ceremony was, according to Isaac, to hopefully discourage the University from bulldozing consecrated ground. Unfortunately, this attempt was a failure.

The governor of California, Ronald Reagan, made a campaign promise when he was elected in 1966 to crack down on the permissive attitudes California’s public universities were showing students. In his mind, student should be disciplined, not negotiated with. In the early morning of May 15, 1969, four days after the consecration, he sent police officers to clear the People’s Park and put an 8-foot chain-link fence around the property.

By noon a crowd of 3000 students had formed in Sproul Plaza, an open area in front of UCB’s main administrative building, and the site of many previous student protests. The original purpose of the rally was the conflict in the Middle East (still an issue today, 45 years later), but a speaker brought up the subject of People’s Park. It turned into a spontaneous march, the students chanting “Let’s take back the park!” They met the police who were guarding the park site.

In Berkeley in the Sixties, one of the commentators says that what happened next marked the nadir of the student movement at Berkeley. Both sides turned violent. Students threw bottles, rocks, and bricks; a car was set on fire. The police responded with teargas and shotguns. One student, James Rector, was killed.

The violence did not end that day. Reagan called in the National Guard. On May 20, 1969, five days after “Bloody Thursday,” a police line formed around Sproul Plaza trapping the students inside, while helicopters flew over the campus and teargased the crowd. Students who tried to escape the gas were tossed back into the cloud by the police.

I have no evidence that Isaac was part of the active protests, nor that was he teargased or even harassed by the police patrolling the campus. He knew what was happening, of course. On May 23, 1969, he wrote a letter to Ronald Reagan suggesting that students who were “non combatants” could wear a symbol, such as a white armband, to indicate they were not part of the student protests. To my surprise (and probably Isaac’s), he received a polite answer from the Governor’s Office a couple of weeks later; the essence of the reply was that emblem might place the wearer at risk from the protesters.

Among Isaac’s papers are the outlines of a speech he created for a class (probably “Intro to Speech”) on the topic of revolutionaries. (He got an A- for the speech, by the way.) Along with the notes on that speech is a different and very angry screed against the Berkeley administration, and accusing Ronald Regan (among others) of the murder of James Rector. I don’t know if he ever gave that second speech; perhaps he intended it for one of the student rallies.

I not only learned more about Isaac from watching Berkeley in the Sixties. I also gained some insight into Margot Adler.

After watching the film, I decided to finish reading Heretic’s Heart. Now we have to step back further, to 1964. The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley took over Sproul Hall. Students were arrested and jailed en masse. One of those students was Margot Adler.

It was strange to read Margot’s description of her experiences just after seeing those same events in the film. It was a bit like seeing a movie, then immediately reading the novelization. The difference: this wasn’t fiction. I’d just seen those students making speeches and being taken away in handcuffs; now I read Margot’s eyewitness account.

I didn’t see Margot in the film. I doubt I would have recognized her if I had; at the time she weighed about two hundred pounds; there were no such women in the film. One of the themes in Heretic’s Heart is Margot’s understanding of her body, her reasons for weighing so much, her gradual sexual awakening, and the role of Wicca in accepting herself. Most of that was to come after she graduated from Berkeley in 1968.

What I got from watching Berkeley in the Sixties and reading Heretic’s Heart in succession was how much the young people of that time were willing to translate their ideals into action. Today we face issues that are no less serious: the emergence of a surveillance state, the tossing aside of civil liberties for an illusion of safety, the widening disparity in the distribution of wealth.

In the Sixties, people were willing to risk their futures to achieve their goals. Today they’re willing to ask you repost a Facebook status.

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