Lessons from People’s Park, Occupy, and Seattle’s Capitol Hill Occupied Protest

George Floyd’s murder unleashed a firestorm of protests, fueling demands for an end to rubber bullets and tear gas for crowd control, a ban on chokeholds by arresting officers, and defunding of police. No less striking was the creation of Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), also known as the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP).

CHOP participants attempted to live cooperatively, free from hierarchy and coercion, and to police themselves to the extent necessary. They made decisions collectively and fought for social justice. Well-known historical precedents include New Harmony, an Indiana community founded by Robert Owen in the early nineteenth century; the 1871 Paris Commune; and, just a few years back, New York’s Occupy Wall Street. Each has sought, in some way, to create an isle of liberation amid a capitalist sea. And each addressed a fundamental question facing anyone committed to creation of a better world: Is human nature egoistic and competitive or are widespread sharing and mutual support achievable?

I became an anthropologist to try to resolve that question and found that there are no simple answers. There are, though, many societies that have practiced sharing and mutual support.Still, one might ask whether such a lifestyle can be transplanted to the capitalist West. Experiments such as Occupy and CHOP suggest an answer.

Another such experiment, known as “People’s Park,” was created in the spring of 1969 in Berkeley, California. The student activism of the 1960s is often traced to Berkeley’s 1964 Free Speech Movement. The following year, inspired by the FSM, I moved across the country for undergraduate studies and soon became politically involved. I took part in “Stop The Draft Week,” helped organize anti-war demonstrations, got to know Black Panther leaders, and was involved in the Third World Liberation Front student strike. People’s Park was the last political cataclysm to shake Berkeley prior to my graduation.

The Park was built on unused land owned by the University of California. During April and early May of 1969, activists, homeless “street people,” and other community members built the spot into an oasis of free speech and mutual assistance. They planted flowers, shrubs, and other vegetation. Volunteers brought food for anyone in need. Participants with no good place to sleep would spend all night in the Park. Others visited for a few hours during daylight and into the evening.

People enjoyed the camaraderie, and a community began to flourish. People worked as much or as little as they chose, and each shared in the benefits. Even participants unaccustomed to manual labor sweated in the sun. Anarchists helped rope off certain areas and respected signs to keep out of sections being worked on. Coercion wasn’t needed, as people understood that everyone would benefit from general adherence to a few simple rules—their rules.

The People’s Park that I remember was short-lived. The university wouldn’t allow even derelict land to be used by others without its permission and control. On May 15, authorities called in the Berkeley and Oakland police departments and the Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies. Then-governor Ronald Reagan mobilized the National Guard.

Sympathizers responded with massive demonstrations. Police and Guardsmen fired tear gas and buckshot into the crowd. Alan Blanchard, a carpenter, was blinded by birdshot. James Rector, a visitor from out of town, watched the action from a Telegraph Avenue rooftop. Police shot him to death. A week and a half after Rector’s death, on May 30, more than 30,000 outraged citizens marched through Berkeley’s streets to express their indignation.

Eventually, police put up a fence around the park. The grass and flowers died. I graduated in August of that year and have not been back to Berkeley since. The story, however, did not end with the occupiers’ expulsion. In 1971, university plans to construct a soccer field and parking lot on the site prompted renewed demonstrations, resulting in dozens of arrests. In 1972, further protests spurred Berkeley’s City Council to lease the site from the university.

In 1979, the university tried once more to seize the land, leading to another round of protests. In the end, the site became a public park. A recreational haven for local residents, it still hosts organic community gardens, and a group called Food Not Bombs feeds the financially distressed.

So what does all this mean for other experiments in collective living? CHOP and Occupy were forcibly shut down, and we don’t know what would have happened had they been able to continue. Occupants of People’s Park, despite their heterogeneous backgrounds, got along reasonably well, resolved their occasional differences, and achieved important shared—albeit limited—objectives. News from CHOP is mixed and has included fatal shootings. It is unclear whether those responsible were occupiers or outsiders preying on an otherwise-peaceful enclave. It is likewise unclear whether police presence would have thwarted or inflamed the problem.

Some advocates of People’s Park imagined dismantling capitalism one piece at a time. That was illusory. Yet, the Park has had remarkable staying power, and participants have benefited from its operation. Perhaps Occupy and CHOP, like People’s Park, will one day re-emerge and succeed, at least on a small scale. Still, to achieve the larger goal and move beyond “utopian socialism” will require fundamental changes in the broader society—in our cultural ethos and system of socio-economic relations. Victory in that endeavor is not guaranteed. The Park, however, tells us there is hope. People are not hard-wired as competitive, self-centered creatures. Thus, with sufficient effort and commitment we may yet create a humane, empathetic world.