A number two US chart hit for Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On?” was a departure from his previous Motown sound into a more personal and introspective direction. Inspired by the rising tide of racial and social unrest in the United States in the late Sixties, and more personally by events like the death of Gaye’s cousin (a soldier in Vietnam), “What’s Going On?” was a plea to everyone to just stop and take a look around at the world, and to ask themselves why it was like that.
The song was nominated for two Grammy awards, and ranked by Rolling Stone Magazine as number 4 on the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” in 2004, and again when the list was revised in 2010. They may actually have been under-rating it.
The People’s Park in Berkeley was first created in 1969. The site was formerly occupied by houses, but those began to be demolished pending redevelopment by the University of California in February 1968. However, the money ran out. Only partially demolished, the site was allowed to sit derelict for more than a year. In April 1969, the site was occupied by a mixed of group of local residents and political activists who declared it the People’s Park. The university was caught off-guard by this, but negotiated with the occupiers, eventually promising to notify and consult them before proceeding with any developments.
Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, regarded this agreement as an outrageous capitulation to people he characterised as “communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants.” On Thursday, May 15, 1969, he dispatched officers of the Califorian Highway Patrol and the Berkeley police precinct to clear the park, which they entered at 4:30 in the morning. But the occupiers resisted, and more protestors arrived to aid in the struggle. By midday, more than 3000 people had gathered in an attempt to reclaim the now fenced-off park from the 159 law enforcement personnel assigned to patrol its borders. Protestors threw rocks and bottles at police, police fired pepper gas and tear gas canisters at protestors, and the situation deteriorated.
Both sides were reinforced by new arrivals, bringing the total number of police to 791 and the total of protestors to more than 4000. Police began to fire shotguns into the crowd, causing more than 100 injuries (129 hospital admissions and an unknown number of unreported injuries). One protestor, a UC Berkeley student named James Rector, was killed in the struggle. Undeterred, Reagan sent 2700 National Guard troops to restore order that evening, declaring a curfew throughout Berkeley and arresting large numbers of students, hippies and other ‘suspicious characters’. The following April, Reagan publicly said of the incident “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with.” He remains a hero of the Republican Party to this day.