Michael Delacour, a founder of People’s Park in Berkeley, died Thursday after a prolonged illness. He was 85.
Delacour was a pillar of Berkeley’s civil rights history, known for breaking ground at People’s Park in 1969 in an act of resistance against UC Berkeley. He carried the movement forward through the decades and was a visible figure at protests and rallies, even in his last years.
Carol Denney, a longtime friend of Delacour, met him in 1972 when she began attending UC Berkeley. He always framed park issues in terms of class struggle and solidarity, she said, and perpetuated a culture of respect.
“Over the years, he was one of the “welcome mats” for people like me, who just walked into it bewildered,” Denney said. “He was an extremely clear connection between the past and the present.”
Delacour moved to Berkeley from Southern California in the 1960s. He lived above the Bongo Burger on Dwight Way and would see the vacant UC lot (intended first for housing, then parking) across from his home.
On April 20, 1969, he and several others, including Stew Albert, Frank Bardacke, Paul Glusman, Wendy Schlesinger and Liane Chu, entered the lot with sod, gardening equipment, and building materials. They were joined by hundreds of people who had read about the initiative to build a park in the underground paper, the Berkeley Barb.
“That’s where it all started,” he told Berkeleyside last August, sitting on the Sproul Plaza steps at a protest against UC Berkeley’s renewed attempts to begin construction. He joked about the exhausting walk he’d taken that day from People’s Park to the Cal campus, a path he’d traveled dozens of times. “It was hard for me to walk up here. I’m getting old.”
His grandson, Dusk Delacour, civil rights attorney Osha Neumann and other longtime activists sat beside him, watching the crowd gather to protest UC’s late-night move to enter the park and begin building student housing.
“I sort of keep thinking it’s all gonna end, but it doesn’t,” Delacour said. “It’s so impressive that it doesn’t end.”
A few years before Delacour became deeply involved in the movement at People’s Park, he lived in the Southside neighborhood with Liane Chu, who had been part of the Free Speech Movement in the early 1960s.
He was involved in many intersections of the Bay Area civil rights movement. During protests against Huey Newton’s arrest in the late 1960s, Delacour drove the Black Panthers around the East Bay in his “full-sized, psychedelically orange-, blue- and green-painted bus … sides plastered with Free Huey! signs and posters,” Black Panther David Hilliard wrote in his autobiography.
Delacour and Chu opened the Red Square Dress Shop in an apartment above Bongo Burger in 1966, and it became a hub for organizing meetings about a nascent concept for People’s Park. The idea finally took hold in April 1969.
They parted ways around the time the park was founded, but kept in touch through the years until Chu died in 2021, according to a post on Delacour’s Facebook page.
Those first years of the park were turbulent, and Delacour and his co-founders’ names were a constant in newspaper clippings from the era.
On May 15, 1969, known as “Bloody Thursday,” state and local police came to the park in the early morning hours to reclaim the land for the university. They fenced off the perimeter of the park and bulldozed what had been planted.
Thousands rallied and marched on the park in protest that morning, and a 25-year-old bystander, James Rector, was killed by police. Carpenter Alan Blanchard was blinded by buckshot, and many others were tear-gassed or injured.
“Michael carried a heavy heart for those who were injured during the Bloody Thursday protest in 1969, but the death of James Rector was especially painful for him,” said Lisa Teague, a People’s Park activist and neighbor.
Twenty years after Bloody Thursday, Delacour organized a May 1989 vigil for Rector at People’s Park, which spun into a riot involving thousands. It came at another turning point for the park when the university began discussing plans for a student housing development at the site.
UC Police had removed a foundation for a toilet constructed at the park a month earlier, and Delacour’s quote in the Oakland Tribune at the time sums up his lifelong approach. “They tore it out; we’ll put it back,” he said.
Then — 30 years later — Delacour posed a critical question to those gathered at People’s Park in 2021 as they protested the university’s new (but cyclical) fencing off of the park to begin construction.
“What are we trying to do, take down this fence?” asked Delacour, now with a characteristic long white beard and a pandemic-era mask. “Looking at the fence, we have the numbers here,” he said. “You guys can decide what to do.”
“There was a brief, electric pause while the crowd of students looked at each other, and then the fences started coming down,” Teague said. “It was a powerful moment. Within 15 minutes the fences were down and being carried to Sproul steps.”
Delacour returned to protests for People’s Park throughout the pandemic, and before his health declined, he turned out in the summer of 2022 at large rallies to “save the park.” Construction at the park is currently halted due to an appeal’s court decision.
Schlesinger, a People’s Park co-founder, said this week that Delacour agreed with her in his later years that the founding of People’s Park was “a seminal event kicking off the modern communitarian ecology movement.”
It was defined by the “hundreds of people who responded to the call of transforming the muddy and dangerously flooded asphalt into grassy fields and vegetable gardens,” she added.
Aidan Hill, a People’s Park activist, said Delacour was his best friend and one of the reasons he’s still in Berkeley. He’s organizing his affairs after his passing.
“He wanted people to fight for People’s Park, and that’s the best thing we can do,” Hill said.
Delacour was a lifelong champion for the park, a father and grandfather, and a member of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers & Helpers.
In an in-depth profile of Delacour in Quirky Berkeley, historian Tom Dalzell writes that Delacour was a blue-collar electronics worker in San Diego before he left Southern California. He first traveled to Europe before arriving in Berkeley and joining ongoing radical movements.
He was active in the Vietnam Day Committee, and like many storied activists of his time, the FBI was moved to start a file on his activities. Dalzell wrote in the profile that he attracted the ire and admiration of many in his time. Then-Cal Dean of Students Arleigh Williams once called him a “mischief maker.”
“Never a theorist, always an organizer, Michael lived close to the bone,” Steve Wasserman, a civil rights organizer in Berkeley and local publisher, wrote on social media. He was 16 years old when he met Delacour in Berkeley.
“He believed in ordinary people and their capacity for change. He never gave up on the working class that had birthed him, and he was stalwart to the end,” Wasserman said.