Michael Delacour, who helped start a revolution at Berkeley’s People’s Park, dies at 85

Sam Whiting

March 30, 2023 (SFChronicle.com)


Activist Michael Delacour in Berkeley circa 1969. 
Activist Michael Delacour in Berkeley circa 1969. Provided by Nacio Jan Brown

The ongoing cultural revolution that is People’s Park in Berkeley has always been deliberately leaderless. 

But somebody had to host the meeting where the idea to turn a vacant lot owned by the University of California into a community park became a plan of action, and somebody had to bring the truckload of sod and shovels that started it all in April 1969. That somebody was Michael Delacour. 

A boilermaker by trade who never attended UC Berkeley — or any university — Delacour was the tip of the spear when the Cyclone fence put up by police came down in May 1969, and he was there again when another Cyclone fence came down in January 2021, his last major act of resistance at the renegade 3-acre open space.

Delacour was often in the park to partake of the daily communal meal of beans and rice delivered by Food Not Bombs, the food distribution collective. 

“He would sit on the stage and people would come to check in with him because he was known and recognized,” said Lisa Teague, another People’s Park activist. “He was always open to talking about park history and our 54 years of resistance.” 

Delacour agitated on behalf of the park in the fall when stage 4 lung cancer rendered him too weak to walk to the park from his apartment a half-mile away. He died March 9 at Kaiser Oakland, said Teague, a close friend and confidante. Delacour was 85.

“Michael is universally recognized as the founder of People’s Park,” said David L. Axelrod, an attorney and member of the People’s Park Council. “He continued as a thought leader and provided inspiration to the people of People’s Park and the broader community right up until his recent demise.”

The park’s annual concert on April 23 will be a memorial to Delacour. As a tribute, a bulletin board for the posting of handbills — a favorite Delacour activity — will be unveiled, bearing a portrait of him by artist Ed Monroe. 

“Michael was an absolutely principled person,” said Carol Denney, a folk singer and activist who knew Delacour for 50 years. “He completely embraced the principles of peace and labor and revolution, and he took very seriously that we were a family.”

Michael Delacour was born Feb. 23, 1938, in San Diego. According to a biography by Tom Dalzell posted to the website Quirky Berkeley, Delacour moved around with his father, an electronics technician, before settling in the Mission Beach area. By the time he finished high school, he had a wife and a daughter.

He got a job at Convair, a military contractor, and one child became three. After his wife took the children to live in Oklahoma, Delacour drifted through Europe before landing in Berkeley to protest the war effort that he had played a part in during his eight years at Convair. 

“He had worked for the defense industry and had a stunning realization that the good jobs he had early in life were part of the war machine,” said Denney. 

In 1967, the University of California used its right of eminent domain to buy a large swath of housing, much of it classic Berkeley brown shingle  homes a few blocks south of campus. Some of these homes had been carved into rentals where a population that Hunter S. Thompson called “the Non Student Left” lived. Delacour was not among those displaced, but he lived close enough to feel the pain of those who were, and that pain only worsened when the university bulldozed the housing and then let the land deteriorate into a muddy parking lot.

“They wanted the hippies out,” Delacour told The Chronicle during an interview to mark the 50th anniversary of People’s Park. “When the university took it over they bulldozed 53 houses and made it flat. That’s what we started from.”

People’s Park rose out of the antiwar movement that Delacour and his girlfriend, Liane Chu, were deeply involved in, both in Berkeley and in Washington, D.C. 

He and Chu opened Red Square, a dress shop on Dwight Way where they also lived. It was there, on April 15, 1969, that the first organizational meeting took place. “They agreed to build a park in the rutted-out, busted-up vacant wasteland that Lot 1875 had become,” is how the moment is described in the oral history “The Battle for People’s Park, 1969,” published by Heyday.  

From the rolled-out sod that Delacour had trucked in, the park grew to include swing sets, a garden, a winding brick footpath and an amphitheater, all built and maintained by volunteers. There was even public art, with red letters spelling out the word “KNOW” at one edge.

After the group of activists spent a month planting and grooming their park, the university came in with the bulldozers again and an 8-foot Cyclone fence was put around it.

The situation escalated on May 15, 1969, when an anti-war rally in Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus ended with a march to People’s Park in order to retake it. It escalated further when Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies were brought in carrying shotguns loaded with birdshot. The weapons were fired from the street toward people gathered on rooftops along Telegraph Avenue. James Rector was killed, Alan Blanchard was blinded and 40 people were injured.

“Some people are suffering from wounds today,” Delacour told The Chronicle on the 50th anniversary. “I was shot at but wasn’t hit.”

That began 40 days and 40 nights of protest at People’s Park, the longest in the long history of Berkeley activism. The National Guard came and went but Delacour never left, and he never gave up on the rectangle of land as a symbol of the struggle.

Delacour was a founding member of Pittsburg Local 549 of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. It is hard labor involving heavy welding and rigging, and he worked into his 70s, mostly on big industrial construction projects. During off hours he could be found at Caffe Mediterraneum where he met Odile Hugonot, a French emigre who worked as a nurse. They ended up living together on the top floor of a house on Parker Street in the 1980s. By then, Delacour’s wife, Leslie, and three kids, Kathy, Vanessa and David, had moved to Berkeley and were in and out. Plus he had adopted the son of his niece, Dusk Delacour. There were plenty of mouths to feed, but he always helped street people, Hugonot said. 

“He always said to me, it’s not easy to beg, so when people ask for it you should give them what you can,” Hugonot said. After seven years together, Delacour and Hugonot broke up and Delacour later married Gina Sasso, another People’s Park activist. Sasso died of pneumonia in 2011, at age 49.

“Gina was such a rock in his life, and when she died he was a broken man,” said Maxina Ventura, a longtime People’s Park activist. “But he kept working in the park and he kept looking for justice.”

Delacour ran for mayor of Berkeley in a 1986 race won by Loni Hancock. He was also active in the squat movement to occupy vacant buildings. He was handy and could always get the water and electricity running and handle plumbing issues, Ventura said. But his greater strength was as a motivator.

The last time she saw it put to use was in January 2021, when the university fenced off areas of the park. Delacour was there, with his powers of persuasion, saying that the fence needed to come down.

“He did it in his chuckling way, with a twinkle in his eyes,” said Ventura. “He said, ‘We’ve got the numbers here, what are we going to do,’ and that fence came down with great joy.”

Reach Sam Whiting: swhiting@sfchronicle.com

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