The Berkeley Provo Movement was small, short-lived (late 1966 until 1968), and important in a way that was completely disproportionate to its size or lifespan. Its de facto leader, Big Bill Miller, was a bigger-than-life, prominent figure in countercultural Berkeley for five years and then disappeared.
The Berkeley Provo Movement was loosely based on the Dutch Provo movement, which was founded, on 25 May, 1965, by anti-smoking activist Robert Jasper Grootveld and anarchists Roel van Duijn and Rob Stolk. The Provos borrowed their name from Wouter Buikhuisen, who in a 1965 doctoral dissertation wrote about young trouble-makers as “provos,” a word derived from the Dutch word provoceren, meaning “to provoke.”
There was no central leadership or broader movement, although there were Provos in Los Angeles and Denver, and the like-minded Diggers in San Francisco, Brothers in Seattle, and Prunes in Cleveland.
The Berkeley Barb paid attention to the Dutch Provo Movement, writing on June 3, 1966 with a headline of “Dutch Youth Take Civic Action”, that “Dutch ‘beatniks [this was before the term “hippies” had been coined] are running several candidates for the Amsterdam city council elections to be held June 1″. In the November 4, 1966 Barb we could read a long article called “Provos: The Dutch Anarchists” by Anthony Howe.
The first mention of the new Provo Movement in Berkeley came on November 25, 1966, with the headline of “For Love Not Lucre.” We learned that the previous Satuday, the Provos “were around the fountain in the Civic Center park across from the City Hall. There was a five-gallon can full of piping hot, delicious thick soup of beef stock, vegetables and rice. About 20 people, each with his bowl and spoon, shared the bounty of bubbling broth. On Sunday and Monday, at the same time of day, it happened again – the hot soup, a few more people (about 30, including some kids), the community of sharing.”
On November 30, 1966, Big Bill Miller and several other non-students were arrested for taking part in a sit-in on campus protesting for the University’s decision to allow the student union for naval recruitment while refusing it to the Vietnam Day Committee; students taking part in the sit-in were not arrested.
Jerry Rubin wrote about this arrest in Do It!:
Finally the cops arrived and surrounded the 1000 people sitting in.
Berkeley Executive Vice Chancellor Earl F. Cheit, having just returned from a six-week refresher course in the Soviet Union, issue a statement blaming the sit-in on six non students. The cops and arrest warrants for the six; Mario Savio, Stew Albert, Steve Hamilton, Mike Smith, Bill Miller, and myself. Karen Wald, another non student sitting right in the middle of the group, was ignored. Furious, she shouted, ‘You fucking malr supremacists, arrest me too!”
A moment about Bill Miller’s past. He was reported to be 6’6″ tall. An early story claimed that his nickname was “Buffalo” but I have not seen any other evidence of that nickname.
He was born William Crosby Miller In Monterey County on June 10, 1941. I don’t know about his first 25 years except for what we learn from the Alton Evening Telegraph of November 19, 1962. Alton, Illinois, is about 15 miles north of St. Louis. The story tells us that the manager of the Hotel Stratford filed theft charges against Miller for stealing $800. Miller had worked as a part-time desk clerk at the hotel and had disappeared. The story further tells us that authorities found a list of friends and relatives on the wall in Miller’s room, including an address for “Uncle Bing Crosby.” Miller’s mother’s maiden name was Crosby and Herb Caen reported – is that the right word for what Caen did? – that Miller was in fact Bing’s nephew.
Miller took part in the December 2, 1964, sit-in in Sproul Hall during the Free Speech Movement, for which he was convicted and fined $150.
In 1965 te bought the Steppenwolf bar on San Pablo Avenue from Max Scherr, who Scherr used the proceeds to create the Barb.
In the November 9, 1965 Barb, Miller was quoted in an article about a planned anti-war march on November 20 and anticipated violence from the Hells Angels:
“If attacked,” said Bill Miller of the emergency committee, “we will use only pacifist methods of self-protection.”
He was identified as the VDC spokesman in the Barb of November 26, 1965 and was quoted as saying “The future of the VDC looks very good Although this week no concretized programs will be put into effect because most of the leaders are en route to the Washingtonn peace convention, there are many brainstorming sessions going on. The important thing is to have programs with focus. We must always keep in mind the objective and not lose the wide support that is increasing daily.”
The December 10 Barb told of a confrontation between VDC members including Miller at and Vice President Hubert Humphrey at an event where Humphrey was scheduled to speak. Again cited by the Barb as a spokesman on December 17, 1965, Miller commented on Jerry Rubin receiving a 30-day sentence, which he called “a sign of things to come. It shows, that when war is the issue, any rights may be walked over.”
Matthew Zion, George Kauffman, and Miller were arrested in early February 1966 for sitting in Jeffrey Cohelan’s office. (Barb, February 18, 1966).
When Cohelan was elected to Congress in 1958 he was the secretary-treasurer of the Milk Drivers and Dairy Employees, Local 302, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. In the 1958 election, he campaigned from a milk truck. He survived a serious challenge in the 1966 primary by Bob Scheer and in 1970 was beaten in the primary of 1970 by Ron Dellums. Cohelan had supported the war in Vietnam and President Johnson.
So – back to the December 1965 sit-in arrest. In March 1966, , all three who sat in were convicted. Miller’s main criticism after conviction was directed at Bob Scheer’s staff. “With the exception of Bob Scheer personally, the Scheer campaign has completely forgotten myself and the two others who sat in Cohelan’s office. This is the chief different between the ‘liberal’ and a radical campaign. Liberals remain silent while radicals speak out.” (Barb, April 1, 1966).
In the March 18, 1966, Barb, Miller spoke of the Second International Days of Protest against the war in Vietnam scheduled for March 25 and 26. He told the Barb, “Let’s not lose track of the fact that the Berkeley action is on the part of a world-wide protest.” Michael Delacour, whose rendezvous with history was still several years in the future, said that to celebrate the International Days of Protest, Berkeley would send a caravan to “Fort Ord, the Alameda Naval Base, or the ammo dump at Port Chicago.” (Barb, February 18, 1966). In the end they joined the march in San Francisco which was estimated to have drawn 8,000 marchers.
In early April, Miller was arrested on a jaywalking charge. (Barb, April 14, 1966). Really???? When the case went to trial (really????) the charge was dismissed. (Barb, May 20, 1966).
Bob Scheer’s campaign for the democratic nomination for Congress was in full swing, and Miller’s skepticism did not abate.
Bill Miller evoked silence from the crowd when he said he might not vote for Scheer. In a statement later made to BARB, Miller said, “The undemocratic procedure of the so-called non-election campaign for Scheer are, I think, a clear-cut reason to believe, if one is a radical, as I am, that either Bob Scheer or his various committees, or both, have sold out.” (Barb, April 15, 1966)
Later in April, Miller and several other A-team Berkeley radicals (Stew Albert, Marvin Garson, Mike Smith, Pete Camejo, Frank Bardacke, and Jack Weinberg) were arrested and charged with a violation of a Berkeley sound-permit ordinance.
Miller was feeling the heat and struck back, issuing a report on police harassment in the name of the Committee Opposed to Police Suppression (COPS). (Barb May 20, 1966).
Back now to the November 30, 1966, arrest of Miller and other non-students for protesting military recruitment on campus.
Three cops hurled Miller backward as one plainclothesman shouted to another, “Hey, that’s one of the guys we have a warrant for! That’s Bill Miller!”
They worked fast. A plainclothesman wrapped his arm tight around Miller’s throat from behind. The others pinioned his legs and arms.
“Get the cuffs on him,” one said.
“Miller’s voice gasped out. “I… can’t … breath.”
“That’s good, a cop said.”
(Barb, December 2, 1966)
Melvin Belli, a flamboyant and self-promoting San Francisco personal injury attorney represented the six who had been arrested, and all but Miller were convicted. Miller’s case resulted in a hung jury..
The Berkeley Citizen was a short-lived newspaper with politics left of center but mainstream production values. It sought to be a “well-written purposefully sophisticated, and rule independent weekly newspaper.” The Citizen of January 20, 1967, described Miller’s appearance in court:
Bill Miller came in and sat down nearby. He wore a black short-sleeved shirt, OD Levi’s wash pants, a thick, brown belt, hiking boots, and white wool socks. Around his neck he sported a double strand of large electric-green beads. From his left shirt pocket hung a bright red tassel. His outfit was completed by a peace button, several other buttons I did not recognize, and a paperback book stuffed in his back pocket. He sat down and started reading.
In early December 1966, the Berkeley Citizen began carrying a column by Miller.
Hi, I’m Bill Miller, and I’ll be here every week. First about me, I’ve been around Berkeley about five years, somewhat involved socially, politically, philosophically, and practically. I’m an anarchist or more recently a PROVO…. I’ll be writing about anything that turns me on, although most things that turn me on occur on our scene. It might be a cheap meal, where to shop, a sunset, anything that I thin might be of interest to someone else. I will be outspoken in my criticism of the Berkeley ops and the city power structure and on occasion will try to offer alternatives and ways to fight and/or beat them at their own game. Political and social theory will not be a part of this column. I like to think of myself as a doer not a talker.
A friend of Bob Scheers saying that Bob didn’t approve of a strike at first, a liberal chick sitting at the same table got up to dance on on hearing this said “Scheer’s a Silly” quite appropriately…
So turn on and eat a great meal at ROSA’S SOUL FOOD 10733 San Pablo, El Cerrito, soul owned and soul operated, a way out juke, large dinners for 1.50 and down-home cornbread, so make it.
Last Tuesday at the Lemon [The Blind Lemon, a music club], a wild scene. Wisps of smoke, lights, sound poetry and projections and a great crowd. I thought it reminded me of the Lemon of 4 or 5 years ago…
Whatever happened to the COPS CRUsade against the south campus BEAT jaywalkers, was it summer harassment and no real problem, yeah it was. Well, great people out there just remember your ABC’s. Always Be Cool. LATER!
A week later, the Citizen ran a second Miller column (check out the reversed photo) and a story about the Provos.
Tis the season to be stoned, wha season isn’t? Now that you’ve all got ours, I’m starting a campaign against x-mass trees::: There’s even a x-mass tree at the Coffee Gallery, the end is near…
The AVENUE seems to be overflowing with middle class hustlers in hip disguise /// the PROVOS WILL be a the park x-mass and everyday forever. What I’d like to do with x-mass, abolish it… The MED will close early x-mass eve and al thhe following day much to the chagrin of 500 voyeurs… With most of the squares gone, a very pleasant atmosphere prevails around town — the WOLF and Lemon both seem to be prospering each in its own way, the Albatross likewise … In the mood for a cheap meal the STAR lunch in the 1900 bloc of University #### PLUG. Don’t forget the STEPPENWOLF is open early WED.-SAT. 4:40 on with yours truly presiding….
CNP (better known by thinking people as CAMP) is thinking of running Mario Savio, Bob Avakian and possibly a well known CP-er for City Council this spring so good luck with the first two…
The story about the Provos under the headline “provo-cateur.”
The always alert Berkeley citizen while intermingling with the provos in the park the other day at meal time, overheard their plan for taking over Berkeley (according to the Gazette they’re already taken over civic Center Park) besides their daily free meal they’ve got it into their “heads” to revolutionize Berkeley with other free things in the near future. Their leader the Great Pumpkin outlined to this reporter their 6 point plan for taking over Berkeley. Part one of their dynamic program is already in effect — free food in the park, part two will be a free bus ride around the city, part three the free laundry mat, part four, free bicycles to help the citizens get around the carless avenue area. Part five, a large house where the homeless elements of the great society can sleep the night away and part six of the program to elect at least one and no more than ten council members and get this city back in the framework of democracy.
The Great Pumpkin went on to say that part of the real idea of part five is to establish a place here in Berkeley that would closely approximate both Shangrila and/or the middle earth, where heads, hippies and other drop-outs could spend their time in pleasant meditation. He also said that these plans were subject to change at any time.
The Provos plan to continue serving food in the park and to at least attempt to implement those programs mentioned above. Despite and over the objections of the health department they are continuing to “Happen” at the park every day. From various reports that are coming in from around the world, the era of the PROVO is taking over the scene.
Rock and roll was added to the Provo food-in-the-park program.
From the December 30, 1966 Barb: “Manager Ron Barnett told BARB the Loading Zone will blow in the park during weekends when the Berkeley Provos dish out free food.”
The December 30, 1966 and January 6, 1967 issues of the Citizen carried short Miller columns. From December 30:
FLASH – Mario Savio is being offered a paid teaching position at Starr King School for the Ministry!!! The DIGGERS had a “wild” happening in the basement of a church x-mass eve, free food turkey&stuff, rock and jazz lofting through the air. If it ever was that was it, like for 500 beautiful groovy people digging each other, a really “well” scene /// NOW /// some of you out there in reader-land thought that the article about the PROVOS was a little in-groupish. I was feeling a little funny when I wrote it and thats the way it came out, so sorry. What are THE PROVOS. They came to being in Holland, a group of Anarchistic people who hold “happenings’ in Amsterdam either for something political – like PEACE or just for fun (more on Dutch Provos next week). Berkeley PROVOS are also anarchistic by nature, but have taken on daily free food happenings for hungry people as well as anyone else in the community who feels like relaxing or talking – we’ll do other things as we feel the need, this new years day we’ll have lots of food as well as live music and games to make it +++ Buddies at 10th and Univ. open 24 hrs has minced ham, 4 eggs +++ spuds&toast too – 95 cents. THE LONER needs to share his busy schedule with a slim anarchist chick. Short column this week.
From January 6:
This week I attended two meetings between the so-called “hippies” and “poiticals” about the HUMAN-BE-IN this coming week and the overall impression I get from messieurs Mario Savio, Mike Lerner, Mike Delaour, and others was Tim Leary going to be there so it would be wise to be on the same ticket. However they did just manage to approve Allen Ginsburg’s presence, and I assume that they don’t disapprove of beats and hippies and other HUMAN-BE-IN’s working for “their” movement or going to “their” benefit or being associated with”them” I’m beginning to have grave doubts as to whether “they” really know what Yellow Submarines, grass, acid, booze, reality , or politics. I would consider it an honor to be at a happening with Jerry Rubin, Ginsburg, Leary, Dick Gregory, and other good people who preach LOVE and UNDERSTANDING. And in the future I will try to have even a little of both for everyone.
A benefit at Bill Miller’s club Steppenwolf followed (Barb January 20, 1967), and then “a bigger lineup at the Civic Center Park for the food distribution – Provos w/Loading Zone, New Delhi River Band, food, godseyes; Civic Ctr Park.” (Barb January 27, 1967).
The Provos were as decentralized as a group can be and there was no visible hierarchy, but Bill Miller soon became the most visible figure within the Provo movement. He had the rock club, he had Movement cred, and he was an animated and theatrical figure who worked very hard.
The early months of 1967 were up and down for the Berkeley Provos and their free food program.
“The Provos of Berkeley will hold no more benefits, and they are still in need of donations of food and work.” (Barb, 2/17/67).
Bill Miller petitioned for the transformation of the block on Telegraph into a carless promenade for a sole Sunday afternoon. The city would issue a bond to fill the strew with dirt and plant trees. At the same time,it would buy land in the bak of existing shops and building parking lots there. (Barb, March 3, 1967)
“Provos Keep Trying. Berkeley Provos enthused with the tremendous turnout at last week’s rain-cancelled happening, are going to try again.The Reversal of Planet Earth, barring unforeseen downpours, will take place this Sunday at Provos Park.” (Barb, March 17, 1967).
“Grooving Provo Sun. Sans Grass. Anyone who finds himself in Provo Park this Sunday will be in the midst of Provo Happening. There will also be a free flea market in which everyone is encouraged to participate.” (Barb, March 31, 1967).
Miller’s idea for a carless promenade on Telegraph reported in the March 3rd Barb was a common ancestor of People’s Park, although he suggested what would become a historic irony – that the vacant lot be used as a parking lot.
The Berkeley Citizen printed its last issue on March 10, 1967, with Bill Miller’s early promise to “be here every week” having amounted to four columns. Too bad.
San Francisco’s Human Be-In had taken place in Golden Gate Park’s Polo Field on January 14, 1967. Check out the two posters for it – psychedelic and professional wrestling
The Provos were inspired and so scheduled a Berkeley Be-In for March 11 in Tilden Park.
Chronicle columnist and Berkeley resident Ralph J. Gleason described the rained-out March 11 event in Tilden Park
Tomorrow, the Berkeley Provos, who are modeled on the Dutch Provos and are similar to the Haight Ashbury Diggers, The Los Angeles Diggers and a new group in Cleveland called the Cleveland Prunes, are having a Berkeley Be-In.
The affair will begin at noon in Tilden Park at the Mineral Springs area. The Provos are organizing a car pool for those without wheels which will leave Constitution Park at 11am. There will be free food and lots of music. Among the groups which will appear at the Berkeley event–which is being officially called the Reversal Of The Earthquake Picnic–are: The Loading Zone, The New Delhi River Band, The Junior Teachers Band, Soul Purpose, Motor and Blue Cheer. Given the basic political orientation of Berkeley, as opposed to the basic non-political orientation of the Haight/Ashbury, this affair ought to be different and even more interesting. It might even achieve the Yellow Submarine (remember, Mellow Yellow!) community envisioned by some who hope to see the two merge. As it happened, the event was rained out, and re-scheduled for the following Sunday at Constitution (Provo) Park.
The April 7 Barb reported on the re-scheduled event.
“You mean all this stuff’s for free?” a straight person asked.
“Yes, it’s the free flea market the provos set up, ” a Provo answered.
“Oh my God people writing with chalk all over the sidewalk. I wonder what the Mayor’s gong to say. I wonder if I’ll be mayor?” Bill Miller speaking this time.
The Happening at Provos Park on Sunday last was a Milestone. Walking throughout the Park BARB felt that there was a true community event. More than just “visible hippies” were there. Many people of all ages were present and grooving at Provo Park. More important than just this is the fact that these many kinds of people could, for the first time during a Sunday such as the one recently past, groove in the lavatories.
… Beneath the uncertain light show The Loading Zone, Motor, and a new electric string band from Antioch, Ohio, The Mad River, played magnificently. The Provos provided a very special Potato Soup.
BARB heard Human Beings saying that Berkeley has, with the help of the Provos, created a true beautiful ongoing event.
Provos bemoaned the fact that some people were panhandling during the happening. Bill Miller was forced to assume custody of the microphone and announce that panhandling or passing out political pamphlets was “not where it’s at, here in Provo Park.
One of the more beautiful things that happened was that children came up to the microphones when bands were changing and would sing and mimic the adults all around them. Ah, the sanity of children.
The Barb ran these photos of the happening in its March 24 edition:
Berkeley’s municipal elections were held on April 4, 1967.
Jerry Rubin (a Yippie who was quoted in the March 3, 1967 Citizen as saying “If elected I can pardon myself”) and Peter Camejo (the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party) ran against the incumbent Wallace Johnson.
Rubin produced some good graphics.
Bill Miller ran a write-in campaign, highlighting the Provos. Write-in or not, Miller too had killer graphics.
In my opinion, this is one of the top five BEST EVER political posters.
He also took out a full page ad in the March 31, 1967 Barb.
Specifically referring to this ad, serious politico Peter Camejo wrote “I liked Bill, a countercultural rebel.”
Details from the ad:
Local people endorsing him:
And “endorsements” from outside Berkeley:
An opinion piece in the March 31, 1967 Barb wasn’t helpful for Miller’s candidacy: “Another candidate for mayor is Big Bill Miller, as a write in. His vibes are good, most good, and most in tune with BARB. But (sob) he cannot win — he said so from the start. Besides we need him a little while longer to PROVOke. Maybe next time Provo will prevail.”
Wallace Johnson: 25,224 (70.48%)
Jerry Rubin: 7,385 (20.64%)
Peter Camejo 1019 (2.85%)
For all his work, Miller received 61 votes out of 35,921 cast.
Comic relief was provided by the campaign of Fred Huntley, a member of the John Birch Society.
Huntley won 2,160 votes (6.04%).
Meanwhile back at Provo Park:
Rock Archaeology 101 has a good small piece about Initial Shock, which was initially from Missoula, Montana. They had, we are told, “a driving, bluesy sound”
In the final days of his campaign for Mayor, Miller did not forget the Provo movement. “The Provos are not providing any grass, except the sort that supports blankets. They will provide the ubiquitous potato soup, and in the words of Bill Miller, ‘Bring food, clothes, bread, grass chalk, dynamite, love and Love.'” (Barb, May 31, 1967).
On April 9, 1967, there was an unsanctioned block party on Telegraph Avenue that the Provos were quick to state was not their doing. “The weedvine says that there will be live rock music, flutes, bells, troupers, beads, love, pranksters, peace, children, sunshine and probably potato soup. Yet it is NOT sponsored by the Provos, unsponsored Provos all say.” (Barb, April 7, 1967).
The April 14 Barb had these photos:
With an influx of young people coming to the Bay Area for what would become known as the Summer of Love, the Provos turned their attention to medical services.
In the May 26, 1967 Barb, we read that Miller and Dr. Eugene Schoenfeld (HIPpocrates) had visited “Dr. Alvin Leonard, health head for the City of Berkeley and Mrs. Shapiro, a nutritionist. Both Schoenfeld and Miller told BARB that the health officials were very cooperative and helpful – even friendly. They offered to have one of the provos take a food handling course with the Berkeley Health Dept.” Good idea!
The June 1, 1967 Barb headlined “Provos Meet Medics.”
The June 16, 1967 column by Dr. Hippocrates reported that “Berkeley’s Provos have begun discussions with health officials regarding humane means of dealing with freak outs.”
An article in the same issue headlined “Provo Joy” told us:
Starting this Monday and every day thereafter between the hours of 6 and 7 p.m.,there will be free delicious hot soup for those of our community and the peaceful summer travelers who will be joining us. Bring a bowl and spoon. Some bands have offered to oplay at these evening happenings as well as the Sunday scenes in PROVO Park. As part of their Thing for this summer the provos are also trying to provide pads for people to crash at. Some sleeping places are already available; however, more will be needed, so if you have room for one or more people to stay, call or drop us a postcard. There will also be limited legal aid available for those running afoul of the local law.”
In the June 23, 1967 issue, the Barb assured us – “Provos Set for Summer of Love.”
The Berkeley Provos are really doing their best to see that the Summer of LOVE keeps moving along. The free food thing started happening on Mondy and at press time the PROVOS are moving a-head, dropped out, turned on and tuned in with all their summer plans. 30-50 people have been showing up at PROVO park at 6 pm to dig the food and the scene. The gods have smiled sun-shine and love upon those gathered and Tuesday the Berkeley Philharmonic played up while we grooved and passers by joined in the happening. Beginning this Saturday and almost eery evening thereafter there will be Rock Music and dancing from 6:30 till sunset.
Two weeks later, in the July 3, 1967 Barb, there was a less cheerful report: “The Berkeley Provos, three-month-old wunderkind of the local hip scene, is (sic) suffering from shrinking pains instead of growing pains, and needs help if it is to get beyond its first steps towards building a community based on love and mutuality.
The Provo Free Store opened at 2288 San Pablo. The July 21, 1967 Barb couldn’t stop gushing about the store:
“Our landlord is a really nice guy. We’re going to turn him into a hippie yet,” a Provo told BARB at the Provo Free Store at 2228 San Pablo.
“His wife is going to give us a sewing machine so that donated clohtes can be repaired, and she’s even going to do the repairing.”
The walls of the FREE store are lined with shelves and thee shelves are crammed with clothes, tis, cooking utensils, cosmetics, a black lace corset, several unidentifiable objects, baby furniture, blankets, sleeping bags, blankets and mattresses.
“After 8 o’clock we put the mattresses on the floor and the store is converted into a crash,” said another Provo.
About 7 Provos live t the FREE store, which has been open for 2 weeks “We’ve been pre-warned to expect a visit from the Board of Health, but so far no one’s shown up, but we’ve hd lots of people just coming look.” And many people come in for things they need. Mostly the people are women with children needing baby clothes and toys.
That issue also showed us the Provo free bus, named the Nova Express.
Reading notes on the name: Nova Express is a 1964 novel by beat writer William S. Burroughs. It was written using the ‘fold-in’ method, a version of the cut-up method, developed by Burroughs with Brion Gysin, of enfolding snippets of different texts into the novel. It is part of The Nova Trilogy, or “Cut-Up Trilogy,’ together with The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded. Burroughs considered the trilogy a “sequel” or “mathematical” continuation of Naked Lunch.
Sorry! Back to the bus –
A week earlier (July 14, 1967), the Barb had reported that “Sunday’s Provo benefit at the Steppenwolf was a high success. As of the writing of this article, the end result of the benefit is on the street – A FREE BUS- going around town and twice daily to the HAIGHT (LOVE).” The “schedule:
The July14 Barb also reported that “the Provo Free Store of Berkeley opened this week to provide free things for free people so those of us who need clothes can obtain them and those who have extra clothes can give them…. Remember FREE things are good for everybody.
The August 3, 1967 Barb carried an article about the “beautiful Provos of Amsterdam” and a call for help in Berkeley:
Free Store Needs Food and Mostly Like Money: “We need lots of stuff like baby clothes, food, and funds, mostly funds, but we can always use anything like shoes and books,” a Provo told BARB.”A guy came in and dropped off 100 pounds of rice, and we’ll put it in the soup. We put everything in the soup, like this straight looking dude brought in some vegetables, and we put them in for that night. I had some of the soup and it wasn’t bad,” he said.
This week the Provos are serving soup, bread, and pie at Provo Park in Berkeley every evening. “We can’t supply spoons or bowls, because there’s some kind of health department rule, so the people have to bring their own. We could really use stuff like flour, vegetables and soup bones or meat. We went to the local community-owned super-market to see if they could help us, but they to sell all their bones.But we’ll take anything anybody wants to give. They can call the store or just bring it,” said the Provo.
The August 11th, 1967, Barb announced that Bill Miller was leaving Berkeley. “Miller, who founded the Berkeley Provos last winter, assured BARB that the local tradition would be carried on. ‘The free bus, the free store, the free food … they’ll all still be here. It was my thing for a while. Now it’s the new people’s thing, and they’ll carry it through like always.'” The Barb reported in that issue that “Big Bill is on a truck heading east. His urgent destination is a little town on the east bank of the river, opposite St. Louis. He may hole up there ‘a year or two, looking at the river and maybe do a Provo thing. The mid-west should turn on a little bit,’ said Miller expectantly. ‘There are lots of colleges and some wide open spaces and a small town is ideal for personality change.'”
In the August 18, 1967 Barb, we heard of an effort to send food and clothes to Alabama: “Mark Comfort of the Oakland Direct Action Committee and the Berkeley Provos are doing their thing, together. In the same issue, we heard troubling news about the Provo free bus: “Free Bus Bad Tripped. The Nova Express, the Berkeley Provo FREE bus, is on a bad trip. “Somebody sabotaged us,” a Provo told BARB.
In September, the Nova Express was entered in a painted vehicle contest with proceeds to benefit the United Farm Workers and grape strikers in Delano.
Later that month Berkeley Provos headed to Denver to help establish the Denver Provos. “Provos Off to Open Up Denver. This Sunday morn the Berkeley Provos depart on a 1,200 mile trip to Denver, to give their Denver tribe a hand for the next month, a Denver provo named STRIDER told BARB.” (Barb, September 15, 1967). In the September 22 issue we read that the bus had been pulled by the police over in Reno.
Before leaving Berkeley, Miller had organized the first Denver Be-In to take place at the end of September. (Barb, September 1, 1967).
The bus apparently continued on to Washington D.C for the October 21st March on the Pentagon. The plan? “Provos, Diggers, and representatives of the NATIONAL Committee for a Sane Nuclear Poicy will do their thing. (Barb, October 6, 1967). The reality? “Our thing consisted of the Provos, the N.Y. Diggers, and the True Light Beavers attempting to coax the evil spirits from the wooden Pentagon. (Barb, October 20, 1967). The judgment? “NY Provos Soured on Pentagon Protest. New York’s Provos have some hard words for the ‘leadership’ of the October 21st march on the Pentagon. (Barb, October 27, 1967). The Berkeley Provos were more upbeat.
Provo Bill Miller (ex-Berkeley) called BARB Wednesday from Yellow Springs, Ohio, where the free bus is resting on its way back from Denver. Miller evaluated the Washington demonstration: “We won.” (Barb, October 17, 1967).
Reading notes on the Washington “thing:”
The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy was a peace organization founded in 1957 focused on the dangers of nuclear weapons. See a little more here.
The Diggers combined street theater, anarcho-direct action, and art happenings in their social agenda of creating a Free City. Their most famous activities revolved around distributing Free Food every day in Golden Gate Park, and distributing “surplus energy” at a series of Free Stores (where everything was free for the taking.) There is much material on the Diggers in their online archive.
For background on the New York Provos, founded by A.J. Weberman and Dana Beal, see this.
Back in Berkeley, the Provos prepared for another winter.
It can be messy serving soup in the rain, the Provos know it. With the rainy season coming, they need a sheltered place near Provo Park to serve soup, and a car to get it there. For the past 8 months the Provos have been serving free soup in Provo Park at 6:00 p.m. The crowd averages about 100-150 people each night…. In order to help them, Provo Kris Von Zerr told BARB, on rainy days the Provos hope to serve half the soup in the Telegraph Avenue area. (Barb, October 13, 1967)
The weekly rock band happenings are postponed until the arrival of Berkeley’s springtime weather. The Berkeley Provos, however, will continue to offer free food in the park daily at 5 p.m. During downpours, they’ll move the soup-pan to the Free Store at 2288 San Pablo Ave. (Barb, December 1, 1967)
Cold, wet winds are chilling and diluting the Berkeley Provos’ daily soup to the point that they’re moving indoors for the season… Their “emergency crash pad” will remain in operation for the temporarily roofless. Stacked up, as many as 20 bodies could be accommodated. Mail has accumulated at the Provo Free Store for ….. (Barb, December 15, 1967)
In late 1967 and early 1968 the Barb reflected on the Provos:
The Provos are the first organization of delinquency – they have given the delinquent experience its first apolitical form. They are an alliance of two distinct elements: a handful of careerists from the degenerate world of “art” and a mass of beatniks looking for a new activity… The Diggers and Provos have laid the groundwork, attempting to put a viable economic base under the hippie scene. (Barb, 12/29/67)
The Provos, a combination of artists and hippies (“beatniks” in the 1966 European terminology of the pamphlet), revolt against the commodity system by means of neo-artistic reformism of everyday life. They choose a limited, fragmentary attack, and in the end remain the servants of the system of production. (Barb, January 5, 1968)
In the March 29, 1968, Barb there was an announcement: “A huge draft-card bonfire will break the skies and pierce the sinister shadows of Berkeley High, City Hall, the Police Dept., Post office, and PG&E immediately surrounding the grassy oasis of the Provos.”
And that was it. No more Provos news.
In 1969 Bill Miller was back in the area. He opened “The Store” on Telegraph between Dwight and Haste and became immersed in the Telegraph street scene. For the last four years, Peter Neufeld had run an antique/crafts store on the spot, also known as The Store. It is said that Miller came nowhere near paying Neufeld the agreed-upon amount for buying him out.
In the January 17, 1969 Barb, Miller complained of police and City harassment at The Store.
“The police have been doing their utmost to close down his shop of ‘goodies’ and knickknacks, Miller claims… Besides veiled threats,Bill says, the cops interfere with business by loitering in and around his shop. On weekends, as many as 4 cops stand blocking his windows from pedestrians and intimidate people going into the shop. They refuse to move even when asked politely.”
The Barb of February 21 reported that Miller had been given an eviction notice for the store but that he said “We’re not going to move. The only way to get me out before August is for the sheriff to come. We used to consider Yarmo (his landlord) part of the community. But a part of the community wouldn’t ask the pigs department to break up the community. The Store has constantly been hassled by the pigs.”
Super Joel” Tornabene, a larger-than-life trouble-making figure in Berkeley for several years, gravitated into Miller’s circles.
Joel worked for a while as a manager at The Store.
Conflicts with the police escalated.
The February 28 Barb described the police entering Miller’s store following employees Super Joel and Adele Johnson whom “they hassled about indecent exposure.” Miller is quoted in response: ” I think they’re scared. They know I’m going to win. I win this year. A few more hippies and some Black Panthers get on the council next time. That’s the end of pig power in Berkeley.” The article identified Miller as “the Telegraph Liberation Front candidate.”
Speaking of Super Joel, the March 7, 1969 Barb reported the Super Joel had been arrested along with Larry Sandland and Pink Cloud, charged with possession of a fire bomb and marijuana. Miller quickly defended them, saying that the device was used in painting splatter type art.
This is just another act of police harassment against me and the people who work for me. The pigs want me off the street any way they can. When I’m elected to the City Council, the first thing, the very first thing I’m going to do is get rid of about half of these pigs. Starting with whoever is the chief and then Bade #25, 71, 106, 105, 104, 70, 35, and about 40 others that I know of, thenI’ll stop and look around a little.
People just aren’t going to come down here and buy anything, or drink a cup of coffee,and get hassled for it. Sure, my business has fallen off, but it has along this whole block. I’d hate to see someone or even a pig get killed before the City Council takes some action to stop the harassment of the people in the community.
I think it (the idea of police substations) is a bad thing, I just don’t like the thought of being surrounded by pigs. It’s better to keep them in one place so you can an eye on them.
As mentioned above, Miller ran for City Council.
Miller did not mention the Provos on his poster, but he spoke on the issues, which he hadn’t really done in 1967. “One of the ways to improve Berkeley would be to turn the Berkeley Community Center into a Filmore West-type scene at the expense of city revenues. He would also like to have rent control instigated throughout the city.” Miller bragged that “he is the only acid-head running for the Council and has the unequivocal support of Timothy Lery. He won’t make any speeches because he doesn’t want to lie to one group one night and another group the next night.'” (Barb February 21, 1967).
Pink Cloud, a defendant in the bomb arrest, urged support for Miller in the March 14th Barb: “Bill Miller needs your help for city council (you can start by curtailing the shoplifting in his Store.” Sad! True!
Marvin Garson’s San Francisco Express Times endorsed Miller in its March 11, 1969 issue: “Anyone in his right mind would vote for Big Bill Miller – representing the head community, youth and himself.” The March 25 issue of the Express Times fepeated the theme:
“Big” Bill Miller must win the city Council Election. “To get a head,” the sound truck cuts mercilessly through Berkeley, “You have to vote for a head.” I support him. Anyone in their right mind would vote for him.”
In the March 28 Barb, of one of our nationally known radicals Stew Albert endorsed Miller and wrote about Miller’s past work:
The same issue of the Barb carried an article identifying Miller as “an acid socialist revolutionary.”
We had read a week earlier that City Council candidates “White Panther Bill Miller” and Black Panther Charles Bursey had scheduled a benefit with “freaky rock sounds” at the Finnish-American Center with local Berkeley bands and Michigan’s MC-5. The concert fell through and Miller was disappointed. “We got the word at seven o’clock Friday night when we went down to pay the money for the permit. KMPX and the BARB plugged it, and a lotta people would been there. The money we lost just hurt us so fuckin bad it was unimaginable.” (Barb, March 38, 1969). He vowed action against the police if elected. “Anything less than the removal of about 20 officers that I can name rom the Berkeley police department is a disservice to the community.”
In that same March 28 issue, Miller opined on the candidacy of one Loni Hancock: “Ee have vague assurances from her supporters in BBC that she’ll be a radical when she gets in. I’d rather she’d be a radical up front and not worry so much about getting in. Her campaign reminds me very much of the rest of the liberal that are running.”
On election day, Miller (a) improved substantially from his 1967 race, winning 2,548 votes, or 2.2% of the votes cast and (b) didn’t come close to his predicted win.
The second major event in 1969 for Miller was losing his store. The Barb of April 15, 1969, reported:
The acronym TALF seen in the above article meant “Telegraph Avenue Liberation Front.” It was first mentioned in the BARB of March 21, 1968, and then fully described a week later in the Barb of March 28, 1969:
The street people on the Ave are getting it together for the summer – on the form of the TALF THE Telegraph Avenue Liberation Front. “It’s been a long time coming”, the member of the TAL “open family” told BARB. “A lot of our members are former dealers from the street who decided they wanted to help themselves and others.”
The TALF is opening its store, which sells things made “by people – not machines,” at Noon this Saturday The store is located in back of the Forum, at 2506 B Haste….
“The purpose of TALF,” their spokesman visioned, “is to turn the dreams of the street people into something they can hold onto, instead of a lid they have to tell to students.”
The TALF had plans for a “Liberation rock band” and a Telegraph Avenue Garbage Service.
The Telegraph Avenue Liberation Front wrote: “We will make Telegraph Avenue and the South Campus a Strategic Free Territory for the Revolution.”
Jerry Rubin’s Do It contains this cartoon by Mervyn “Skip” Williamson illustrating a liberated Telegraph Avenue. Williamson was a central figure in the underground comix movement.
His best-known character was Snappy Sammy Smoot
I have seen the phrase “solipsistic spirit” applied to the TALF. “Solpsistic” is a good word, a fancy way of saying extreme egocentrism.
End of tangent…
The COPS commune took its name from the the French Committee of Public Safety (Comité De Salut Public). It existed as a commune from May 1, 1969 util June, 1970.
It was a political body of the French Revolution that gained virtual dictatorial control over France during the Reign of Terror.
In a paper on the politics of space in the Bay Area, Anthony Irwin Ashbolt wrote that the “COPS Commune upheld the Berkeley Liberation Program as its guiding beacon.” Members used the term “revolutionary family” to describe themselves, borrowing from (a) the Cultural Revolution in China and (b) the Berkeley Liberation Program.
Miller and his wife Liz Griffith provided a safe place for the young teens of Telegraph. Doug Bogen, a runaway going to high school in Berkeley, remembers:
There was a large and loose family with Bill, his wife Liz Griffith, and a house they rented upon Frat Row. Curtis LaRosa moved in at some point, and he helped ride herd on various kids who were always around. Liz would take a crew of us on camping trips to Russian River in the summer.
Vanessa Delacour, the younger daughter of Michael and Leslie Delacour, describes Bill and Liz as “friendly and supportive adults in our lives.” When the police attacked on “Bloody Thursday” (May 15, 1969) younger brother David Delacour ran to the COPS commune for safety.
Anyways, Miller persevered in Berkeley for another few months. He was in on the ground floor planning for People’s Park in April
In the April 25, 1969 issue, the Barb published an article about the reaction of Telegraph Avenue merchants to the birth of People’s Park on April 20. “Bill Miller made a righteous point on the whole thing. He stated that a lot of the merchants on the Ave would support the Park because they have big windows. He commented that “our people will build with beauty anytime they can, but,” he added, “what the merchants should be told is that we will destroy the ugly society any chance we get also.”
Miller, Marsha Haines, the Barb switchboard, and the Free Church switchboard formed the first tranche of the “Dozer Alert,” a phone tree that Park supporters made to warn of impending intrusion by the University.
In May he acted on behalf of the Park movement and obtained the permit for the large Memorial Day march in support of the Park. The San Francisco Chronicle of May 31, 1969 quoted Miller as saying:
We intend to be peaceful and to follow the line of march laid out by Chief of Police Baker. But some people will stop at the Park and all try to build a park around the park. We plan to surround the National Guard with a sea of Green.
Several leadership meetings were held at Miller’s house – the COPS commune. At one meeting between April 20 and May 15, Barb editor Max Scherr was quoted by architect Sim Van der Ryn as saying that “there should be an overall plan to ensure some sort of esthetic standard.” Scherr’s concern was dismissed by the group, who believed that a plan was contrary to the spirit and purpose of a park wherein each person could be creative and get others to work on an idea if he could convince them of its values.
A Park leadership meeting was held at Miller’s house on May 20th after the helicopter tear-gassing. FBI files show that at least one confidential informant infiltrated the meeting and reported on what was said.
There is no clear trail for Miller after 1969. In 1984, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Miller was living in Monte Rio.
Frank Bardacke writes: “The last time I saw Bill Miller was somewhere in New Mexico. He was an Indian trader. He gave Julie some beautiful turquoise earrings. He was much himself but he didn’t seem physically healthy.”
This was Miller’s store in Albuquerque – Shaman Beads, 400 San Felipe NW, Old Town, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Bardacke said that it seemed that Miller mostly gave things away.
In the mid 1970s, Miller went bust. He was the target of tax liens and reported debts of $455,290 and assets of $49,500.
He returned to Berkeley and slept in People’s Park or on the Street. And then he was gone. A sad end.
In his time, Miller was glorious, part of the Free Speech Movement, the Vietnam Day Committee, the Berkeley Provos, and the White Panthers. He proudly described himself as an “acidhead socialist.” He was in an elite group identified by Governor Reason as a threat to society.
If any reader has anything to add about Miller or the Provos to this story, please write me. I will add to and edit this post if more information becomes available.