The battle over People’s Park in Berkeley appears to be at a temporary standstill, with construction of new university housing having been started and suspended on Wednesday, Aug. 3. For now, bulldozers stand silent, having been graffitied by protesters with slogans like “Abolish UCPD”, “Don’t Gentrify Green Space” and “Destroying Trees Kills Birds.” Instagram's Renegade Journal account has been posting regular updates from what protesters are referring to as the People’s Park Autonomous Zone.
A Brief History of the Never-Ending Battle for People’s Park
The present stand-off at People’s Park continues a long tradition. The space, east of Telegraph, has been a contentious plot of land since it was first established as a site of protest, ideas sharing and community activism in 1969.
UC Berkeley originally bought the 2.8 acres of land in 1967 to construct dorms, but after bulldozing several buildings, the university left the lot vacant. In April 1969, an ad in the Berkeley Barb encouraged people to congregate on the land. That month, not only did people go to the lot, they dug a pond, began gardening projects and put up a small playground.
The Haste Street plot quickly became a site for local protests, community gatherings and rallies like this anti-war demonstration.
A month later, on May 15, work crews arrived, destroyed much of what the community had built and put up an 8-foot chain link fence to keep the public out. Protesters were not shy about sharing their feelings about the development.
Soon, protesters were clashing with Berkeley PD over the park. One man was killed by sheriff’s deputies. Another was blinded. Then-Governor Ronald Reagan sent in 2,000 National Guard troops. As feelings ran high, violent confrontations filled the streets. So did tear gas.
The National Guard stayed posted in Berkeley for more than two weeks, and a curfew was imposed. Still, protesters fought for their right to access People’s Park.
Once the tensions had died down, the university made only sporadic attempts to take the park back. Its attempts to put in a soccer field in 1971 failed, as did an attempt to turn part of it into a parking lot in 1979.
Throughout the ’70s, People’s Park remained an important place to gather and protest.
The park also became a place where the houseless and transient could gather and seek shelter.
Throughout the ’80s, new concerns emerged about the state of the park. It had become a hotspot for drug use, and discussions around how to clean it up began in earnest.
In 1990, rallies took place in Berkeley to assert the rights of the homeless community to shelter in the park.
In 1991, there were yet more protests when there was a proposal to put a volleyball court at the park.
The anti-volleyball protests continued for months, even after nets were put up and games were actively happening.
(Apparently the protesters in the background of this photo later invaded the volleyball court and started building sand castles. Classic Berkeley.)
The following year, when construction of public bathrooms commenced at the park, there were even protests about that too.
By the end of the ’90s, volunteers and city departments had worked together to clear out trash from the park; get grass, plants and trees in better shape; and turn the space into somewhere beautiful again. People’s Park was a favorite with everyone from lunching office workers to Food Not Bombs volunteers who regularly showed up to hand out free meals. (Food Not Bombs still shows up there to this day.) In 1996, Hip Hop in the Park started, becoming a hugely popular annual event that ran for two decades. More recently, People’s Park has once again become prominently occupied by a tent encampment.
The current battle for who will end up occupying the lot is the most serious threat to People’s Park since it was first established. UC Berkeley has been determined to start work on the $312 million construction project since it was announced all the way back in 2018. The university says the new 16-story building would accommodate 1,100 students (who have been dealing with a serious Berkeley housing crisis for years), as well as 125 very low-income people, many of them currently homeless.
There is no escaping what UC Berkeley taking back this land would represent, however. The City of Berkeley named People’s Park a cultural and historical landmark in 1984. It has been a symbol of Berkeley’s love affair with activism and revolutionary acts for half a century. Protesters aren’t going to let it go without a fight. That fight is likely to be protracted and painful for everyone involved.