A Brief History of the Never-Ending Battle for People’s Park

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

A man plays a guitar as others surround a sign that says People's Park. Two young women and a man sit nearby.
1970: People's Park soon after it was established.  (Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The battle over Peoples 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, Dont 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 Peoples Park Autonomous Zone.

The present stand-off at Peoples 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.

A woman bends down to dig a hole to plant a tree, while a gathered group watches on. One woman stands with her arms outstretched in joy. Another plays a zither.
1969: A woman plants a tree as People's Park is first established. (Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The Haste Street plot quickly became a site for local protests, community gatherings and rallies like this anti-war demonstration.

1969: Demonstrators, many making peace signs, during an anti-Vietnam War rally in People's Park, in front of the President's house at UC Berkeley. (Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

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.

1969: A dismayed-looking hippie attempts to talk to an armored guard at People's Park. (Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Soon, protesters were clashing with Berkeley PD over the park. One man was killed by sheriffs 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.

1969: Demonstrators running from tear gas deployed by police during a protest over People's Park. (Bettmann / Getty Images Contributor)

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 Peoples Park.

A masked demonstrator holds a megaphone aloft, as a speaker addresses a crowd.
This candlelight vigil for People's Park was held in Berkeley on June 6, 1969. The protesters had tried to march to People's Park but were blocked by Berkeley police. (Garth Eliassen/Getty Images)
A young man wearing round spectacles smokes a cigarette and holds a lit candle. A young woman who long brown hair, also holding a candle, sits beside him.
1969: Peaceful protesters at the candlelight vigil. (Garth Eliassen/ Getty Images)

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.

Sponsored

Throughout the 70s, Peoples Park remained an important place to gather and protest.

A large crowd gathers together, some sitting, some standing, most smiling. One woman has her fist in the air.
1970: A happy rally. (Robert Altman/ Michael Ochs Archives/ Getty Images)

The park also became a place where the houseless and transient could gather and seek shelter.

A group of men sit on crates and makeshift mattresses, next to two ramshackle tents in a park.
1972: People squatting in People's Park. (MediaNews Group/ Bay Area News via Getty Images)
An unkempt man with tangled chin-length hair and a bushy beard smokes a cigarette while a grey striped cat stands on his shoulders.
1979: Proof that Haight Street kids didn't invent the cat-on-the-shoulder manoeuvre. (MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images)

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.

A large group of protesters march along a tree-lined street. Several hold up a large sign that reads 'Park People.'
1990: U.C. Berkeley students and others march along Telegraph Avenue towards People's Park. (MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images)

In 1991, there were yet more protests when there was a proposal to put a volleyball court at the park.

A man wearing a pointed paper hat and holding up a sign that reads 'No blood for volleyball' leads a group of young people. Two are shouting into a megaphone.
1991: Protester David Nadel leads members of the People's Park Defense Union as they protest outside of the U.C. Berkeley Services Office. (MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images)

The anti-volleyball protests continued for months, even after nets were put up and games were actively happening.

On the left of the image a vigorous volleyball game played by shirtless men in short shorts. On the right, a small group of protesters holds up signs that read 'UC Out' and 'Save the Park.'
Protesters objecting to a volleyball game at People's Park. Some of the protesters were arrested later that day. (MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images)

(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.

A man with long hair and beard and dark sunglasses stands before a line of trees holding a sign that reads 'Save the Park.'
1992: Al Ventimiglia of Napa did not want the People's Park to have bathrooms for some reason. He and a dozen of his fellow protesters were later arrested. (MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images)

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. Peoples 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, Peoples 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 Peoples 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.

Sponsored

There is no escaping what UC Berkeley taking back this land would represent, however. The City of Berkeley named Peoples Park a cultural and historical landmark in 1984. It has been a symbol of Berkeleys love affair with activism and revolutionary acts for half a century. Protesters arent going to let it go without a fight. That fight is likely to be protracted and painful for everyone involved.