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'A Precious Area': UC Berkeley Students, Community Unite to Defend People's Park

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Student volunteers Alecia Harger and Brandon Mendoza help serve food at People's Park in Berkeley on Feb. 19, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In 2009, East Bay resident Lisa Teague lost their home. Eighteen months later – after living with a friend in Albany and moving between different motels in Oakland – they were able to secure housing through a Section 8 lottery. Teague’s new home was located near People’s Park, a few blocks from the UC Berkeley campus.

The park quickly became a beacon of comfort and community for them. Teague was able to make connections with the unhoused residents of the park and pick up meals or other donated resources. The park community also helped Teague immensely by welcoming them into a safe space.

"I was really shaky, I had a tough time," Teague said. "The park community and the resources helped more than I can say until I got it together."

It wasn’t until 2018 – when UC Berkeley announced plans to build a student housing development on the park's location – that Teague decided to join local organizers as a member of the People's Park Committee, a group dedicated to taking care of the park grounds and its residents by distributing meals in partnership with East Bay Food Not Bombs. Teague said the university has done little to acknowledge the communal significance behind the park.

“You would think that if they wanted to have a relationship with the city that they would respect the fact that People’s Park is a Berkeley landmark. It has been since 1984,” Teague said. “It’s a precious area to the city and they don’t seem to see that.”

Lisa Teague receives a plate of food from the volunteer-run kitchen at People's Park in Berkeley on Feb. 19, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The history of People’s Park dates back to its creation in 1969 by Berkeley residents after a first attempt by UC Berkeley to build student housing on the site fizzled and the lot, which the university owns, was left deserted. On May 15, 1969 – which would become known as Bloody Thursday – police and sheriff’s deputies moved in, made arrests and sealed off the park's perimeter. Mass protests followed that action as students and members of the Berkeley community clashed with police. Dozens of people were injured, and a 25-year-old bystander died days later after being hit by a police shotgun blast. Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan called in the National Guard the following day. Students and faculty eventually voted to keep the park.

Nearly 52 years later, UC Berkeley is again determined to reclaim the park, pointing to a dire need for student housing. The proposed development is expected to be up to 17 stories high and house over 1,000 students.

Last month, the university put up fencing, sectioning off areas of the park in order to conduct soil analysis — a process to determine the land’s seismic safety. In a response echoing 1969, students and local residents tore down the fencing, carried it four blocks and dumped it outside Sproul Hall. After the university was quick to resurrect the fencing, an occupation began at the park on Feb. 8, organized by the Save People’s Park Movement. It continues on as students set up shifts in groups of 20 to 30 people to occupy alongside the park's residents.

Alecia Harger, a UC Berkeley undergraduate student participating in the occupation, said the movement has gained more attention as videos and photos from the occupation and park events continue to be shared on Instagram.

“I think that within the Berkeley community a lot of people have considered the development of People’s Park to be an unfortunate inevitability,” Harger said. “And we are showing that it is not an inevitability and that we have the ability to push back.”


Each week, open meetings are planned and donations are distributed to residents of the park and other unhoused folks by volunteers and members of the People's Park Committee. Gardening events and film screenings are also frequently organized. The rise in student solidarity is also a result of heightened community organizing that reaches beyond the Berkeley campus.

“It has been one of the most powerful community-building experiences that I’ve had, certainly since the pandemic started and maybe in my life,” said Romeo Channer, a Mills College student. “Just the bonds formed in that space and the real immediate connections people make through mutual aid.”

A sign reads, 'Save Peoples Park, No More Buildings' at People's Park in Berkeley on Feb. 19, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The editorial board of The Daily Californian published a piece last week rejecting the current development plans and in support of the movement to preserve People’s Park.

"While the importance of supportive housing in Berkeley cannot be discounted, People’s Park — built for and by Berkeleyans — has never been, and never will be, a place for campus to do its bidding. The park should remain at the will of those who have the most stake in its future," said the editorial board of the student-run paper.

According to Kyle Gibson, director of communications for capital strategies at UC Berkeley, the development would also include supportive housing for low-income and formerly homeless people.

“We are also committed to revitalizing a significant portion of the park as open space that will be inviting, safe and responsive to student and community needs and interests,” said Gibson.

But Harger said she isn’t convinced.

“The university is claiming to help unhoused people, claiming to help low-income people by building affordable housing, when they are the main driving forces of gentrification in our city,” Harger said.

Two men play chess at People's Park in Berkeley on Feb. 19, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Many of the neighborhoods in the vicinity of the university have either been gentrified between 2000-2018 or are vulnerable to gentrification, according to the Urban Displacement Project. UC Berkeley currently has the lowest percentage of beds for its student body in the entire UC system. And in 2019, Berkeley's homeless population increased by 14% within the span of two years.

On Monday, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ sent a campus-wide email with a student housing update. Christ claimed that the People's Park housing development would benefit both the greater Berkeley community and the university's needs, and urged students and community members to review the plans on the project website.

"I believe that we can and will serve the interests of all," Christ wrote. "We deeply appreciate and share the concern so many of you have for unhoused people in our community, and that concern is at the heart of all that we currently do."

The People's Park Committee quickly posted a response defending their movement and counter-arguing each statement made by the chancellor.

"The University’s narrative is predicated upon alleviating the student housing crisis, supporting Berkeley’s homeless community, and reducing crime in Berkeley. For numerous reasons, this is a manipulative facade," the People's Park Committee said.

Construction is not slated to begin until 2022. The UC Regents will have final say on the housing project later this year.


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