City of Berkeley Reconsiders, Then Sustains Police Tear Gas Ban Following Unrest at People's Park

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Protesters push down a large fence in a park.
Protesters tear down a fence surrounding People's Park in Berkeley on Aug. 3, 2022, in a bid to stop UC Berkeley from building student housing on the site.  (Jonathan Hale)

Update, 12 p.m. Friday:

A California Court of Appeal judge on Thursday issued a temporary stay, ordering UC Berkeley to stop all construction work at People's Park in Berkeley. The latest injunction comes in response to an appeal filed by two groups — Make UC A Good Neighbor and the People's Park Historic District Advocacy Group (PPHDAG) — challenging the controversial housing project at the historic site. While the order prevents any further clearing of the park, it does allow the university to re-erect a  security fence around the site while the case is being reviewed.

“We are gratified that the Court of Appeal recognized that UC should not go forward until the court has the opportunity to review our case more fully,” Harvey Smith, president of PPHDAG, said in a statement. "UC took advantage of the legal system in order to destroy as much of the park as it could."

In its statement, UC Berkeley noted that the new injunction would further delay and significantly increase the cost of the project, but said it was pleased the court had agreed to an expedited review process and was allowing the school to "close and secure the construction site pending the expedited ruling."

"The campus is now assessing options to get that done in a safe, effective way," the statement said.

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Update, 2 p.m. Thursday: Just hours after the agenda had been posted, Berkeley's mayor on Thursday morning canceled a special city council meeting that officials had scheduled for that evening to consider temporarily suspending the city’s ban on police use of tear gas, smoke and pepper spray.

"I’m canceling the meeting. Our policy stands," Mayor Jesse Arreguin wrote on Twitter.

Plans for the meeting — and its abrupt cancellation — came after protesters on Wednesday clashed with police at People's Park, destroying thousands of dollars of construction equipment and reoccupying the site.

Before retreating from the park on Wednesday afternoon, UC police arrested seven demonstrators for charges including battery on a peace officer, trespassing and resisting and obstructing or delaying an officer. Two officers involved were injured, and one of the people arrested was released from custody and taken to a local hospital for minor injuries, officials said.

People on the street watch as a large group of police in riot gear stand in a group.
After a tense standoff with protesters, police in riot gear — from multiple agencies, including UC Berkeley PD and the California Highway Patrol — prepare to leave People's Park on Aug. 3, 2022. Their departure was an 'effort to avoid further confrontation,' UC Berkeley officials later said. (Christopher Alam/KQED)

In his tweet, Arreguin also criticized the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, writing, "shame on the Sheriff for threatening to not provide emergency support to Berkeley." He later clarified that in 2020, after Berkeley instituted its tear-gas ban — which applies to any outside agency called to respond to mutual aid in the city — the sheriff's office said it would no longer respond to the city's requests for such support.

"[In 2020], we were informed by the Alameda County Sheriff's Department that they will not send their personnel to Berkeley to respond in a crowd-control situation if we prohibit the use of tear gas," Arreguin said.

Because the sheriff's office coordinates the county's mutual aid response, he explained, the city was concerned about not having adequate law enforcement support if the situation at the park were to grow further out of control.

"And so the staff suggested that the council should reconsider the prohibition, at least temporarily," Arreguin said. "Having thought a great deal about it over the course of the evening, I came to the conclusion that we need to continue our existing policy. That the reasons why I supported the ban in 2020 are still the same — I don't think chemical agents should be used in modern policing."

In response, Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesperson for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, confirmed that deputies were in fact at People’s Park on Wednesday, and that his office, while opposed to the city's tear gas ban, would never refuse to respond to a major public safety emergency. "We will come to help. I think the city’s understanding of what mutual aid is needed some clarification," he said and an email.

Asked if sheriff's deputies would abide by Berkeley's tear gas ban if they came to the city's aid, Kelly said, "We would not."

Original story, 5:30 p.m. Wednesday:

Chanting "Whose Park? People's Park," several dozen protesters halted the start of student housing construction at the historic Berkeley park on Wednesday afternoon, tearing down fencing and destroying equipment after a brief, but tense faceoff with police.

UC Berkeley, which owns the park, had cleared the site shortly after midnight and erected a fence around it. But by mid-afternoon, the school, in a statement, announced it was pausing the controversial project "due to the destruction of construction materials, unlawful protest activity, and violence on the part of some protesters."

two people sit in the middle of the street as uniformed police in riot gear stand in the background
Protesters sit on a street bordering People's Park on Wednesday. (Christopher Alam/KQED)

The school said it had instructed all workers to leave the site "out of concern for their safety," following reports that protesters were throwing rocks and bottles at them. It also said it had withdrawn its police force in an "effort to avoid further confrontation."

"What we're doing right now is assessing options for how we can move forward in a safe fashion, given the fact that we have certain individuals in our community who've shown themselves ready, willing and able to engage in violent, unlawful behavior and vandalism," UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said. "And we need to find a way to proceed while taking that into account."

The university has plans to build a complex that would accommodate about 1,100 students as well as supportive housing for about 125 unhoused people. Part of the property will also be set aside to commemorate the site's significance in the Civil Rights Movement.

The housing project is "incredibly important to the university. It's an important piece of how we plan to address what is an urgent student housing crisis," Mogulof said. "We very much want this building to be available when students come to campus in the fall of 2024."

Earlier Wednesday morning, about 100 officers representing multiple agencies, including UC Berkeley PD and the California Highway Patrol, stood guard at the fenced-off park as crews began felling trees to the derision of onlookers who were mostly kept outside barricades. At one point, shouting protesters and police, some in riot gear, came face to face before officers were told to stand down.

person in leopard print shirt with hands cuffed is led away by a police officer in riot gear

An unidentified protester is led away by police after being arrested at People's Park on Wednesday.But by the afternoon, with little trace of law enforcement remaining at the scene, the mainly young group of demonstrators tore down the rest of the fencing and proceeded to smash the windows and mechanical components of the bulldozers and earthmovers that workers had abandoned.

Susanna, a demonstrator who declined to give her last name, said she was here to protect the more-than-50-year-old park and its green space, as well as the large unhoused community of people that have been living here for years in a sprawling encampment.

"I care for the unhoused community. Like they don't have the privilege that I have to go home and sleep in a bed," she said, noting she didn't trust the university to follow through on its promise to build supportive housing for people in need. "You know, most of these people have mental issues and they don't have medical care or support from friends or family, and we are kicking them out from the park. This is their last resort, their last hope."

Doug Buchwald, another demonstrator, said preserving open space and trees was critical in the fight against climate change.

"Everybody knows that, UC knows that, they teach it in their environmental science classes," he said. "And yet when it comes to taking control of land that it wants to do something with, they throw all ethics out the window."

"And not to mention, you know, the Grateful Dead played on that stage, right over there," added protester Alyssa Moore, pointing to a now-empty field. "Any other place and space and time anywhere in America, this would be a protected area."

More than 100 opponents of the project rallied at UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza on Wednesday evening, before marching several blocks back to the park, where some activists encouraged demonstrators to stay there around the clock to ward off any additional attempts at resuming construction.

tree trunks on the ground of a park
Tree trunks that construction crews had cut down early that morning, before being stopped by protesters, lay scattered around People's Park on Aug. 3, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

UC Berkeley's unannounced move to begin construction Wednesday followed a ruling from an Alameda County Superior Court judge on Friday allowing the school to move forward with its housing plan, despite community groups suing to stop it.

Harvey Smith, with the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, said he was disappointed by the university's early-morning construction attempt, but hardly surprised.

"UC was obviously very primed to do this and the judge opened the door and they walked right in," he said. "We are fully prepared to appeal this and ask for another stay at demolition. And our lawyers are working on that as we speak."

Demonstrators march down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, from Sproul Hall to People's Park on Aug. 3, 2022, to protest UC Berkeley's attempt to start building student housing at the park. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

But Doris Moskowitz, who owns the nearby legendary Moe’s Books, said that while she respects the park’s history, she ultimately supports the university's plans. Many people have avoided the area in recent years, she said, because of real safety concerns.

"They’ve come up with what sounds like a good plan for making a space for both green space, low-income housing and student housing," she said. "So they’re trying to meet the needs of the community – but you know everyone’s sad when there’s green space going away. So we’re having conflicted feelings."

Windows smashed in a construction vehicle
A damaged construction loader sits at People's Park in Berkeley after protesters smashed out the windows on Aug. 3, 2022. (Jonathan Hale)

The protests harked back to the spring of 1969, when community organizers banded together to turn a site that the state and university seized under eminent domain and turned into a gathering space they named People's Park. After the university at the time erected a fence around the park, protesters sought to reclaim it, triggering bloody battles that resulted in police shooting and killing one man and wounding dozens of others. That May 15, 1969 uprising, known as “Bloody Thursday," triggered even more protests and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan summoned the National Guard to occupy Berkeley.

“It certainly does bring memories about the arrogance of the university and its unwillingness to consider the concerns of the community," said Dan Siegel, now a labor lawyer, who was a student at the law school in 1969. Siegel was arrested on Bloody Thursday after giving a speech at a campus rally in which he implored the crowd to “go down there and take the park."

an older woman speaks into a microphone at a park
Longtime activist Jane Stillwater, who has fought to preserve People's Park for decades, speaks to protesters gathered at the park on Wednesday evening. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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This story includes additional reporting from KQED's Christopher Alam and The Associated Press.