Jane Stillwater speaks to a crowd gathered in People's Park in Berkeley to protest the construction of UC Berkeley student housing there on Aug. 3, 2022. Stillwater has been protesting in the park for decades. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Berkeley is experiencing a 1960s flashback triggered by People’s Park, a landmark that has served as a counterculture touchstone, political stepping stone and refuge for the unhoused.
The 3-acre site’s colorful history, forged from the University of California, Berkeley’s seizure of the land in 1968, has been thrust back into the spotlight as the school renews efforts to pave over People’s Park, this time for a $312 million project that includes sorely needed housing for about 1,000 students.
After a judge sided with the university in a legal scrum over the project, construction finally began August 3 — only to abruptly stop a few hours later after a swarm of protesters, who had been sparring with police, toppled fences surrounding the park.
The delay was only supposed to last a few days, but the coalition fighting the university’s plans won an appeals court stay that will prevent construction until at least October.
The lull hasn’t muted the contentious debate around a historic spot once hailed as “a trace of anarchist heaven on Earth” by former UC Berkeley professor Todd Gitlin and derided by former city Councilmember John DeBonis as a “hippie Disneyland.”
The park turned into a symbol of both resistance and mayhem during a deadly 1969 confrontation known as “Bloody Thursday,” emboldening then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan to send in 3,000 National Guard troops for a two-week occupation that evoked images of war in a city that was clamoring for peace in Vietnam.
Don Mitchell, whose father was a UC Berkeley professor during the 1969 uprising, views People’s Park as a social experiment worth saving, as more cookie-cutter communities get built in the U.S.
“People’s Park has always been a place that was made and regulated by the people who use it,” said Mitchell, a professor of human geography at Uppsala University in Sweden. “It’s a free and open space, a place where the rules of exclusion are very different. So people who were poor, people who didn’t have housing, people who didn’t fit into dominant society in all sorts of different ways could find a space there. And many did.”
That ethos has long made the park a way station for unhoused people, with scattered tent clusters and makeshift kitchens. Drug use and violence have helped spur support for the university’s development plans.
At Atmaa Das, 28, began spending time in People’s Park not long after leaving Alabama in 2014 and found his way there again a couple weeks after workers left behind construction equipment, now splattered with obscene graffiti — part of $1.5 million in recent protest damage, the university estimated. “I came here looking for the promised land and reckon I found it,” he said on a recent morning, strumming his guitar while singing parts of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
University officials say they are sympathetic to both the park’s heritage and the needs of unhoused people who have lived there since another set of fences surrounding the property were removed in 1972.
“Our plan will meet multiple interests to preserve the park, create urgently needed student housing, and provide permanent housing for unhoused and low-income individuals,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ wrote in an email sent to university alumni and other supporters earlier this week. University spokesperson Dan Mogulof declined a request to interview Christ.
Not even People’s Park supporters dispute more affordable housing is needed — the median sales price for a home near the university is $1.5 million. But critics blame mismanagement for the crisis and contend the university could build on its other property.
Under a 2005 long-range plan, UC Berkeley estimated enrollment at 33,000 students by 2020. Instead, it had about 43,000 students that year and expects roughly 45,000 this academic year — with only 10,000 campus beds.
The glaring shortage is mainly why city officials back the university’s plan, including city Councilmember Rigel Robinson, who represents the People’s Park area.
“People’s Park has been a powerful symbol of resistance against government oppression, but it has since become a symbol of something else entirely: our failure as a region to respond to the housing crisis,” Robinson said. “The time has come to turn the page.”
But this month’s protests showed that a significant part of Berkeley isn’t ready to let go, mainly because of what the park has come to symbolize since UC Berkeley seized it for $1.3 million in 1968 under eminent domain and demolished homes there. After citing a need for an intramural soccer field, the school instead let the site deteriorate into a muddy mess mostly used for parking.
After boilermaker Michael Delacour led a grassroots group to plant vegetation, turning the eyesore into a community magnet, UC Berkeley decided to fence it off on May 15, 1969.
That set the stage for rebellion. At a rally outside UC Berkeley’s administration building, incoming student body President Dan Siegel urged the crowd to “take the park.”
“Some of the issues now are like 1969,” said Siegel, now a lawyer in nearby Oakland. “People’s Park is both a park and a symbol of activism that is worthy of protection.”
The infamous 1969 clash between hundreds of police, some of them dubbed “Blue Meanies,” and protesters became a flashpoint in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. During the hours-long melee, police fatally shot a man standing on a rooftop and blinded another who was struck in the face with bird shot. Dozens of protesters were wounded.
Then Reagan, who had vowed “to clean up the mess in Berkeley” during his victorious 1966 gubernatorial campaign, called in military troops. Before an uneasy truce was reached May 30, 1969, hundreds more were arrested, and, in another infamous moment, an Army helicopter sprayed a crowd with what authorities called tear gas but others insisted was an even more dangerous substance.
Some of Reagan’s detractors still believe he deliberately deployed strong-arm tactics to establish himself as a law-and-order leader while pursuing a political agenda that led to his 1980 election as president.
Harvey Smith, president of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group that is spearheading the legal fight for preservation, likens UC Berkeley’s plan to Reagan’s 1969 crackdown.
Reagan “wanted to wipe out the social and political history of Berkeley and now the university is carrying it forward,” Smith said on August 3 while construction crews used bulldozers and buzz saws to topple most of the park’s trees, including some that predated the school’s purchase 54 years ago.
The clear-cutting depressed Bertha Jones, who lived in People’s Park for several years before accepting the university’s offer to move into a nearby Rodeway Inn.
“My grandparents got married at one of those trees. My mom got married at one of those trees,” Jones, 43, said. “I wanted to keep the tradition going, but obviously that isn’t going to work out now.”
Other former People’s Park inhabitants said they moved into the motel reluctantly, though they like having their own bed and bathroom. What they don’t like is not being given room keys, or being banned from leaving the premises from midnight to 6 a.m.
After spending most of his time in People’s Park for seven years, Eric Morales moved in early June to the Rodeway Inn with his dog, Bonita. But he will always consider People’s Park home.
“It’s not like any other park,” Morales, 54, said. “You can go to other parks and you say hi and bye, then you won’t ever see them again. But People’s Park is a community, you know? We are a family.”
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