Threats to People's Park: A History
When I talk to long-time activists in Berkeley I often hear the refrain "oh the UC is always going to build on The Park, but it never happens". This article is going to dig a bit into the history of why that attitude is so prevalent, and why this time the threat is more serious than ever.
Originally People's Park was low income housing; 32 brownshingle houses that were cheap to rent, a fertile ground for the burgeoning southside counter culture of the mid 1960s. These raucous, vibrant shared living situations were frequented by the likes of Bob Dylan and Abbie Hoffman.
In a now documented move against the south side counter culture, a plan to build student housing was hatched by UC. Much like the current student housing plan, there was no funding lined up, and details were sketchy. In fact, then as now, the whole scheme was really just a smokescreen. Through a process of buyouts, where the owners of the brownshingles were told "we're getting rid of the Hippies", and finally eminent domain, all the housing was obtained by UC and demolished in 1967-68. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan began his political rise, campaigning that he would "clean up the mess in Berkeley". Reagan was elected Governor of California in 1967.
Because there was never any real plan to build student housing and no funding to do so, the ruined foundations and basements were filled with stagnant water, and the old backyards were being used as a muddy parking lot. The students and residents of southside got tired of the eyesore and the constant injuries sustained by children playing in the lot, and decided to take action. They brought in soil, trees, grass sod, and created a park. Hundreds of people were on the site daily, and thousands helped. This was the beginning of People's Park.
All of that work was scraped off a few weeks later, a fence was erected, and the National Guard was stationed 24/7 in army tents on the site. On May 15, 1969 35,000 people marched to free the park from the state occupation. Governor Reagan and the UC Regents unleashed numerous police agencies on the crowds, authorizing the use of live ammunition. The cops started with birdshot, and when they ran out, they switched to more lethal buckshot. Hundreds were shot at, 35 seriously wounded, one died defending this effort to create common land. Governor Reagan doubled down, stating "if it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with".
Eventually activist pressure prevailed, through persistent marches, sympathy strikes at UCLA and elsewhere, friends in places of power, and widespread student, faculty, and community support for the park. In 1971 the park was landscaped and green again. The park motto "Everybody gets a Blister" is from this era.
In 1979 a new UC plan to build a fee parking lot was sprung on the public. A little machine to take parking fees was installed, and a portion of the park was paved. The idea seemed to be to claim a little piece, with more colonization to come. People weren't having it. With the support of Berkeley's coolest Mayor ever, Black Socialist Mayor Gus Newport, Park defenders rented jackhammers, ripped up the asphalt and the little fee machine was bashed and removed. In 1984 the park was made a Berkeley City landmark again under Gus Newport's leadership.
The 1980s were a time of relative peace and security for People's Park, but UC administration was merely biding their time. In 1991, a Volleyball court was constructed in conjunction with the bulldozing of the free speech stage. A protracted battle ensued, and UC used a new intimidation tactic, the SLAPP suit, against park activists David Nadel, Carol Denney, Bob Sparks, Mike Lee and 50 others. The SLAPP suit is now a common device used against environmental activists. (Using SLAPP suits against activists was pioneered by UC at People's Park and later used again to harass the tree sitters at Memorial Grove.) Young anarchist and park defender Rosebud DeNovo was being harassed continually by Campus and city cops, and experiencing the debilitating effects of repeated psychological trauma. She decided to take drastic action and broke into the Chancellor’s mansion; she was armed with a knife and a machete. Nobody is totally sure what her intent was. The police surrounded the Chancellor’s mansion and safely escorted the Chancellor and his wife away from the premises. Only Rosebud remained inside, but instead of negotiating for her surrender the authorities sent in a cop who had just recovered from 5 shots from a 15 year old burglar. He shot and killed 19 year old Rosebud Abigail Denovo.
Meanwhile, UC was paying students 15 dollars an hour to play volleyball at the unwanted courts, with police escort. A mere two blocks away, abandoned volleyball courts sat unused at Clark Kerr campus, nets down. After 6 years of struggle, the volleyball courts were finally removed from Peoples Park in 1997. The deadly and disingenuous farce was over.
In 2018 the current plan to reassert establishment control over the park was announced. Once again, the plan was sold as much needed student housing. Never mind that the housing will be some of the most expensive student housing available, with no planned affordable units for low income students. Never mind that the university had exceeded their own enrollment plan by 11,000 students, in a city of only 124,000 people, in the middle of a housing crisis. Never mind that 110 acres of UC and city land at nearby Clark Kerr campus sits underutilized to benefit the rich neighbors (who don’t want their view spoiled). No, the site just has to be 2.8 acres of historically, culturally and spiritually irreplaceable land of People’s Park.
The threat is very serious. The key difference this time is that unlike the parking lot and the volleyball court development plans, the Berkeley City Council and Mayor are supporting the plan to raze the park. In the past, Berkeley had more strong progressives and even radicals in political office, and many supported the park. Even then-Mayor Loni Hancock voiced disapproval of the volleyball courts. Nowadays, a motley crew of layabouts is presided over by Jesse Arreguin, who campaigned that he would protect the park, but did an abrupt about-face once in office. Current District 7 (southside campus) Councilperson Rigel Robinson never saw a real estate deal he didn’t like yet doesn’t lift a finger to push the university to retrofit over 70 unsafe campus buildings. Not a pretty picture. The housing crisis is fueling a housing development boom that pits affordable housing rights activists against green-washed developers and the nonprofit industrial complex. Blood is in the water.
The first test of park defenders’ resolve was the removal of 42 trees from the wooded east side of the park over Christmas break 2018. UC claimed that the 42 trees were unsafe, although most were small and not going to hurt anybody. Seven days later, a massive tree on UC property near the Greek Theater came down in a windstorm and killed a 32 year old man. So much for the removing dangerous trees pretext. In reality, this was a power flex.
Park defenders began to organize, make comment, spread the word, and speak out at city and UC planning meetings. But the going was tough. Many stalwart defenders of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s have been displaced by gentrification and many, but not all, of the original park founders of the 1960s have gotten on in years, or have died or moved on to other struggles for freedom. A small cadre of park supporters, including a dedicated group of students, labored to get the word out to all who would listen.
One missing element was widespread student support. That changed in the month of January 2021. UC put up a maze of fences all over the park, ostensibly to drill for soil testing. On January 29 2021, student activists showed up in a force of several hundred with non-student community members and tore the fences down. It is rumored that the initial call that sparked the takedown was made by a park founder who is now in their 80s.
Now that we are hundreds of activists stronger, it is time to bring in some of the other missing elements; widespread non-student community engagement (support is still widespread in Berkeley, Richmond and Oakland), legal action, and direct resistance to the firms involved (LMS architects, Walter Hood Landscape Design, Resources for Community Development and UC Capital Strategies). Mutual aid has always been alive and well at People’s Park. Food Not Bombs serves 5 meals a week since 1989 and church groups are constantly bringing food in as well. Now a kitchen has been built on the east side and has been filling in the breakfast slot.
To sweeten the looks of the deal UC has brought in a sleazy nonprofit called RCD, Resources for Community Development, to provide plans for an indeterminate number of beds for an undeclared underserved community. This part of the plan is a complete smokescreen. Like the main project of 1200 unaffordable units, this portion of the project has no secured funding. Even more shamefully, the university is not even offering to shoulder any of the building costs of this fraudulent distraction, instead offering to donate the sixth piece of the park to the City of Berkeley. Remember City and UC jointly own 110 acres at Clark Kerr campus, but hey, that’s close to rich people.
And one thing about rich people, as I was told by a UC Capital Strategies official:
“They are really well organized”.
UC: "So Sue Us!"
UC claims to be broke at evert turn; yet, there’s always money to destroy healthy trees and pesticide their clearcuts. They demolished 42 trees in People’s Park a couple years ago, creating literal climate change in the neighborhood, and clearcut thousands of healthy trees in the hills these last couple decades, most recently hundreds in January. The Coalition to Defend East Bay Forests has supported the group which has sued UC many times in court, They’ve prevailed repeatedly in court, but lacked the money to sue again in January. UC has ignored 16-1/2 years of serious and detailed comments by people involved in the Environmental Impact Report processes. UC’s made a mockery of the process. Communities of people spend enormous time and money to fight off UC evils. This month many groups around Berkeley have banded together to support the newest lawsuit against UC, this time about its deceit in response to thousands of comments resisting the UC’s LRDP (Long Range Development Plan). So we sue and sue and are worn out by the work, but we weave a growing web of resistance. Never forget: These are our student fees and mountains of debt, which will follow some of us for life, funding UC’s nefarious actions.