Willa Spalter '21
At People’s Park in Berkeley, California, history is repeating itself.
In 1969, during the height of radical political activism in the city, UC Berkeley announced its plans to develop a vacant lot in the heart of downtown into student housing. They were met with mounting resistance by local residents who hoped to turn the unused lot into a park and a free speech area. The People’s Park Committee was formed, and with the help of over 1,000 people, they constructed this park before the university could begin to build the housing.
Local landscapists donated trees, shrubs, and flowers, residents brought food to volunteers, and the Berkeley community donated money to ensure that the community build would be successful. Despite the new park being done, the university decided to go ahead with their plan. Their bulldozers were met by thousands of protesters who began a standoff. Tear gas was fired, the governor called a state of emergency, the National Guard was deployed, dozens were hurt, and a student was fatally shot by the police. In the end, the people won. The university backed away from their development plan, and People’s Park was officially born. Ever since that fatal day in May 1969, the park has been a symbol of the power of the people in Berkeley, as well as a well-known established encampment for houseless people in the East Bay.
Flash forward to 2021, the university has decided to reclaim its rights over this 2.3 acre greenspace and has begun their plan to build a sixteen-story student housing complex in the park. The university acknowledges the history of the park and the implications of taking it away to build student dorms which is why they’ve committed to building 75 to 125 units for houseless residents of Berkeley as well as incorporate a mural honoring the history of the park. This project is part of a larger initiative to add 7,500 campus housing units by 2028, as the university severely lacks in students’ housing needs, especially compared to all other UC campuses. Berkeley’s mayor, Jesse Arreguin, fully endorses the project saying, “we can honor [the park’s] rich history, while re-imagining it as a place where all people can come together, where we can shelter our homeless and provide needed housing for our students.” But, for many, this isn’t enough. Local community organizers and current residents of the park are concerned that there is no guarantee that these units for houseless people will be given to those currently living in the park and that everyone in the park will be pushed out long before the building is finished, leaving them with no place to stay. Additionally, these community activists see the new development plan as the latest way UC Berkeley is gentrifying the city, and they are fighting back.
On January 29th, the university put up fencing in areas of the park in order to test the soil for their environmental impact report, and they were met with hundreds of protesters who tore down the fencing and voiced their concerns over the project. Over the past two weeks, around 65 UC Berkeley students have begun occupying the park to protest their university and stand in solidarity with the houseless people currently living there. Protests have continued as well. Aidan Hill, a student activist who ran for mayor this past November talks about the importance of this occupation saying, “Right now, the people of People’s Park, they are fighting for this land. They are taking the space and making it their own. The people here care about the land of the unhoused residents of People’s Park. That’s what drives this movement forward.”
The university supports their students exercising their first amendment rights, but they are not planning on backing down as they did in 1969. A UC Berkeley spokesman, Dan Mogulof, says that the university “will spare no effort to have people understand how urgent and dire the student housing crisis is and thus how urgent and dire the need is for student housing on property the university owns, including People’s Park.”
But, just like the university, the people are standing their ground. The occupation and daily protests continue and the People’s Park Committee have set up mutual aid funds for the houseless people currently living in the park as well as looking forward towards legal paths to halt the development. The park, a longstanding symbol of anti-development activism, is at serious risk of reaching its final days, but the community activists hope that the ending to this story is written in the same way as 1969’s ending.