Early in the morning on Wednesday, August 3rd, UC Berkeley started demolishing People’s Park in Berkeley, California to build student housing. Riot police and private security guards stood guard throughout the morning as workers installed perimeter fencing around the park and started cutting down trees. Throughout the night, groups of protesters were unable to prevent the fences from being installed and trees being cut down.
But by mid-day, the number of protesters had grown significantly, and police decided to vacate the area, avoiding what could have been a huge confrontation. Once the police left, even more people showed up and tore down all the fencing, reentered the park, and began an occupation. Protesters moved many of the trees to the perimeter of the park, creating a sort of barricade.
Two days after this standoff between protesters and law enforcement, an appellate court in California granted a temporary “stay order,” which prohibits the University from continuing construction at the site until October. This order was granted as a part of a lawsuit being brought against the university by People’s Park activists attempting to prevent development of the park.
People’s Park is an important political and cultural symbol in Berkeley that the university is trying to erase, both physically and from the minds of people. It was the site of important activism during the “Free Speech” movement on campus in the late 60s when activists decided to take the park — which was an abandoned lot the university planned to build housing and a sports fields on — and turn it into a community space and park that could be used by anyone.
At the time, in response to students trying to take over the lot and turn it into a park for the whole community, in the spring of 1969, Governor Ronald Reagan sent in the National Guard along with Alameda County Sheriff’s Deputies to violently attack activists and reassert control over the park. Over two weeks, Reagan declared a state of emergency and street battles ensued between student and community protesters and police. Throughout the fighting, the National Guard and police used tear gas and live ammunition to fire at crowds, killing at least one person and injuring many more.
As a result of this struggle and continued protest, the Berkeley City Council voted to lease the land from the university in 1972, and allowed it to be developed it into a park, which was named “People’s Park” in honor of the vision of the activists who had fought for it up until that point.
In the decades that have followed, the university has made countless attempts to attack People’s Park again and develop it. This most recent is just the latest in a long history. Activists are organizing themselves to resist this process, and students are trying to spread awareness in various ways, including by writing op-eds about how this attempt to erase the memory of People’s Park is led by privatizing, corporate forces that run the UC system.
The outcome of this latest attack has yet to be decided, but the very existence of People’s Park is at stake. Whatever happens will come down to how well we can organize our forces, from those already in the park, to the broader community, including the tens of thousands who attend UC Berkeley. Now is the time spread the word and organize for whatever the decision might be in October.