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Disputes at People’s Park Increase With UC ’s Removal of Trees

Six out of eight people in an encampment protesting the removal of trees at People’s Park were arrested by University of California Police Department (UCPD) officers early in the morning on January 15.  According to a press release from University of California (UC) Berkeley, five members of the encampment were arrested for unlawful camping and storage of items on UC property, and violation of curfew on UC property.  The sixth person was arrested for unlawful camping.

The five trees removed from People’s Park, which is the property of UC Berkeley, had been labeled as diseased or damaged by arborists hired by UC Berkeley. Arborists working for UC Berkeley also cut down trees in the park on December 28 as a part of a school-wide effort to perform “long deferred” tree maintenance across the campus. This prompted a group of protesters, generally fluctuating between 10 to 50 people, to begin camping out in the park.  However, at the time that the UCPD and arborists arrived to remove the trees on the January 15, only eight protesters were present.  Some park activists have suggested that UC Berkeley purposefully chose a time to remove the trees when few protesters would be present.

Many park advocates were more concerned by the way in which UC Berkeley removed the trees … than by the loss of the trees themselves.

Though some members of the People’s Park community believe there to be a connection between the events on January 15 and UC Berkeley’s plans to build housing in People’s Park for students and homeless people in Berkeley, UC Berkeley has stated in a press release that the two are unrelated.  Construction in the park isn’t projected to begin until 2020.“It’s total utter nonsense.  Why would we want to get a few hour start on a construction project that won’t start for two years?” said Dan Mogulof, the assistant vice chancellor for public affairs at UC Berkeley.

A People’s Park committee has formed to oppose housing development in the park.  The committee plans to apply for People’s Park to be registered in the National Register of Historic Places on the Park’s 50th anniversary in April of 2019, making the park a national landmark.  According to Joe Liesner, member of the People’s Park committee and volunteer for “Food Not Bombs,” which provides food to the homeless population in the park, this would mean UC Berkeley will face more roadblocks in developing housing in People’s Park.

However, the removal of trees, as well as the arrests, have added to concern among homeless people and activists that the University may make the park less accessible and limit access to food and other resources provided to the homeless population of People’s Park by multiple volunteer organizations.“I feel as if the University is trying to take away this space where homeless people can go and have access to free literature and a free open space for communal health,” said Noah, a homeless man in People’s Park.

Many park advocates were more concerned by the way in which UC Berkeley removed the trees with the aid of UCPD officers than by the loss of the trees themselves. To some, the use of UCPD officers was reminiscent of actions taken by UC Berkeley in 1969, soon after the park was established. At the time, UC Berkeley enlisted the help of Highway Patrol officers in order to install a cyclone fence around People’s Park, resulting in the arrest of three people sleeping in the park.“What it does is show us the heavy hand that’s so strong and overwhelmingly militarized that you feel like we’re against a wall,” said Liesner.

The cutting of the trees in People’s Park came soon after 32-year-old Alexander Grant was killed on campus when a eucalyptus tree fell onto his car on January 6.  The tree had not been identified as being in need of removal and the cause of the incident is currently under investigation.  “Anyone who may have had doubts about the threat that can be posed by a damaged tree just needs to read the stories about the horrible tragedy with the man who was killed,” said Mogulof.

On January 24, activists against the development of housing in People’s Park held a rally, in which a driver ran over a homeless man’s leg and a bicycle on Telegraph Avenue near the Park.  As of now, the Berkeley Police Department doesn’t believe that the driver was aware of the collisions at the time.

While UC Berkeley maintains that the removal of the trees was solely for maintenance purposes, the park activists feel as though People’s Park is at risk and continue to oppose actions taken by the University involving the park.