Berkeley’s very foundation as a city is rooted in activism on behalf of marginalized people. Since it’s revolutionary protests surrounding the anti-War, Free Speech, and Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, Berkeley has remained a haven for those fighting for a more equitable and peaceful world. People’s Park is a critical example of this rich past, and to destroy the park is to disregard Berkeley’s roots and soul. For this reason, Berkeley residents, University of California, Berkeley students, and Berkeley High School students have a responsibility to defend the park and everything it stands for.
As seen throughout the park from it’s murals to it’s name, People’s Park is by and for the people. Initially representative of a community’s right to its land, the fight for the park now encompasses Berkeley’s right to its past and its future.
As a center for social justice, art, community, and natural beauty, People’s Park is home to many, both literally and figuratively. It provides space for houseless and low-income people who make up so much of Berkeley’s population to receive support and meals from various organizations, and the opportunity to foster their own community.
The park also functions as a hub for residents of the neighborhood, with regularly hosted activities such as musical performances, speakers, and gardening.
Although further student housing for UC Berkeley students and supportive housing for low-income and houseless communities is undeniably necessary, building it on top of People’s Park is both unacceptable and unproductive.
People’s Park is more than just a place for the houseless to sleep, and even the incorporation of a supportive housing complex still eliminates that inclusive space. Student housing cannot take precedence over Berkeley culture and community.
In order to further support the houseless people currently living in People’s Park, UC Berkeley also offered them 43 rooms at the Rodeway Inn, funded by the State of California’s Encampment Resolution Fund. However, potential residents are only able to stay there for 18 months and must follow stipulations. These include being in their rooms by 11 p.m. or getting locked out until morning.
Nick, a long-term People’s Park resident, was quoted on the People’s Park Instagram as saying, “The fact that Cal is just allowing for a year’s time to displace residents in the hope that somehow they miraculously find this pathway to housing, that so few people actually find, is just a little bit ridiculous.”
People’s Park holds an irreplaceable role for many Berkeley community members, houseless or not, and that must not be disregarded. The significance of People’s Park is best exemplified through its history, one that is deeply rooted in Berkeley’s counterculture movement of the 1960s. In 1967, UC Berkeley bought a 2.8-acre plot of land with the intention to develop it into student housing, offices, athletic fields, and parking. However, their project ran out of funds, and the plot was left empty and dilapidated. Local activists devised a plan to turn the land into a park and space for free speech, and eventually around 1,000 community members became involved, finishing the park in May 1969.
However, the park became a scapegoat for Ronald Reagan’s fight against student demonstrations, and after he sent in California Highway Patrol and Berkeley police officers, a riot was started that left one dead and many injured. The conflict between demonstrators and the police force was known as “Bloody Thursday”, and was only the beginning of the fight for People’s Park. 2,000 National Guard troops were sent into Berkeley that evening and continued to break up demonstrations over the next few weeks; at one point, airborne tear gas was dispensed over the entire Berkeley campus through helicopters, harming student bystanders. Eventually, in 1972, protesters reclaimed rights to the land and rebuilt People’s Park.
But this wasn’t the end of the fight. In 1979, 1991, 2011, and now, since 2018, UC Berkeley has taken various steps to re-commence the development on People’s Park. Each time, activists with a belief in the park’s lasting value as a sanctuary have fought and won.
It is our duty to do the same and uphold their legacy. People’s Park belongs to us, the people, and it must remain that way.