BERKELEY – Following hours of angry and tense protests, UC Berkeley officials abruptly announced Wednesday afternoon that they would pause work on transforming historic People’s Park into housing “due to the destruction of construction materials, unlawful protest activities and violence on the part of some.”
The move was a victory for protesters, who had raced to the park soon after UC officials erected a fence around it early Wednesday morning. In a statement, officials said safety is the university’s highest priority and that construction workers and law enforcement had been “withdrawn from the site,” which has long been a symbol of 1960s counterculture and which many view as hallowed community ground.
It was unclear what would happen next or when. University officials, who rushed to begin work just hours after a judge issued a ruling allowing it, said they would “assess the situation in order to determine how best to proceed” with construction of a project that would provide housing for students and homeless people.
Harvey Smith, president of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, said he was happy work had stopped but that officials never should have tried to commence it in the first place. “The legal remedies haven’t been exhausted,” he said, noting that his group had asked a court of appeal to halt construction Wednesday morning.
UC Berkeley and the city of Berkeley proposed redeveloping the park in 2018, calling it a first-in-the-nation plan to build long-term supportive housing for homeless people on university land. The university would also build 1,100 units of badly needed student housing.
Alameda County Judge Frank Roesch late Friday issued a tentative decision that UC Berkeley could begin clearing the historic park for construction work. He made that ruling official late Tuesday, and within hours, the university moved to erect fences and start site preparation. Almost immediately, workers were thwarted by protesters determined to halt their momentum.
Shortly after 2 a.m. as construction machinery moved in, the Twitter account “Defend People’s Park” issued an urgent call to activists to head to the area. “WE NEED SUPPORT,” the tweet read. “PLEASE COME.”By early Wednesday morning, protesters were confronting police and construction crews, shaking the metal fences, with some jumping over the structures to be tackled by California Highway Patrol officers.
A tense standoff ensued for several hours as crews cut down trees and police tried to keep protesters at bay. While officers and protesters jostled in the background, Auerbach and others passed out fliers urging supporters to come to a rally for the park starting at 5 p.m.
Earlier, UC Berkeley police arrested three individuals on suspicion of interfering with the construction work, said Dan Mogulof, a spokesperson for the university. That number has likely risen, but officials said they would not have details on those arrested or the charges they might face until Thursday.
By about noon, the university had made the decision to retreat. The crews departed, police dispersed and protesters broke through the fences and reoccupied the property. An hour later, protesters had dismantled much of the fencing, lobbing the metal segments on surrounding streets, with one yelling: “Save People’s Park!”
Four groups had filed lawsuits against the university’s plan, including the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group and Make UC a Good Neighbor. They argued, among other things, that the university had other options for developing housing and had not adequately studied them, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act. Judge Roesch disagreed, with UC Berkeley saying it would attempt to balance nature, history and the need for housing. “The project will preserve more than 60% of the site as revitalized green space,” the university said in a statement, and will include a memorial to the park’s historic significance.
People’s Park was born in 1969, when the university announced a plan to develop the land, which is about four blocks south of the Berkeley campus just east of Telegraph Avenue.
Furious at the proposed development, hundreds of people dragged sod, trees and flowers to the empty lot and proclaimed it People’s Park. In response, UC erected a fence. The student body president-elect urged a crowd on campus to “take back the park” and more than 6,000 people marched down Telegraph to do just that. A violent clash ensued, leaving one man dead and scores injured.
Angered at the social cleansing of the neighborhood by the university, increased police harassment + the eviction of hundreds of residents, by the spring of 1969, people had gotten organized and decided to take matters into their own hands – People’s Park was established against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan coming to power as Governor, who campaigned in 1966 on a vow to “clean up the mess at Berkeley,” which he famously declared was “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sexual deviants.”
With UC regents set to arrive on May 15th at the urging of Berkeley’s then Republican mayor + local law enforcement, Reagan sent in National Guard various police agencies, who “replaced birdshot with larger, more lethal buckshot.” The scene was set for a bloodbath A march of several thousand attempted to re-take the park as police opened fire and shot tear-gas. “James Rector, an innocent bystander on a side street, was shot in the stomach and later died from his wounds. Alan Blanchard…was permanently blinded.” Over 100 were hospitalized.
“For an additional 17 days, the troops patrolled Berkeley with bayonets and guns in hand. Groups of three or larger were not permitted to congregate in public places. Police and guardsmen confiscated cameras. Streets leading in and out of the city were blocked.”
In response, 30,000 strong marched against the military occupation. By June, the troops were gone + within a year, the Chancellor had resigned. Reagan, with broad public support, defended the violence: “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.”
Over the next few years, more protests broke out in an attempt to tear-down the fence that remained around the park. In May of 1972, the fence finally came down and the park was once again rebuilt collectively by the community.
In July of 1991, fresh clashes break out in Berkeley as the university attempts to “build volleyball courts against the wishes of park users. Three days of street riots and police violence follows.” The 1990s also saw the launch of East Bay Food Not Bombs, which served reclaimed and donated food free to the community throughout the week. This grassroots organizing + community building continues to this day at People’s Park.
While embraced by many Berkeley residents as a city institution, others saw the site as a blight and unsafe for nearby residents. The park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May. Although the Berkeley City Council had once opposed development, the current council supports the university’s plan.
In recent years, and especially during the pandemic, the park became an encampment for unhoused people and those with other troubles. “This place became a sanctuary,” Auerbach said. “There was nothing else like it in the city. It had an incredibly welcoming feel.”
Working with the city and nonprofit groups, the university offered transitional housing to residents of the park for up to a year and a half, as well as meals and social services. A few unhoused people could be seen camping in the park Monday morning, but the numbers were far down compared to previous months.