We are likely to see another few days, at least, of protest at Berkeley's People's Park, after campus and city police descended Wednesday night to execute an elaborate operation in which 160 shipping containers are to be used to wall off the park on all sides.
As was reported Wednesday by the UC Berkeley student newspaper, the Daily Californian, the university has been working on a plan to cordon off and secure the park property once and for all, ahead of planned development there. While the property has been mired in lawsuits for a while, university officials now anticipate being able to start construction in the near future. And they wanted the remaining homeless people residing there to be long gone when that day comes.
Seven protesters who refused to leave the area were arrested overnight, as the New York Times and NBC Bay Area are reporting, after about 60 protesters gathered to oppose the police action that began around midnight. By early Thursday morning, as the Chronicle reports, about two dozen shipping containers had been stacked two high, closing off the corner of Channing Way and Bowditch Street, with over 100 more on their way into town on flatbed trucks.
A rally for development opponents was scheduled at the park at 11 a.m. Thursday.
6 blocks worth of shipping containers are on college avenue near dorms. UC plans to stack them around #peoplespark. Unhoused people are kicked out and traumatized. One person hit on the head. Numerous cars towed. Collective trauma ensuing. The fight continues @ Haste/Telegraph pic.twitter.com/Dsgb3Wnknh— Aidan Hill (@AidanVote) January 4, 2024
There are plenty of opponents in the community and at the university who have wanted the university to look elsewhere for property for a planned student housing and homeless housing project, and some of these protesters want the park space preserved for historic reasons.
The park celebrated 50 years as a public space in 2019, commemorating the tragic "Bloody Thursday" in May 1969, when then-Governor Ronald Reagan sent in CHP Berkeley Police, and Alamenda County officers to quell protests and secure the site — on which a community park was being established in protest of its previous blight.
Ironically, the original protest was sparked by the fact that the university had cleared the land and left it vacant for years, lacking the funds the to develop it into planned student housing. 55 years later, the university is still battling to build housing there as it faces a severe housing crunch for students.
UC Berkeley houses only 23% of its student body, the lowest rate of any school in the UC system. And the 2.8-acre site is planned to have 1,100 student units, as well as 100 units of supportive housing for the homeless, with 60% of the open space retained.
Protesters have focused on homeless people who have used the place as a campground for many years, though many Berkeley residents long lost any affection for the place as it descended into squalor.
Former Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, himself one of the activists who built the park in 1969, told the LA Times a decade ago, "Over time, people have come to realize that the park has not become what they hoped it would be... it is not a place that a lot of people are comfortable going to."
But there has also been considerable NIMBY protest in Berkeley about construction by the university generally in recent years, with some homeowners objecting to new student housing and the noise it may bring. (A fair amount of digital and actual ink has been spilled about the use of California's Environmental Quality Act, CEQA, being weaponized to equate people with pollution.)
Mix all of this with college-student zeal over a site that symbolizes the early days of the free-speech movement at Berkeley, and over the treatment of the unhoused generally, and you have the recipe for protracted protest that goes on to this day.
"Unfortunately, our planning and actions must take into account that some of the project’s opponents have previously resorted to violence and vandalism,” said university Chancellor Carol Christ in a statement today, adding that this is “despite strong support for the project on the part of students, community members, advocates for unhoused people, the elected leadership of the City of Berkeley, as well as the legislature and governor of the state of California."
A spokesperson for the university said that of the eight homeless people living in the park, three had accepted offers of housing, and the other five had voluntarily gone elsewhere.
The latest police action, as the Chronicle notes, is being led in part by University of California Police Chief Yogananda Pittman, who served as interim chief of the U.S. Capitol Police during the January 6th riots.
Pittman put out a statement saying, "We were compelled to act in support of unhoused people in the park who are being targeted by criminals, and in support of our commitment to provide our students, and members of the community, with the safety and security they need and deserve."
Pittman added, "It became clear we needed to close the site and that it would take extraordinary preemptive measures to do so given that some of the project’s opponents have little regard for the law."
The entire operation to wall off the park is expected to go on for several days.
We'll update you after today's rally.
Top image: AidanVote/X