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It's Not Those People's Park

People’s Park belongs to Berkeley, not the radicals.

Rally at People's Park Annex
(Photo by Garth Eliassen/Getty Images)

It could be a new, clean—literally, clean—chapter of Berkeley history, as the University of California has moved to clear the trees in People’s Park, the area three blocks south of its flagship campus. 

A landmark added to the U.S. Register of Historic Places in May, People’s Park has been an oozing sore on the face of Berkeley, California since 1969. Berkeley is a living cliché of a town. The 2.8-acre plot of land has been the site of a half-century-long battle of wills with scores of bystanders, most of them mentally unstable, as collateral damage. 


The University of California acquired the plot in 1967 on the cheap using eminent domain. The school first wanted to build dormitories and offices, then a soccer field, but ran out of money. That’s when the local activists, most of them veterans of the Free Speech Movement, swooped in, quickly organizing a community. With freedom of speech on campus but a distant memory in woke America, People’s Park survives as the sole remnant of 1960s-Berkeley radicalism.

Because of its proximity to Berkley’s campus, the 2500 block of Haste Street was ideal for staging rallies. Following a neighborhood meeting to strategize takeover of the university land, activists marked the territory with a garden. 

Acting as if the property was theirs, they polled students and faculty and found interest in keeping the plot a park. Next, they took it upon themselves to negotiate with the Regents, reportedly getting assurance that they would be notified before the school moved on with the project. The activists were not informed, and proceeded to throw a hissy fit.

The standard narrative suggests that activist busywork at People’s Park proves that activists owned the park: look at Robert speaking so passionately to his comrades and Mary pouring soup for the homeless!  They look so lovely standing on the People’s Park lawn, the thinking went—they must be the owners!

But the property has never belonged to any near-campus political group. It is owned by the University of California and, by extension, the people of the state. Decisions about the property are made by the Regents, who themselves were appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate. Allowing a group of political actors to use the land for their own purposes would subvert the rights of the school and the taxpayer.


Activists assured themselves that the theft was justified because, in the words of lifelong community organizer Frank Bardacke, “A group of people took some corporate land, owned by the University of California, that was a parking lot and turned it into a park and then said, 'We're using the land better than you used it; it's ours.'” It’s not that near-campus communists developed the land more efficiently than the people of California. The former simply had the will to take it, and the latter lost its nerve.

Activists staked out the parcel and moved some homeless people onto it. After the homeless were evicted and the area cleared of shrubs, the activists summoned 6,000 rioters. The rioters opened a fire hydrant and threw rocks and bottles at the highway patrolmen and city cops patrolling the lot. The mob chased off some of the officers and set a patrol car on fire. Before the end of the day, 800 policemen in full riot gear were pursuing the demonstrators with tear gas.

Officers fired and killed a demonstrator named James Rector. One policeman was stabbed in the chest and 128 Berkeley residents were admitted to hospitals. Ronald Reagan declared a state of emergency and sent in the National Guard. After the riots were quelled, the Regents voted to proceed with construction of a married-students dorm, but didn’t follow through. 

Though the days of 6,000 rioters are over, homeless squatting in People’s Park is the norm. Dozens of protesters descend every time the university announces a new planned use of the lot.

Today, People’s Park is neither a spot for the common folk to frolic under the afternoon sun nor a staging ground for a revolution but a symbol of contemporary California: it is a homeless encampment. It is a hub of lawlessness and insanity.

When I went to People’s Park, there was a gutter punk kid I’ll call Lucy. A few years before we ran into each other, Lucy had dropped out of Berkeley and now couchsurfed. She once went hitchhiking across the country “to clear [her] head.” She said that she couldn’t go back to her parents, because the last time she visited she had hit her mother. She confessed that she wished she had gone to a different college because, if she had, she wouldn’t have gotten caught up in the Berkeley scene and would have already graduated medical school. 

Lucy was boring and overbearing, and at some point ran out of couches to surf. My bridesmaid once spotted her walking down Telegraph, shuffling her foot. Turns out, Lucy was sleeping at People’s Park one night and a homeless man raped her. She started self-medicating with heroin, overdosed, and had a stroke, hence the foot shuffle. Because of her health ordeal, she owed hundreds of dollars to the club where she was stripping to support her habit. That was almost 20 years ago. I’m sure she’s long dead. 

Berkeley is rife with the homeless and those with untreated mental illness; those issues are not limited to People’s Park, but it’s an epicenter. The ongoing humanitarian disaster in the park didn’t change the local attitude toward property rights and harm reduction—if anything, those attitudes became more entrenched. In the ‘60s, the California Assembly started deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill. In the aughts, the voters decriminalized drugs and stopped prosecuting property crimes under $900. In the new legal environment, cartels organized gangs of addicts to “boost” stores, laying entire neighborhoods to waste

It took a tragedy to change the attitude toward development. In 2016, 36 people perished in Oakland when a fire erupted at a show in an illegally converted warehouse called the Ghost Ship. The deeply shaken Bay Area processed the disaster the only way its imagination permitted: in socio-economic terms. People lived and partied in the dingy live-work Ghost Ship, the narrative went, because housing was too expensive. And housing is too expensive because we don’t build enough of it. The second point is undeniable. 

If in past decades it seemed like every construction proposal in the East Bay was turned down, all of a sudden, high-rise condos sprang up in place of charming century-old apartments. And since U.C. Berkeley has started admitting just about every graduating high school senior in the state, those students have had to be housed somewhere. A logical place sits three blocks away from the university. 

The current People’s Park development proposal would leave half of the space to a memorial walkway, an open-air altar to local radicalism. The complex would include both a 1,100-unit student housing and a smaller homeless shelter — not ideal situation, but a compromise activists should find easy to accept, even if they are not accustomed to compromises. In 1969, they mustered the will to take the land and they will never give back voluntarily. They never let go without a fight.


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