Outlawing Community at People's Park Free box or Pandora's box

“Put down those weapons!” the University of California (UC) police officer commanded. But the small crowd gathering in People’s Park in Berkeley September 17 weren’t carrying guns or knives or clubs — we were using a posthole digger to rebuild the free clothing exchange box that has stood in the park for over 30 years.

Why would the University of California deploy armed police to stop volunteers from rebuilding a free clothing box in a park? The freebox is a perfect form of non-structured recycling and economic mutual aid: folks with extra clothes drop them off at the box, happy to have their closet cleaned out, while folks needing some new clothes dig through to find something both fashionable and in their size. Most of us in Berkeley have used the box for both purposes for years. Eggplant tried to explain the tense yet festive standoff with police to a confused passerby: “you know when you were a teenager and your parents did irrational things to control you . . . ?”

People’s Park in Berkeley has been contested ground since it was constructed on UC land without university permission in 1969 — leading to rioting, one death and a National Guard occupation of Berkeley when the police tried to seize and destroy the park. (See sidebar – History of People’s Park, page 9,) The university has always claimed to legally own the land on which the park sits, but the people of Berkeley have always rejected university claims as covered in blood and thus void. We know that People’s Park, like all the world’s resources, belongs to everyone, and it makes no difference one way or another who holds title to the land. Over the years, Berkeley people have practiced “user development” of the park, i.e. park users have constructed and maintained the park, the university and their land title be damned.

Periodically, as if testing the water, the university has tried to prohibit user development — tearing up gardens, destroying previous freeboxes and bathrooms constructed by park users and building sports courts on the park against the will of park users. And over the last 36 years, all university efforts to behave as if they own the park have been met with stiff resistance and refusal — on numerous occasions bursting into rioting and general civil disorder. Ultimately, the university has always had to back down and allow park users control. Despite all the millions of dollars and thousands of police hours spent by the university to retake the land, wipe out the park and assert their control, the park remains . . . a park.

The Freebox was one of the first things built in the park. It embodies a fundamental part of the vision of those who dug up the first piece of concrete and planted the first tree: the principle of free economic exchange, or sharing. If the “free speech” stage is the heart of People’s Park, the freebox is its blood.

In April, the 2005 wood version of the freebox mysteriously burned down. Some previous free boxes had also burned — others had been removed by the university. Rumors circulated that pro-university fraternity boys had burned it as a prank or maybe as a classist act of violence against the homeless, who some people believe are “attracted” to the South campus area by the freebox and the numerous free food servings at People’s Park. Food Not Bombs serves food in the park Monday – Friday at 3 p.m.

Park users started dreaming of constructing a steel and cob freebox that would not be vulnerable to vandalism and arson. When a prominent park activist mentioned the plan to replace the freebox with an improved version to a university official, she was surprised to be told that the university didn’t want any freebox to be rebuilt at all. She was told that the freebox was a problem — it was hard to keep clean and sometimes fights developed over donated clothes. Underlying these excuses lurked a familiar theme — the university has been uncomfortable with having a freebox in the park for years because the university believes that the freebox “attracts” poor and homeless people to the park.

So flyers went out inviting folks to the park to rebuild the freebox. When people arrived, police were already on hand. When a few people started preparing the site for construction, the police threatened “anyone who vandalizes the park will be arrested.” Vandalism, indeed! For a few moments, people sat down in a circle around the freebox site to discuss what to do. A few people were determined to rebuild the freebox even if it meant their arrest, so work re-started.

The police charged over, snarling, demanding that construction stop. “If your vandalism goes over a certain amount of money, you will be committing a more serious offense” they threatened. But perhaps because there was a football game that day sucking up police resources — or more likely because university officials didn’t want arrests to escalate conflict over the park that could ultimately end in rioting and looting — the police just took video pictures as construction continued.

The essence of the park has always been reclaiming property, power and control from private hands and sharing these things amongst everyone. Rebuilding the freebox was the most exciting event in Berkeley all summer — to finally step out of our roles as passive victims and consumers and build something ourselves for ourselves — not asking permission, but taking direct action to meet human needs.

By the end of the weekend, folks had installed four steel posts and a foundation. But sometime Wednesday — with no volunteers or witnesses around — university workers destroyed everything that had been built. We had hoped the university might let our work stay, even though all the police around over the weekend made that look unlikely.

As we put Slingshot together over the weekend of September 24/25, people are back in People’s Park rebuilding the freebox again — this time with twice as many people. The university can’t wear us out with their police and bulldozers — they’ll only bring more people into the park and escalate the level of resistance. If they destroy a rebuilt freebox ten times, we’ll rebuild eleven times. The city of Berkeley is filled with retail stores and consumerism — we’ve maintained the freebox as a place for meeting human needs without profit for 30 years and survived many previous attempts to smash it. We’ll win this struggle, too.

The university is testing the waters in People’s Park — trying to see if people have the stomach to defend user development. They are playing with fire. We call on people throughout the Bay Area and the United States to come to Berkeley and join the creative, fierce struggle for the land. There won’t be calm in Berkeley until the university backs down.