People's Park – the only thing that can make it work is work

People’s Park

As construction continues on a massive 620-unit University of California (UC) dormitory across from Berkeley’s People’s Park, the whirlwind of controversy that has hovered over the Park since its’ inception got stirred up again in August by the Telegraph Business Improvement and Development Association (TBID). They released a letter calling the park “a detriment to both the business and general community” and claiming the park is “a conduit for criminal activity and [ ] an unsafe, unpleasant place to visit.”

The letter asks UC to use their police force to hassle activists and “homeless” people who use the park and to prohibit free food sharing at the park. It called for a total redevelopment of the park using guidelines laid out by a corporate landscape architect’s design study, commissioned by UC at great expense 4 years ago and immediately relegated to the waste bin by most Berkeley residents. It calls for the destruction of improvements constructed by volunteers and installation of security cameras and lighting. The ultimate goal: gentrification of the park and elimination of non-consumers.

People’s Park in Berkeley has been contested ground since it was joyfully and cooperatively constructed — without permission — on a vacant lot owned by the University of California (UC) in 1969. Thousands of freaks and regular people worked to make an ugly and neglected lot beautiful — an act of creation, hope and reverence for the land and the beings who use it and a rejection of the private property system that values profit over use. After several weeks of construction, the university brought in police to crush the park, leading to rioting, one death and 150 wounded when police fired live ammunition into crowds. Governor Reagan ordered the National Guard to occupy Berkeley. Two years later, rioters destroyed a fence around the site and it was reclaimed as a park.

Since then, the university has always claimed to legally own the land on which the park sits, but many Berkeley residents reject this claim as covered in blood and thus void. Over the years, Berkeley people have practiced “user development” of the park — park users have constructed gardens, a free speech stage, free clothing boxes, bulletin boards, benches and tables, and users try to maintain the park. User development has always been frustrated by the University, which has repeatedly sent in police to tear out improvements. In a dense student neighborhood near campus, the park is one of the few pieces of ground where you don’t have to spend money — open to everyone regardless of wealth or social status. East Bay Food Not Bombs has served in the park five days a week for 20 years, and has become as much a fixture of the culture of Telegraph Avenue as any of the for-profit businesses that operate there.

The TBID letter caused a backlash and was embarrassing to some merchants — perhaps because it expressed some of their secret thoughts too openly. Park activist @RT thinks the letter controversy can be a useful kick in the pants for complacent Berkeley radicals who’ve forgotten about the park:

“After failing to pass an ordinance in the Berkeley City Council last winter prohibiting sitting or lying on the sidewalk (mainly spearheaded by TBID), this most recent failure of the Berkeley bourgeoisie to bully the least fortunate is heartening in several ways. For instance, after a many decade hiatus, People’s Park Volunteer Activist Committee is now holding regular meetings at the Grassroots House, 2022 Blake St., on alternate Thursdays at 7pm. We are also doing work parties in the park on alternate Sunday afternoons.”

He continues: “Every bit of volunteer effort that you invest in People’s Park is ultimately invested in alternatives to capitalism. Because of this, People’s Park in many ways defines Berkeley, gives it personality, uniqueness, vibrancy, and funk (not to mention honesty — a necessary ingredient of free speech.) If People’s Park was an anomaly at its’ inception, it is even more so in the midst of what is now an ultra-corporate urban environment. The fact that it is still there is an utter miracle, and a testament to the tenacity of this community of resistance. This tenacity, and sheer stubborn resistance is the reason why we will never go to a bank to get some money so we could landscape that place neat as a pin.”

@RT adds: “Unfortunately, another defining factor of People’s Park has been disfunctionality, perhaps almost the definition of it . . . and the only thing that can make it work is WORK. We really need to dedicate ourselves to that place if we are going to have a useful organizational structure in place in which to facilitate user-development. This is the time to invest ourselves as anarchist organizers in creating a truly democratic, consensus-based non-profit organization that promotes volunteer activism in People’s Park, now and for the future.”

In another development, anarchists have just begun a weekly anarchist liberated space / assembly every Sunday at noon inspired by the spaces occupied by anarchists in Greece. For info check