By Lunatic Liberation Front
People’s Park in Berkeley just turned 50 years old and while it might be an old relic of the 1960’s, it still matters and it’s still worth defending. Slingshot has a special connection to the Park. Riots in the 1980s and 1990s defending the Park brought our collective together and taught important lessons about direct action street protests and engaging with the issues of the day. The experience of dodging rubber bullets and police lines forged personal relationships that have endured ever since. The lessons learned were used numerous ways; from Copwatch & Critical Mass to Reclaim the Streets & Anti-Globalization/WTO/IMF organizing. And that was just the fuckin’ 1990’s. The politics of taking space propelled us into the 21st Century, from resisting wars and police abuse to opening squats and spreading ideas like Occupy near and far.
It is amazing how so many of the issues faced by the radicals who created the Park in the 1960s are still in play today. We’re still struggling against a dehumanizing, unfair, militarized, racist system that values land for profit more than it values people’s lives or the earth. Today as the Bay area struggles to retain grassroots communities in the face of forces that want to turn it into a hyper-capitalist hellhole, the Park provides a refuge open to everyone.
The ethos of the Park is that it is controlled by the people: “User Development” means that gardens and landscaping are created by the people who feel the impact, not government managers who hardly spend five minutes in the space. Right at its inception the Park’s rallying cry encouraged participation from all with, “Everyone gets a blister.”
Hundreds of people — ranging from freaks and radicals to regular Berkeley folks — built the Park as a community in 1969 to provide a free speech venue for concerts and activist events on vacant land owned (and many contend stolen) by the University of California Berkeley. The scene was a popping counter culture with growing numbers of people determined to make a new America — a new world. UC’s first attempt to seize back and destroy People’s Park lead to rioting, police shootings that left bystander James Rector dead and dozens wounded, and a week-long National Guard occupation of Berkeley. Since then, although UC has always claimed to legally own the land, they have never been able to control it.
Failing that, UC has done everything it could to undermine community efforts and support for the Park. For a few years an advisory board existed where activists and campus officials could meet and discuss the Park. Since the board was dissolved, the University has continued with the practice of making controversial changes without warning or public input. Often, this happens during class breaks when the nearby student population is low. They cut down trees as well as destroy gardens and have even confiscated tools activists use for general maintenance. If the Park looks like a festering eye sore, that’s intentional on the part of UC Berkeley.
The scene in the Park can be pretty dysfunctional at times. But our enemies work overtime to make the Park ugly and encourage social disintegration. For decades, during orientation, the university has told new students to stay away from the Park claiming it was a center of criminal activity. At the same time, UC police were directing crime and drugs to the Park and harassing regulars. The university’s claimed concern for student safety is curious, because the UC has covered up sexual assault in fraternities and numerous sexual harassment cases perpetrated by faculty.
As the Park is stigmatized for being a sanctuary only for drug dealers and crazy people, we’ve seen the greater community change significantly. On nearby Telegraph Avenue you can purchase legal marijuana. Since the opioid crisis, drug usage and overdose has forced many mainstream people to reconsider the drug war. San Francisco is on the cusp of being the first city in the U.S. to have a legal safe injection facility — a model that has been successful for saving lives. And after numerous mass shootings, national discourse often goes into the importance of having awareness of mental health issues and the possible remedies. To my knowledge no Berkeley crazy person has ever gone on a shooting spree.
Most telling are the thousands of encampments that have taken over public space. Urban campsites are a global phenomenon. In this light, the most allegedly negative aspects of the Park such as it being a “homeless camp” are clearly symptoms of capitalism.
UC has been widely criticized for both admitting more students each year and continuously raising tuition. It cries about a lack of housing while exacerbating the issue. On the eve of the Park’s 50 year anniversary, UC announced plans to raze the Park to construct a dorm that can hold up to 1,000 beds and then tested continued community support by cutting dozens of trees in late 2018 and continuing into early 2019. “While the UC cut our trees, the People’s Park Community grew flowers breaking through the institution, hosting event after event — protest after protest, to demand its right to exist” commented Park activist Aidan Hill. “Chancellor Christ, after announcing the Park would be the first university ‘owned’ parcel developed under her leadership, quietly told ASUC (student government) senators that People’s Park would be developed after Oxford and Hearst projects which would take ‘many years’.”
Are they getting desperate? Recently the Berkeley Free Clinic — which was created to treat people wounded by police during protests over the Park in 1969 — was approached by a UC official promising a space for the clinic in the proposed dorm to be built on the Park. This is an old tactic of pitting two groups to fight each other who would otherwise be allies. It is not going to work!
“Park activists spoke out — reassuring that the land and the people who occupy it and enhance it would not go down without a fight.”
“The question is: How can People’s Park foster a future in which the entire community benefits. The Park stands parallel to the most pressing challenges facing our society. As we move further into a police state, the Park brings us democratic governance, alternative forms of healthcare, methods to challenge inequalities and a solid first-line of climate resilience. The Park is partnering with the People’s Open Network to bring communication technology into the People’s hands with free and open internet access for all,” added Aidan.
People’s Park meetings are Sundays at 1pm. Food Not Bombs serves Monday through Friday at 3PM. The space is open at all times for you and your affinity group to hold court in. Its a great place to notice what’s up with the sky, to people watch and talk about the news of the day. Check out Tom Dalzell’s new book “The Battle for People’s Park 1969” by Heyday Books. Let 1,000 Parks Bloom! More info at peoplespark.org.