n a cowardly, middle of the night police raid, University of California at Berkeley workers tore out a brand new, steel free clothing exchange box Nov. 16 that volunteers had built in Berkeley’s People’s Park Nov. 12-13 — the third free box destroyed by the University in three months. People’s Park — a park built by Berkeley residents on land seized from the University in 1969 — has contained a free clothing box for most of the last 30 years. To this day, the university claims that they “own” the park and thus have the right to control and manage it.
Folks in Berkeley, however, do not recognize university ownership of the park and practice “user development” of the park — planting and maintaining gardens, hosting events, serving free Food Not Bombs meals, and building and maintaining the community free box. The university claimed they owned the park in 1969 and went so far as to occupy Berkeley with 3,000 National Guard troops and shoot over 100 residents with shotguns — killing one person — to enforce their claim. The university’s claim is covered in blood — the park, like all the world’s resources, belongs to everyone. The standoff between community members and the university bureaucracy has gone on for 36 years — with occasional flair-ups like the current dispute over the free box.
When a free box exists, anyone with extra clothes can bring them to give away, and anyone who needs clothes can come pick them up. The free box is thus a perfect form of non-structured recycling and economic mutual aid.
In April 2005, the previous wood free box burned down. When community members mentioned to university officials that they were planning to construct a replacement, university officials indicated that they would not permit replacement of the box. They implied that the box attracts the wrong element to areas near the university, i.e. poor and homeless people. As if poverty would go away if only no resources for poor people existed.
Of course, members of the community went ahead and started to build a replacement box anyway — the foundation of which was promptly torn down by the university in September. And we built another one in October which was also removed by police. And we’ll keep building new free boxes until the university gets too embarrassed to continue to pull them down.
Why is the university so threatened by a free clothing box? And why do we want one so much that we’ll keep building new ones even though they might get torn down? The free box and the park are key battlegrounds between the kind of world the university wants to impose and the kind of world we envision.
The free box is an example of anarchistic exchange in the best sense — exchange controlled by no one, un-mediated by money and operating on the principal “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”. The world we envision is one of sharing, cooperation to meet human needs, and decisions made by users from the bottom up, not disconnected authorities from the top down.
In contrast, the university’s world view is threatened when people do anything for themselves — without permission from authorities, without expert planning, and without money. The university is threatened by any act of sharing or any formation of community. The university — and much of the city of Berkeley machinery which quietly tolerates university attacks on community in People’s Park — seeks to promote a world ruled by money in which those with the most money are constantly showered with more, while those in need are denied access to basic items that exist all around them in abundance.
The cops acted in the middle of the night because they are afraid — afraid that people would be outraged if they knew that the university and the city were spending thousands of dollars to rob used clothes from the poor. They didn’t want any pictures of their bulldozer cutting into the brand new shiny steel free box.
University and city leaders always imply that they need to “clean up” People’s Park — by which they mean “remove the visual indications of the inequality of a class society.” The University of California doesn’t want the future social leaders who attend the university to understand the ugly effects of capitalism, inequality and business as usual. But even more, they don’t want these future leaders to see that there are viable and beautiful alternatives to their system of greed — that people can share; that folks can use just what they need rather than accumulating property as an end in itself.
What would the world look like if everything was “cleaned up” and everyone conformed to a work-shop-die world? Do we even want everything to be clean, middle class, sterile and standardized? Do we want everything to be run on commerce and money?
The struggle to rebuild the free box — and with it to strengthen community that exists outside the economy — will continue because this is the key struggle of our age. This is the same struggle as the struggle against inhumane corporate power, globalization, sweatshops and the New World Order. It is a struggle that emphasizes direct action — communities getting together to construct the world we want to live in — not asking permission or submitting to a role as a passive consumer.
What you can do:
Folks will be getting together in People’s Park soon to build another free box — contact 510 390-0830 or People’s Park website if you want to be part of it. Or better yet, call Irene Hegarty at the Unviersity’s Office of Community Relations and tell her to let the free box live: 510 643-5296.