People’s Park in Berkeley has been an emblem of the people’s power to create a world of our own design in it’s tumultuous thirty-seven years, and now once again, the park community is under attack. Over the last nine months, the University of California (UC) has been using its police to prevent re-construction of a free clothing exchange box at the park. For 30 years people have used the free box to share clothing, children’s toys, and a wide range of household items and necessities, that would otherwise go to waste. The idea, seemingly simple enough, is for people to take what they’d like from the free box and to contribute to it what they don’t need, nourishing a system of mutual aid and un-mediated (by money) exchange, although for the past several years it has been anything but simple.
Attempts to rebuild the box, which was mysteriously destroyed by arson in 2005, have been met with police repression and the destruction of a number of volunteer constructed boxes, all destruction being orchestrated by UC under its claims to ownership of the land upon which the park was built by the people in 1969. Park activists are struggling to re-build and defend the free box today in order to preserve its very practical significance.
Park activists are asking the community to bring clothing donations to People’s Park during the times that FNB serves – weekdays, 3 pm- 4:30 pm, as UC police have been threatening tickets to clothing donors at other times. A mobile Free Box has been showing up somewhat sporadically.
The most recent incident in the struggle for the free box was on May 16 when two UC workers demolished a free box that volunteers had built the previous Saturday afternoon, and had been conducting night time Copwatch vigils to defend. A supervisor from the UC Sports and Rec. Department was present (Sports and Rec. is the body that administrates the Park.) There were three UC police officers in attendance, including a lieutenant, who was videotaping the procedure.
On April 25, early in the morning, a free box was removed which had been built on the parking strip near the driveway on Haste St.
On April 28, at 3 pm, a bicycle cart intended for use as a mobile free clothing distribution site was impounded by UC police in front of the Free Speech stage. It was empty at the time.
Copwatch is participating in the vigils, and has been sending teams to the Park to document police abuse and police harassment of FNB, and the weekday afternoon free clothing distribution has stopped when they are around.
In defending their refusal to permit a new box to be re-built at the park, university officials argue that the free box attracts undesirable people to the Park. A press release from 1999, entitled “UC Berkeley’s New Security Campaign” attempts to demonize the free box and push for its removal by alleging that “Individuals gather around the box to conduct drug-dealing transactions…” and …. “some sell the donated clothing – using the proceeds to fund their alcohol habits” as if to say that a box is in some way contributing to the drug trade and in some way responsible for the propagation of chemical dependency.
It is increasingly apparent that the principle of free economic exchange proposed by the free box is a threat to the University and its corporate clients. They have spent thousands of dollars in attempts to shut down the park all together throughout the years.
With all the pressure and scare-tactics being imposed by UC, it is clear that this fight has some serious underlying motives. For thirty-seven years now, the struggle over ownership of the park has been at the forefront — it has been over this question of property rights that so much sweat, tears and blood has been shed. When the park was peacefully created by volunteers in 1969 on vacant, UC-owned land, the university’s massive, military over-reaction delegitimized future UC claims to ownership of the land. During days of rioting after the university’s middle of the night construction of a fence around the park, police shot into crowds with shotguns, killing one, blinding one, and wounding 128. Governor Reagan ordered the National Guard to occupy Berkeley. Although the fence stayed up for a while, the university has never been able to develop the land because of permanent community support for the park.
One can draw a correlation from the very beginning of the park’s history to today’s free box battle, in which throughout this time span, People’s Park has been creating an independent spirit of community cooperation. It is this demonstration of people’s power that so greatly threatens those who would rather see the continuance of the people’s dependency on a hierarchical and capitalist system. Rather than crouch down and give up, people are still struggling for self-determination, sustainability, and change.