If you attend UC Berkeley, you’ve likely heard of or witnessed the recent disruption at People’s Park, a result of the university’s attempts to turn the park into student housing.
The half-block now easily recognizable as “People’s Park” was once indistinguishable from any other residential area of Southside Berkeley. In 1967, the space was purchased by the University of California to build new dorms, and the homes on the land were subsequently demolished. When the construction of the dorms stalled in 1969, community members set out to reclaim the land by transforming the dirt lot into a park, known thereafter as People’s Park.
On May 15, 1969, known as “Bloody Thursday,” violence erupted between police and protestors at People’s Park. Law enforcement opened fire on the crowd using buckshot and birdshot, resulting in the death of James Rector, the blinding of Alan Blanchard, and dozens of other injuries to both protestors and bystanders. In addition, the National Guard was deployed to quell this and other counterculture protests throughout Berkeley. Amidst this conflict and violence, People’s Park earned its status as a symbol of anti-authoritarianism and the counterculture movement.
Since 1969, other protests have served to protect the park as a public community space, including action in 1991 against the university’s plans to redevelop the park. However, the story doesn’t end here. UC Berkeley recently announced a plan to construct new student housing for more than 1,100 students. Upon attempting to clear the park and begin construction, the university was met with strong resistance from students and community members, including the formation of the student-run organization Defend People’s Park.
In a recent statement, the Berkeley Faculty Association wrote, “Images of police officers clearing and enclosing People’s Park on 4th August for the construction of student housing had uncanny echoes of Ronald Reagan’s use of state violence to try to reclaim the park as university property in 1969.” These words remind us of the saga of the park and its importance to Berkeley’s history as a site for radical social change.
However, People’s Park is more than just a symbol. Advocates for the park’s defense describe it as a community center and a green space utilized by houseless community members. These groups argue that replacing the park with student housing would displace all of these people and contribute to the area’s gentrification.
With construction paused due to an injunction imposed by the Appellate Court, the future of People’s Park remains unclear. Amidst the recent controversy, we can turn to the past to shed light on the issue and understand how this conflict is about more than just land.