People’s Park is a historical monument worth fighting for

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Ameena Golding/Staff

In a letter to UC Berkeley alumni published in the summer 2018 issue of California Magazine, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ announced her intention to build student housing on People’s Park. We, the undersigned members of the People’s Park community, object to these plans.

Our park, the People’s Park, was born from a dream of free speech and common space in a turbulent time 49 years ago. It has been threatened and defended many times over the years. Today, People’s Park is utilized by a unique group of activists, students, artists, musicians, travelers and homeless people who believe in those ideals. We rely on this free, green and open space for the community, love and healing we find here. We will continue to fight for that long-ago dream.

The history of People’s Park is fraught with conflict. The university’s plans for developing the 2.8-acre residential parcel began in 1956, but development did not proceed until 1967, when the university paid $1.3 million for the land, using a process of eminent domain. In February of 1968, it demolished the residences, leaving the grounds undeveloped and empty for 14 months. On April 13, 1969, plans were developed to turn the land into a public park. Seven days later, on April 20, more than 100 people began creating People’s Park. On May 13, then-chancellor Roger W. Heyns publicly stated that the university would build a fence around the property. On May 15, 1969, or “Bloody Thursday,” as it has been dubbed, a riot over the fence construction erupted between approximately 4,000 protesters and 791 police officers, deputy sheriffs and California Highway Patrol officers. More than 100 people were admitted to local hospitals with head injuries and shotgun wounds, among other injuries. One student was blinded for life after a load of buckshot directly hit his face, while another was outright killed. For the next two weeks, the streets of Berkeley were patrolled by National Guardsmen sent in by then-governor Reagan.

In 1979, UC Berkeley used the land to build a parking lot for students that would require a fee. Protesters took up picks and shovels and removed the asphalt to convert the west end of the park into a garden. And 39 years later, the gardens still bloom. In her book “People’s Park: Still Blooming,” author Terri Compost wrote, “As a bulb that pushes through the black dirt, we seek light, the truth, the promise of something new. … Push, little bulb, push! We need your sweetness. Surprise us with your beauty. We need the Park.”

In 1991, the university announced its intention to build volleyball courts on People’s Park. Numerous public hearings and meetings were held where community members and park activists stated their strong objections. The university decided to continue with the construction of the courts. Riots stunned Telegraph Avenue. There were protests against the projects, some protesters occupied the volleyball courts to keep them from being used. The volleyball courts were removed in 1997.

In her letter to the alumni, Chancellor Christ goes on to state, “Whatever anyone thinks of the ideals that motivated the creation of People’s Park, it is hard to see the park today as embodying those ideals. It is equally hard to determine who the people are that benefit from the park in its current form.” It is understandable that the chancellor finds it hard to see the park as embodying those ideals — we certainly haven’t seen the chancellor in the park very often.

The central and crucial ideal behind the creation of People’s Park was the protection of free speech and the right to exercise our constitutional right to assemble. The community continues to gather there to celebrate, protest and share. Memorials are held. The park held a small gathering of people after the Chinese government launched its offensive against the protesters in Tiananmen Square. One of our community members witnessed this spontaneous, candlelit expression of solidarity for brave people sacrificing everything for their freedom. Congresswoman Barbara Lee spoke from the People’s Park stage in 2003 at the 33rd Anniversary for People’s Park.

There is a homeless presence in People’s Park, but that is hardly unique. As homelessness increases around the country, many parks have a growing homeless population. The homeless use the park as a safe space, a place of respite from the streets of Berkeley. East Bay Food Not Bombs, religious organizations in the area and student groups distribute food and necessities in the park to help the homeless and low-income residents of the neighborhood survive.

Finally, we offer the words that local author Tom Dalzell wrote in his letter to Berkeleyside on May 3, 2018: “The park is important open green space in an increasingly dense south campus. William Wurster was a fierce advocate of a ‘greenbelt of natural beauty’ with no buildings around the campus. Hearst, Bancroft, and Telegraph (and Shattuck and University and San Pablo) are seeing big new buildings. As we debate the future of People’s Park, I urge that we keep in mind its unique value as a greenbelt, not just as hallowed ground, historical ground.”

We, the People’s Park Committee, believe that the university must not build on People’s Park.

This op-ed was written by Ed Monroe, David D. Collins, Lisa Teague, Michael Martin, Michael Delacour, Russell Bates, Michael Diehl, Aidan Hill, Adam Ziegler, Joseph Leisner, Mark MacDonald, Neil Marcus and Erick Morales, who call themselves the People’s Park Committee.