Occupation outside Downtown Berkeley post office ends after 17 months

Nicole White/Senior Staff

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Orange safety fencing supported by bollards cordons off an area that once housed tents, a box containing free clothing and a mayoral campaign headquarters during a 17-month-long occupation outside the Berkeley Main Post Office.

The protest began in November 2014, more than two years after the U.S. Postal Service announced its intention to sell the federally owned half-block building to private developers. It ended Tuesday, when USPS officials issued eight citations to four individuals involved in the demonstration against the office’s sale.

“(It) has to do with privatization of the post office, loss of benefits, corporate pirates,” said Mike Zint, a longtime resident of the encampment and organizer with First They Came for the Homeless. “This is our property — no rich person should be able to buy it.”

History of the sale

The 102-year-old Downtown building is one of more than 200 branches that USPS is looking to consolidate as part of a cost-containment strategy in response to its multimillion-dollar debt.

“It’s a historical building — it’s on the state registrar of historical buildings,” said USPS spokesperson Augustine Ruiz, adding that a covenant prevents the agency from demolishing the building, though the space is more than it needs.

Ruiz described the group’s encampment near the post office as a blight on the neighborhood. The organizers, however, see their action as a First Amendment protest, fundamental to a larger movement to save the services of the post office — a 50,000-square-foot Renaissance Revival-style building — and its Works Progress Administration-era artwork.

After learning that USPS had moved to sell the historic building in 2012, Berkeley community members acted to protect it. In November 2013, city staff and the National Trust for Historic Preservation toured the building, along with Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office, or SBPO. A year later, in October 2014, Berkeley City Council unanimously passed a civic center overlay to designate the post office as a space for community use.

In November 2014, the city filed a lawsuit against USPS, requesting a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to prevent the sale of the Downtown post office.

After Zint and his fellow demonstrators began the encampment protest in November 2014, they were almost immediately met with opposition from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

“We first got letters November 2014, and (through) early January of 2015, we were threatened with eviction, or raid and eviction, at least 30 times,” alleged Mike Wilson, an organizer with the Berkeley Post Office Defenders, or BPOD, another protest group that has worked to prevent the sale of the post office.

The letters began to taper off shortly after January 2015, Wilson said, allowing the protesters to maintain their encampment.

Wilson, like other members of BPOD, doesn’t live onsite: He’s an El Cerrito resident who supports the encampment residents by feeding them, coordinating medical care and charging their cellphone batteries. He explained that while BPOD and SBPO overlap in membership, BPOD’s tactics are more grassroots, supporting the occupation, whereas SBPO works to effect change through legislation.

Postal perspective

In April 2015, a federal judge dismissed the city’s lawsuit against USPS, allowing the postal service to continue with the sale of the building. The judge mandated, however, that USPS provide written notice to the city 42 days before a future sale closes.

The retail sales area comprises only 4,000 square feet, or 8 percent, of the building, which has been largely vacant since the letter carriers were relocated to Eighth Street in West Berkeley, according to Ruiz.

“What we want to do is sell the building and still maintain the front end, and just lease back the portion so we can continue to serve our customers,” Ruiz said.

The Berkeley Main Post Office building has stood at 2000 Allston Way for more than a century, roughly half of USPS’ approximately 240-year existence. Ruiz explained USPS’ commitment to serving Downtown Berkeley: The Allston Way location still has P.O. boxes, passport services, mail sales and even burial flags.

On April 1 — 11 days before the protest’s dispersal — the U.S. Postal Inspection Service issued a public notice to the persons camping outside the post office, ordering them to vacate the premises immediately, belongings in tow.

In order to enforce the USPS’ rules governing conduct on its property, such as prohibition of disturbances and campaigns for public office, the federal property needed to be distinguishable from the adjacent city sidewalks.

“We actually brought in a survey team because we knew that people would ask, ‘What belongs to the city of Berkeley and what belongs to the post office?’ ” said Jeff Fitch, spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s San Francisco division. A line of yellow paint now separates USPS property from the city’s.

Disbandment before dawn

It was still dark Tuesday morning when USPS officials broke up the occupation about 5 a.m., removing the participants, their belongings and others who had been sleeping on the west side of the building, unaffiliated with the protest.

The four individuals involved each received two citations — one for failure to comply with postal police and another for failure to obey “no trespassing” signs posted on the property, according to Fitch.

The unaffiliated individuals packed up their belongings upon request and walked away without citations, Fitch said. Although Ruiz referenced drug paraphernalia as a prior disturbance by the individuals, Fitch said there were no recent complaints regarding drug use or paraphernalia found onsite.

Protesters who did not comply with the early morning request to leave were brought out of their tents — some awoken from their sleep — and brought to a standing by postal inspectors.

“They laid their hands on us,” Zint alleged a few hours after the dispersal. “They literally carried and dragged me.”

The inspection service had informed Berkeley Police Department and City Council of the disbandment before it occurred, according to Fitch. It still came as a surprise to Councilmember Kriss Worthington, however, who said he had not received the notice and found the treatment by the postal police worrisome.

“A lot of time, when they say that they notified the City Council, it means that they sent it to the mayor,” Worthington said, adding that a message written to the mayor and council doesn’t always get forwarded to council members.

After those involved in the protest were cited and released, USPS maintenance staff loaded belongings and encampment structures into two trucks parked on Allston Way and Milvia Street.

Inspection service officials left the protesters with handouts detailing how to retrieve belongings, which will be disposed of within 30 days of the disbandment if the protesters do not contact inspection service officials.

BPOD has a meeting scheduled for Saturday on the Berkeley Main Post Office stairs to determine next steps. Two postal police members will be stationed at the Downtown office for at least several weeks, according to Fitch.

“I think that the people who were there are going to keep being activists,” Worthington said. “In some instances, it might strengthen their resolve.”

Pamela Larson covers city government. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @pamreporting.