Local activists celebrate legacy of 17-month post office occupation

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Though the occupation has ended, members of local activist groups returned to the steps and sidewalks outside the Berkeley Main Post Office on Saturday to commemorate their 17-month demonstration.

About 30 community members gathered to hear from former protesters and activists 11 days after U.S. Postal Service officials dismantled the encampment April 12. The celebration included live music and speakers who called for using the building to its fullest potential.

“The goals were basically to make sure the postal officials understand that we haven’t gone away just because they rousted the occupation,” said JP Massar, an organizer with Berkeley Post Office Defenders, or BPOD.

According to Augustine Ruiz, spokesperson for the USPS, essentially 80 percent of the 50,000-plus square foot building remains vacant; letter carriers were moved to the Eighth Street location, leaving retail employees in the central Downtown post office.

One speaker, Mike Zint — a former resident of the encampment and organizer with First They Came for the Homeless — recounted his and other occupiers’ experiences on the day of the disbandment.

Zint and other speakers also urged the USPS inspector general’s call to promote freedom of expression in public places such as post offices and to call attention to the community garden.

They also discussed postal banking, which provides financial services such as savings and small lending options.

“One of the ways to save the post office is through postal banking, which is like a win-win-win for everybody except for predatory lenders and the Wall Street banks that back them,” said Susan Harman, co-founder of the nonprofit Commonomics USA and a member of Strike Debt Bay Area.

In 2014, the USPS Office of Inspector General issued a whitepaper stating that providing certain “banking” services, such as a reloadable prepaid card and small loans, benefit the Postal Service, the American public and the financial services community.

Banking services isn’t a new arena for USPS; it began to offer savings accounts after a 1910 Congressional Act through 1967. Today post offices offer some money handling services, such as money orders, electronic fund transfers and US Treasury check cashing, according to Ruiz.

“We entertained (postal banking) for a while,” Ruiz said, but he added, “It doesn’t fall within our mission. Our mission is to provide the American public with trusted, affordable, universal mail service.”

BPOD is open to other ideas, such as leasing the unused spaces for business offices and co-locating government offices. Ruiz said USPS facilities and legal staff had not yet determined if or when the post office will consider leasing vacant space in the building.

Mike Wilson, an organizer with BPOD, said that despite the end of the occupation, organizers will attempt to engage community leaders.

“The numbers in Berkeley Post Office Defenders are pretty low at this point, but enough to keep going,” Wilson said, citing the risk of arrest from an occupation. “We’ll be strategic – writing letters, signing petitions.”

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