UC Berkeley students and community members alike gathered in People’s Park on Friday to protest campus plans to build housing in the area, culminating in crowds of people tearing down fences and placing them on the steps of Sproul Hall.
The protest, which was planned by a loose network of organizers, was prompted by UC Berkeley’s decision to fence off certain areas of the park in order to retrieve soil samples for the planned construction.
Several people against this plan claim that People’s Park has invaluable environmental significance.
“People have the right to a free environment,” said former Berkeley mayoral candidate Aidan Hill, who helped organize the demonstration. “They have the right to clean air and space — especially children. It’s the last open green space in the Southside neighborhood and close to the university.”
Protestors also noted that People’s Park is a historical symbol for free speech that should be preserved. According to Oakland resident and housing activist Dayton Andrews, the park played a major role in the anti-Vietnam War effort in the 1960s.
Along with Andrews, a series of speakers addressed the crowd for about an hour before the protestors rallied to tear down the fences, a development that was largely impromptu, according to campus sophomore Celeste Rodriguez, who helped organize the protest.
The crowd, which consisted of approximately 150 people, began moving toward Sproul Hall with fences in hand, blocking traffic on Haste Street and Telegraph Avenue. The fences were left on the steps of Sproul Hall with a banner that read “Students for People’s Park” draped across.
According to Andrews, UC Berkeley has attempted to develop on this land before, pushing students and community members to resist construction. This came to a head when the National Guard was called in to suppress the protestors on “Bloody Thursday” in 1969.
“People’s Park is the site of incredible state violence, and it has a legacy of police repression,” said campus doctoral student Coleman Rainey, who provided food at the demonstration. “Many students have been injured by police action over the 50-year struggle to maintain the park, so it’s really a symbol of anti-imperial, decolonial and anti-capitalist organizing.”
UC Berkeley Capital Strategies spokesperson Kyle Gibson said in an email that campus is “committed” to following through with plans of development. The housing project will be presented to the UC Board of Regents in the summer, and, if approved, construction will begin in 2022.
Gibson added that UC Berkeley is planning to provide housing not only for students but for homeless individuals as well. A “significant” portion of the park will also be preserved for open space purposes.
“While the university respects everyone’s right to express their opinions and views, we find today’s actions that physically removed temporary safety fencing that had been in place without incident for nearly two weeks at People’s Park, to be deeply unfortunate,” Gibson said in the email.
Once the protestors returned from Sproul Hall to the park, the crowd began to tear down any fences that were still left standing, proceeding to stack them in piles around the park with care in order to keep the sidewalks clear for people with disabilities.
Several people proceeded to damage campus equipment using knives and blunt objects while speakers made their final remarks atop a garbage dumpster.
“We will defend this place till the last drop of beer and the first drop of rain,” Hill said, referencing a poem by Julia Vinograd, while facing the crowd.