UC Berkeley students have been occupying People’s Park since Monday in hopes of pressuring the campus to stop its plans to build housing on the park.
Students began staying at People’s Park after campus fenced off portions of the space at around 5:45 a.m. Monday in order to test the soil in preparation for construction, according to former Berkeley mayoral candidate and People’s Park Committee member Aidan Hill. This followed a Jan. 29 demonstration where protestors tore down the original fences and brought them to the steps of Sproul Hall.
The region of the park currently occupied by students is the last area that needs to be sampled, according to a campus freshman who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from UC Berkeley.
“That first day they tried to get some construction trucks inside the park but saw that students were inside the park,” Hill said. “At some point all the police officers left.”
Since Monday, students have been taking shifts at the park while following social distancing protocols to ensure a consistent presence, balancing coursework with activism. According to campus junior Osirus Polachart, there are usually between 20 and 30 students at People’s Park at a time. Food at the park has been supplied by supporters, Food Not Bombs and donations to the People’s Park Berkeley Venmo, Polachart added.
The anonymous student described the mood at People’s Park as hopeful and serene. According to Hill, People’s Park residents are in “unanimous support” of the students.
“If there’s a construction vehicle, I’ll be on call to immediately go over and block those vehicles,” Polachart said.
The plans to build housing for more than 1,000 students and approximately 100 formerly homeless and very low-income individuals remain unchanged, according to campus Capital Strategies spokesperson Kyle Gibson. The project will be presented to the UC Board of Regents this summer for approval.
Despite this, protestors at the park hope to prevent the development of People’s Park.
“We plan on staying here until the university confirms that they will be trying to build in a different part of Berkeley,” the anonymous student said.
In addition to students occupying the park, the People’s Park Council’s attorney sent a cease and desist letter Feb. 1 to campus Chancellor Carol Christ to preserve the space. According to attorney David Axelrod, who is representing the group, the letter gives campus 15 days to respond.
According to Hill, the People’s Park Council will look into “legal remedies” if soil continues to be sampled. The park has “inherent environmental, expressive, cultural, community, social, historical, horticultural and botanical values,” the letter reads.
Gibson said in an email if challenged in court, UC Berkeley will “mount a strong and successful defense.”
Campus junior Austine Peng, who has worked closely with People’s Park residents, said the park holds historical importance as a center for protests during the 1970s anti-war movement.
Peng added that because of the stigma surrounding the park, many students avoid it and are not aware of things such as the community garden and movie nights that occur at the park. She said these events, along with other services and gatherings, would be displaced with the planned development.
“I generally do not think the university’s plan to build on the park is very valid, there are multiple other places to build,” Peng said. “The university is overenrolling, as we all know, and that is causing the gentrification of a lot of spaces.”
According to Peng, the supportive housing planned by campus may not be built. She said after speaking with the nonprofit manager that will build the supportive housing, it became clear that these beds are dependent on funding.
Roosevelt Stephens, who has been actively involved in the People’s Park community for more than 30 years, said park residents call him “OG-Wan Kenobi,” for “original genius.” Stephens said he is proud of students for defending the park.
“People get food in the park and have their home here,” Stephens said. “The university has awakened a sleeping giant, the sleeping giant is the people, they have awakened us, and we are prepared for battle.”