‘Not just a park’: Students, activists protest People’s Park development

Photo of People's Park
Ethan Lejano/File
In protest of campus building housing on People's Park, students, activists and community members spoke Monday at the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park before marching to UC Berkeley’s Capital Strategies office.

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Students and community members spoke Monday in protest of campus plans to build housing on People’s Park.

Attendees met at the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park before marching to UC Berkeley’s Capital Strategies office to oppose development on the park. Speakers discussed the history of the park, what they described as one-sided messaging from campus and the larger issue of gentrification.

Dayton Andrews, a member of the United Front Against Displacement, said those who do not understand the history of People’s Park may be surprised to see the enthusiasm from community protestors against development.

“It’s not just a park, it’s a 50-plus year legacy of popular struggle,” Andrews said during the event. “People’s Park was born of the anti-Vietnam War protests of the ‘60s. Students took the park as a space so they could actually organize, not just against their own oppression, but against all forms of oppression.”

According to campus freshman Alexander Parra, messaging from Chancellor Carol Christ and campus painted the park as dangerous.

Andrews added that the event was a way to give a different narrative about the park and contrast what campus is saying. Gabrielle Sharp, a campus junior, added that because students contribute to the gentrification in Berkeley, they have a responsibility to dispute any claims that People’s Park is violent.

According to campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof, however, campus has never called People’s Park “violent” and has simply shared data indicating that criminal activity occurs at the park frequently.

“We have been exceedingly careful to point out the extent to which those who frequent the park are often the victims, not the perpetrators of the crimes,” Mogulof said in an email. “We want the park to be safe and welcoming for all. One would hope that’s a goal we can all agree on.”

After organizing in the Boston projects, member of the Boston chapter of the United Front Against Displacement Ryan Costello drew parallels between the development plans at People’s Park and national gentrification issues. Costello said the housing shortage is artificially created by developers and noted that the government is privatizing and eliminating public housing.

Campus Black Student Union chair Kyra Abrams likened the campus development plans to a mindset of colonization.

“It is colonialism, the idea that you can build on somebody else’s land because they are uncivilized and then if you build on their land the crime will go down because you are civilized,” Abrams said during the event. “That is a false notion of imperialism.”

Attendees also questioned the reasoning behind building housing on the park. Osirus Polachart, campus junior, said the notion that campus wants to bring in affordable housing is a farce. Andrews added that campus is a “machine for making money” that presents itself as a center of learning.

Campus is legally barred from generating profit, and all generated revenue supports academic programs and campus operations, according to Mogulof. He added that campus has a social worker and interns that provide services to unhoused people in the park and have found houses for 58 formerly homeless people as of press time.

Mogulof noted that the park development plan includes land for supportive housing.

The supportive housing plan, however, does not guarantee housing for current park residents, according to campus senior Giancarlo Tucci-Berube. While campus tries to provide housing at or below market rates, according to Mogulof, Tucci-Berube said campus residence halls are normally almost three times as expensive as Berkeley Student Cooperative housing.

As a formerly homeless student, Polachart feels a strong connection to the residents of People’s Park and has been regularly attending events such as Monday’s protest. He also called on students to fight for People’s Park.

“There’s always going to be a chance to change someone’s life,” Polachart said during the event. “While you’re here, please fight for the houseless residents of People’s Park because they’re the ones who need it the most.”

Contact Vani Suresh at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @vanisuresh_.