Students march through MLK Civic Center park holding protest signs that say things like "capital strategies deforestation pesticides"
Protesters march from Martin Luther King Jr Civic Center Park to the UC Berkeley Capital Strategies office. (Sabrina Kharrazi)

On March 8, People’s Park advocates organized a march and press conference outside the UC Berkeley Capital Strategies office to oppose the university’s plans to build student and affordable housing on top of the park. About 40 members of the People’s Park Committee, Defend People’s Park, and the Berkeley student body showed up to show support. The group marched down Martin Luther King Jr Way and University Avenue, fervently chanting “Who’s park? People’s Park!” Speakers criticized the university’s plans for development, its role in furthering gentrification in the area, and the erasure of the park, and the marginalized communities who live and spend time in the park. Park supporters argue that the development project would displace the 45-50 unhoused residents the university says currently reside there. Supporters also say the proposed development would undermine and destroy the park’s historically significant legacy.

In a way, People’s Park has been under threat since its inception. Once a muddy and neglected lot where UC Berkeley planned to build student housing and a soccer field, a group of protestors broke in and planted a park in 1969. They spent the next few years defending it in a set of violent battles against police, Sheriff’s deputies, and National Guard troops. It wasn’t until 1972 that the chain-link fence erected by police was torn down for good, and people were allowed to enjoy the space in relative peace. 

Now, 52 years later, the UC has once again announced plans to build student housing on the park. Chancellor Carol Christ is the latest in a long line of university officials who have spearheaded this effort. In 2018 she announced plans to “redevelop and revitalize” People’s Park, citing the need to create more affordable student housing and address crime and safety concerns as the impetus for immediate development. Despite significant pushback from students and community members, the university continues to defend the plan.

The decades-long battle over the 2.3 acre lot at Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street highlights the diminishing nature of public space, which park supporters say is one crucial reason the space must remain open for public use. Additionally, People’s Park in particular—both its legacy and current use—symbolizes the importance of having parks where marginalized people can freely exist. 

“Open public spaces are vital,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Katie Latimer who has helped organize in defense of the park. “People’s Park is distinct in that way, and also because its significance as a site of political activism has not been as thoroughly erased or co-opted by the University, unlike, for instance, campus landmarks related to the Free Speech Movement.”

The renewed fight to save the park

There has always been a vocal group of community members who enjoy and defend the park. Groups like Food Not Bombs and the Catholic Worker have been regularly distributing hot meals to unsheltered people at the park for years, and a grassroots group of activists called the People’s Park Committee has been organizing to defend the park since April 13, 1961. However, a recent groundswell of support from UC Berkeley students, East Bay community members, and unsheltered people has strengthened the effort to save the park from development as construction plans inch closer.

Lisa Teague joined the People’s Park Committee in 2018 after the announcement of the development. They have been organizing with the committee to deliver weekly meals and monitor university-sponsored cleanings of the park. 

“The idea that you can build on somebody else’s land who you deem uncivilized, and then…the crime will go down because you civilized them… That’s a false notion of imperialism”

Kyle Gibson, a spokesperson for UC Berkeley Capital Strategies—which oversees university developments—has asserted that the UC will move forward with the development, which is set to be presented at the Regents meeting in September 2021 for environmental and project approval. The university expects to begin construction in 2022. 

In turn, protesters have turned out in numbers to save the park in a series of actions that mirror its early days. When the university put up fencing on January 19 to conduct soil testing, they were immediately met with resistance from a loosely organized group of advocates. The protest, which began with a series of speakers discussing the history of the park, eventually progressed into masses of demonstrators tearing all the fences down and delivering them to the steps of Sproul Hall.

“The student support has been really incredible for all of us and mostly just a really good growing experience” said Teague. “Partly because the university has actively demonized the park for so long and worked so hard to keep students away from it, it’s so refreshing to have such a huge influx of student support—the timing is just right.”

On February 8th—a week and a half later—the university re-fenced a portion of the park to complete their soil sampling in preparation for construction. Activists immediately returned to defend the space and its residents. And on that day, they stayed: a group of 50 to 60 student occupiers set up tents at the park and organized “watch shifts” to ensure that the university could not collect their final remaining soil sample. By the end of the week, the campus administration quietly removed all remaining fences. As of this writing, the student occupation remains.

Students sit in the grass at the park, spaced apart wearing masks, in a meeting to discuss organizing strategies to prevent development at the park. Tents can be seen in the background.
Residents and students gather at People’s Park in February to discuss organizing strategies. (Adamu Chan)

The recent demonstrations have drawn attention from the wider UC Berkeley community. Numerous campus organizations have released statements of solidarity with the residents of People’s Park, including the Daily Californian, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the Cal Black Student Union, Pour Out Pepsi, Hermanos Unidos, and numerous members of the university’s academic senate. Many of these statements demand that the university terminate construction plans for the park.

Recent actions, demands, and future plans

On February 22nd, Chancellor Christ sent out a university-wide email outlining the benefits of completing the student housing project and again asserting the administration’s intentions to complete the development. Defend People’s Park, one of the park’s leading community-run advocacy groups, released a direct response to Christ’s email which specifically addressed the “hypocritical” and “manipulative” nature of her claims. Many of the solidarity statements also addressed what they viewed as toxic and colonial language in the university’s statement.

The short-term demands of park advocates and campus organizations include the immediate halt and cancellation of any development plans in People’s Park, defunding and disarming of UCPD, respecting the autonomy of park users and residents, expanding social and health services, and communicating transparently about any proposed or current activity in the park.

Community members have continued to organize against the university’s actions by holding ongoing community-building events—such as park clean-ups, gardening sessions, and movie screenings— encouraging students to spend time in the park, and holding protests like the one on March 8.

At the March 8 protest outside the Capital Strategies office, protestors spoke in detail about why they oppose the park’s development. 

“We’re really trying to oppose a lot of this negative development pushed by big gentrifiers like the University of California that really threaten the livelihoods of working-class people,” said Dayton Andrews, a member of the United Front Against Displacement—an Oakland-based anti-gentrification group, and one of the many grassroots organizations that have stepped up to defend the park in recent weeks. 

Kyra Abrams, chair of Cal Black Student Union, pointed out the hypocrisy in the university’s claims of becoming an anti-racist institution but still moving forward with the development of student housing at the park.

“It [anti-racism] means being anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. Trying to build on People’s Park is colonialism and a form of imperialism,” said Abrams. “The idea that you can build on somebody else’s land who you deem uncivilized, and then…the crime will go down because you civilized them. That’s a false notion of imperialism that has been practiced for decades and decades.”

To Latimer’s knowledge, neither the university nor capital strategies have responded to the demonstrations since the February 22 email. 

Sabrina Armaghan Kharrazi is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism and a former staff member of the Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center in Berkeley.