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The view of People’s Park from Dwight Way in January, 2024. (Alastair Boone)

Berkeley’s People’s Park is among the most contentious pieces of land in the Bay Area. It helped put Berkeley on the map as a bastion of progressive idealism in the ‘60s, built on the heels of the Free Speech Movement, the Vietnam War protests, and the founding of the Black Panther Party, in Oakland. Now, it’s listed on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places. But UC Berkeley owns those 2.8 acres, and for all this time, has wanted to build housing for students there.

April 20, 2024 marked 55 years since hundreds of volunteers transformed a vacant lot into People’s Park. But this year’s anniversary marks an uncertain time in its storied history. In January, the university closed the park so they could start building the dorm. But a court case, and a very committed group of protectors, are preventing Cal from breaking ground. This begs the question: Is this the end of the park, or just another chapter in its story?


UCPD surround the People’s Park bathroom on January 4, while two protestors sit on the roof. (Alastair Boone)

It’s nearly 1:00 a.m. on January 4, and I’m trying to get into People’s Park. UC Berkeley Public Information Officer, Dan Mogulof, has corralled members of the media onto a corner a couple of blocks away, as if we’re about to enter a combat zone.

“If you guys want to come around, please stay with me for right now, okay, I’ll walk you up to the park,” he says.

Inside the park, hundreds of UC police officers are facing off with a group of about 50 protestors. Some of them had been camped out there for days, after getting word that the university might bring in law enforcement. The protestors’ goal is to resist UC Berkeley’s most recent push to build student housing there. The university has plans to build a dorm on the park — 60 feet tall, with 1,100 beds. They also say they’re going to build low-income housing on the site, but those plans are in limbo after the developer pulled out last spring.

This project has long been thwarted by the park’s protectors. But tonight, the university is not messing around. It shelled out about $8 million on the operation unfolding around me, including about $4 million on law enforcement. 

As I get closer, I can hear people chanting.

“Whose park? People’s Park!” 

When I finally get in, arborists have begun cutting down the trees that line the park’s perimeter to make way for a giant barricade. A fence, made out of shipping containers, 17 feet high and topped with razor wire and surveillance cameras. It’s the same type of wall that makes up sections of the US-Mexico border.

Police arrest protestors seemingly at random, picking them off from the crowd one by one.

“Where am I going, where am I going?,” one protestor asks as they are handcuffed and pulled out of the park.

“Where are you taking this young man?,” an onlooker asks. “Nowhere yet,” the police officer replies.

Eventually, the protestors leave, and regroup on Telegraph Avenue, where a rally has begun.

Lisa Teague at a rally on Telegraph Avenue. (Courtesy of Lisa Teague)

I catch up with Lisa Teague outside the park on Telegraph.

“I don’t think we’ve lost anything at our core,” they say.

Lisa is a People’s Park advocate and harm reductionist. They’ve been out there nearly every day for 13 years, passing out food and supplies, like Narcan, or hanging out. They started spending time at the park in 2011, after they won the housing lottery and moved off the street and into a nearby apartment. I ask them how they’re doing now that the park has been closed, potentially for good.

“Ah, tired and angry, I guess? And, you know…Faced with such overwhelming odds. It’s really not, it’s not a great feeling. But, I’m really happy about the fact that we have some good numbers here at this rally, and that people seem to be prepared to…keep on struggling. That is our thing.”

That people are prepared to keep on struggling. This, more than anything else, defines the history of People’s Park. The fight over this land — and the dorm that UC officials are trying to build right now — began 55 years ago.

“People’s Park erupted in 1969, the brainchild of several people who were at loose ends, and found themselves drinking cappuccino at the Cafe Med, the Caffe Mediterraneum.”

That’s Steve Wasserman, publisher of Heyday Books. He had a front row seat to the birth of the park back then, as student body president at nearby Berkeley High School. The university had just used eminent domain to demolish a tract of homes so that they could build a dorm.

An excerpt from the April-May, 1969 issue of the Berkeley Barb. Article by the late Stew Albert. (Courtesy Of The Berkeley Barb‘s Digital Archive)

“But in the event, the university never did, they just let the law lie fallow. And so in the great spirit of provocation, these troublemakers and mischief makers decided to, why don’t we, you know, just, the land belongs to those who use it. So why don’t we turn this into a garden?”

These mischief makers pooled their money and went to the hardware store. They bought sod, seeds, and gardening supplies, and put a notice in the Berkeley Barb, a weekly underground newspaper.

“Hear Ye, Hear Ye!,” the notice said. “A park will be built this Sunday between Dwight and Haste.”

“Soon, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people were coming every day, whole families, my family among them, to build, to plant, to make gardens,” Steve remembers. “And it was, and everyday people would gather over a large, open firepit and cook a big stew and everybody was somehow equal in this enterprise.”

That’s how the park was planted. It went on this way for weeks, a diverse crowd of people of all ages, gardening and hanging out together.

“And it was a great thing,” he says, “until the day it wasn’t.”

May 15, 1969 is referred to as Bloody Thursday. The university put up a fence around the park in the early hours of the morning, and 5,000 students faced off against the police there. An episode of KPFA from 1970 documents the chaos of Bloody Thursday.

“A policeman just shot somebody with a shotgun. They got shotguns now and they’re using them on people. Somebody was just shot with birdshot…” 

They were met with tear gas, and ultimately, live rounds. One protester was killed, and another one was permanently blinded. This kicked off even more protest. Tens of thousands of people would march for the park, and two years later, they tore the fence down.

In the decades since, there have been free stores, concerts, meals, and gardening days. From time to time, the university has tried to build on the park, but it is always met with resistance.

“What accounts for the monomaniacal attachment, the near obsession by the university’s overseers, to block this piece of property?” Steve asks.

This is a question that many people have asked over the years. The university has identified 15 other sites where they could build or expand dorms near campus. But Cal says their plans to build on the park are simply a response to a dire lack of student housing. And, it’s true. It offers the lowest percentage of housing in the whole UC system, and increases student enrollment nearly every year.

The university also says the park is not living up to its founding ideals, and complains about crime and homelessness there.

But Lisa Teague and others who defend the park disagree.

“It’s just fulfilling what the park is there for. Because people are in need,” they say. “People are in need of a space to exist without constant scrutiny, without fear of being told to move along because you’ve been there for an hour.”

They say the park plays a central role in supporting people with nowhere else to go, in the same way that it has provided space for people to organize around the most pressing social movements of the past. For many people, like Lisa, this support has been impossible to find anywhere else.

“I can personally feel the value,” Lisa says. “And in that time I mean, I was housed near the park in 2011, and 13 years later I have a community, I have a focus, I have a purpose…So I know in my heart of the value of that space. And what community can do for someone who is lost, or in need.”

The more time you spend at the park, the more stories like this you hear: A Vietnam veteran who needed a place to begin grieving, and forgiving himself, or a homeless kid who found life-saving resources there.

But the dream of a truly public commons may be no match for UC Berkeley.

Steve Wasserman standing in front of some of the 5,000+ books in his personal collection at HayDay, where he is Publisher. (Alastair Boone)

The university hasn’t been able to break ground on the dorm project because of a lawsuit filed by the park’s protectors in 2021. 

That case is finally playing out in the state supreme court right now.

The park’s lawyer conceded that the lawsuit alone can’t stop the project.

“Even under your analysis, Mr. Lippe, you concede that the People’s Park project is going to be built. Is that correct?” 

“This case provides no platform to stop that,” Mr. Lippe, the park’s lawyer, replied. “I would concede that, whether they actually build it or not, that is up to UC at this point and any other efforts that might be made by the community. But, certainly, this case is no longer a threat.”

Steve Wasserman agrees that the lawsuit may not be able to stop development on the park.

“I’m pretty pessimistic, I think the university is likely to win this battle.”

He’s referring to the sheer number of resources the university is working with.It has budgeted $400 million to build the dorm on People’s Park, including $50 million in contingency funds. That means money to cover the cost of litigation, delays, and “special considerations relating to clearing the site.” By all measures, the idea of saving the park seems almost insane.

“But long experience teaches me that one should live one’s life as if the glass is half full, even while suspecting it’s half empty,” Steve says. “So, I wouldn’t underestimate the degree to which our subjective consciousness can actually change history. And nobody should become so disenchanted or so gloomy, that they give up even before the final battle.”

At a recent rally, a small group of about 20 people were gathered a few blocks away from the park. Lisa was there, too.

“[It] sounds a little woo woo, but when you step on the park it’s like you feel the struggle and the love and the sweat and the blood that went into keeping it a park against all odds,” they said. “Land reclaimed from one of the most powerful educational institutions in this country, [for] 55 years.”

Around us, protestors are performing a call and response chant.

“I (I) believe (believe) that we (that we) will win! (will win!)”

Who decides history? There’s a redwood tree at People’s Park that towers above the wall of shipping containers surrounding it. Looking up, I am reminded — it’s an open question.

One of People’s Parks redwood trees, on the evening on January 4. (Alastair Boone)