Why Berkeley can’t stop fighting over People’s Park

A crowd of people in the foreground faces helmeted police officers in the background.
Protesters and police gather at People’s Park in Berkeley on Jan. 4 as crews fenced off the area with shipping containers.
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. It’s Tuesday, Jan. 9. I’m Times reporter James Rainey. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

Why Berkeley can’t stop fighting over People’s Park

Tourists visiting Berkeley might be forgiven if they are underwhelmed by storied, much-fought-over People’s Park. The 2.8-acre green space south of the UC campus might be most notable for what it has lacked for many years: a coherent recreation program, regular maintenance or trash pickup, and discernible rules.

Fervent believers in the park said they loved it, in part, for its very nonconformity, and more. That laissez-faire environment meant the park could be whatever people wanted it to be, from free-form concert venue to camping spot for the homeless to gathering place for political organizing. (Detractors said it was unsightly and unsafe.)


People’s Park — remade by a university takeover last week and a plan for a massive housing complex — survived because generations of Berkeley’s city and campus leaders treated it as an untouchable symbol of the community’s radical past and its dedication to a progressive future. The university’s successful effort to wall off property it has owned since the 1960s appears to have given UC the greatest control it has had over the space since the start of the long-running controversy.

It began in 1969 when the university tried to build a fence around the space. A group of students and local activists tore it down and rejuvenated the garden they had planted there a month earlier.

The university and a small army of police surrounded the park last week, clearing the way for a wall of metal cargo containers that entirely encircled the park by Sunday.

The fight over the park has remained fervent after 54-plus years because support of the park has been reinvigorated over the decades by linking it to a host of other progressive causes.

Demonstrators on nearby Telegraph Avenue talked about the loss of a space for homeless people (though the university has paid for motel rooms for anyone who once stayed there and site designs include permanent supportive housing for 125 homeless people) and the “corporate” takeover by town and gown officials allegedly in the pocket of nefarious developers.

Some of the protesters also said their struggle for People’s Park had much in common with the fight of Palestinian people to have a safe and secure homeland in the Mideast.


“It’s the same situation [here] with the vulnerable people and the assaults on them,” said one woman protesting Sunday. “It’s not as bad here, certainly. But they stand up for their right to exist. And [other] people want to exploit people in any way that they can.”

Another protester decried the university’s bid to build on the park, which still requires clearance from the state Supreme Court. She blamed the Berkeley City Council, which has generally supported construction in the park. She then quickly jumped to condemn the council for not passing a resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.

In earlier generations, pro-park protesters tied their work to the freedom fight in South Africa. They fought university moves to secure the park, while also demanding UC pull its investments in the African nation during its apartheid era.

And a perennial cause of park supporters has been police reform. Protests about the park over the last five decades also reliably objected to the police, including the fact that the university maintains its own police force.

The future of People’s Park is endangered today like no time since its creation in April 1969. But those who hope to open the park to the public again (without the high-rise dorm complex) can be expected to find no lack of inspiration, both in Berkeley and the world beyond.

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Have a great day, from the Essential California team

James Rainey, reporter
Elvia Limón, multiplatform editor
Kevinisha Walker, multiplatform editor
Laura Blasey, assistant editor
Karim Doumar, head of newsletters

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