Pushing forward with plans to build a controversial student housing complex, officials at the University of California Berkeley directed law enforcement, private security forces and contractors to clear homeless people from People's Park early Thursday, blocking off public access and spurring vigorous protests that led to multiple arrests.
Around 1 a.m., police began using barricades to block off streets around the park, dismantling an ad-hoc kitchen and clubhouse, and using tools to tear down several trees in the park.
Several groups of protesters challenged officers' actions by chaining themselves to equipment and trees. At least two people refused entreaties to come down from a treehouse.
By 9:30 a.m., 10 California Highway Patrol officers and five Allied Universal private security officers had blocked off Dwight Way near Telegraph Avenue with metal barricades. From Dwight Way, an excavator rolled into the park, with people in high-visibility vests and hard hats visible down the street.
Berkeley police arrested a woman around 1:10 p.m. on Telegraph Avenue near Dwight Way and booked her into Berkeley jail after she began moving barricades meant to block public access to People's Park.
Three other protestors, two women ages 23 and 25 and a 22-year-old man, attempted to remove barricades and were arrested around 4:40 p.m. after allegedly attempting to resist arrest, according to Berkeley police.
A CHP officer at the scene told The Standard that a wall of metal shipping containers will be erected around People’s Park. The segment of wall stretching around the corner of Bowditch Street and Dwight Way appeared to be around 20 feet tall, made of shipping containers stacked on top of one another.
The three-acre park, a landmark in the city's Southside neighborhood, has long served as a counterculture touchstone, political stepping stone and refuge for homeless people. It has also drawn attention since UC Berkeley first seized the land in 1968 and as university officials renewed efforts to pave it over for a $312 million project that includes sorely needed housing for about 1,000 students.
After a judge sided with the university in a legal scrum over the project, construction finally began Aug. 3, 2022, only to abruptly stop a few hours later after a swarm of defiant protesters, who had been sparring with police, toppled fences surrounding the park.
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The delay was only supposed to last a few days, but the coalition fighting the university’s plans won an appeals court stay that prevented construction.
But university officials said this week they were within their rights to exercise their prerogative to clear and block access to the park. Accordingly, officials said streets around the park would be blocked off for several days while crews installed multiple double-stacked shipping containers around the park in hopes of creating a secure perimeter.
"The existing legal issues will inevitably be resolved, so we are taking this necessary step now to minimize the possibilities of conflict and confrontation, and of disruption for the public and our students, when we are cleared to resume construction," Chancellor Carol Christ said in a statement.
"Unfortunately, our planning and actions must take into account that some of the project’s opponents have previously resorted to violence and vandalism."
Officials said they were closing off the park, bordered by Telegraph Avenue, Haste and Bowditch streets and Dwight Way, to limit disruption to the city and campus while students are still on winter break.
Longtime Berkeley resident Lin-Rachel Altman told The Standard she remembered coming to People’s Park as a child and said it was a gathering place for the community.
“It’s a space to come together,” Altman said. “It represents democracy.”
Altman said a friend of hers is unhoused and depended on meals from Food Not Bombs, an organization that serves free hot meals five days a week. She was worried about how homeless people will get by without the park.
Aidan Hill, 30, said he also was concerned about where homeless people will gather for free daily meals from Food Not Bombs, for which he has volunteered for nearly four years.
“They didn’t give me warning I wouldn’t be able to serve my community,” Hill said.
Hill said that the park and the green space it offers is a respite from the urban area surrounding it, offering a place for unhoused people and residents to gather. Hill said the park, with its trees and grass, was particularly important for unhoused people during heat waves.
“We need a civic commons,” Hill said.
UC Berkeley spokesperson Kyle Gibson said the university would construct two buildings inside People’s Park and preserve 60% of the park as public open space.
One building will contain 100 supportive housing units and the other will be student housing for 1,100 undergraduates.
Gibson added that the university is doing community outreach to develop ways to create features inside the housing projects or open space to honor the park’s history, but he could not provide details, saying outreach is still ongoing.
“It’s not just going to be a plaque,” Gibson said. “We hope it’ll be more than that.”
Gibson told The Standard that University of California police detained, cited and released seven people from custody Thursday. He said that no initial estimate on operational costs for the day's actions was immediately available, and added that today was the first time the university had arranged to deploy shipping containers as barricades.
Hill, a UC Berkeley graduate and seven-year Berkeley resident, said he is aware of UC Berkeley’s plan to retain 60% of the park as open space but takes issue with the design. Hill said the two buildings being erected in the park will cast shadows over the park and make visitors feel fenced in.
“It’s a glorified front porch,” Hill said.