UC Berkeley halts work at People’s Park after protests and clashes

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After hours of angry and tense protests, UC Berkeley officials abruptly announced on Wednesday afternoon that they would suspend work to convert historic People’s Park into housing “due to the destruction of building materials , illegal protest activities and violence by some”.

The move was a victory for protesters, who had rushed to the park shortly after UC officials erected a fence around it early Wednesday morning.

In a statement, officials said safety was the university’s top priority and that construction workers and law enforcement had been “removed from the site,” which has long been a symbol of counter-terrorism. culture of the 1960s and considered by many to be sacred community ground.

We didn’t know what would happen next or when. University officials, who rushed to start work just hours after a judge issued a ruling allowing it, said they would ‘assess the situation to determine the best course of action’ with building a project that would provide housing for students and the homeless.

Harvey Smith, president of the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, said he was glad the work stopped, but officials should never have tried to start it in the first place. “Legal remedies have not been exhausted,” he said, noting that his group had asked an appeals court to halt construction Wednesday morning.

UC Berkeley and the City of Berkeley proposed to redevelop the park in 2018, calling it the nation’s first for building long-term supportive housing for the homeless on university land. The university would also build 1,100 much-needed student housing units.

On Friday night, Alameda County Judge Frank Roesch issued an interim ruling that UC Berkeley could begin clearing the historic park for construction work. He made the decision official on Tuesday evening, and within hours the university decided to erect fencing and begin site preparation. Almost immediately, the workers were thwarted by protesters determined to halt their momentum.

Shortly after 2 a.m., as construction machinery was settling in, the “Defend People’s Park” Twitter account posted a Urgent call activists to travel to the region. “WE NEED SUPPORT,” the tweet read. “PLEASE COME.”

Early Wednesday morning, protesters clashed with police and construction crews, shaking metal fences, with some jumping over structures set to be attacked by California Highway Patrol officers.

A tense standoff ensued for several hours as crews felled trees and police tried to keep protesters at bay.

One of the protesters had his hand bloodied as he tried to cross the fence. “How will your grandchildren react? he shouted to the officers. “You are a bunch of fascists!

On Wednesday morning, police blocked the entrance to People’s Park in Berkeley.

(Stuart Leavenworth/Los Angeles Times)

Behind the officers, crews used chainsaws and other equipment to cut down old trees on the property, with the crowd shouting anguished screams at each one who touched the ground.

“It’s awful,” said Elana Auerbach, a Berkeley resident who came forward to support the protesters. “Our city claims to believe in fairness and climate resilience, and I just saw dozens of trees cut down.”

As officers and protesters jostled in the background, Auerbach and others handed out flyers urging supporters to come to a Rallye for the park from 5 p.m.

Earlier, UC Berkeley police arrested three people suspected of interfering with construction work, said university spokesman Dan Mogulof. That number has likely increased, but officials said they would not have details of those arrested or any charges they may face until Thursday.

Around noon, the university had made the decision to retreat. Crews left, police dispersed, and protesters broke through the fences and reoccupied the property. An hour later, protesters had dismantled much of the fence, hurling the metal segments into surrounding streets, with one shouting, “Save the People’s Park!”

Activists reoccupy People's Park in Berkeley.

Activists reoccupy People’s Park after UC Berkeley crews erected fences around the site, which were later torn down on Wednesday.

(Stuart Leavenworth/Los Angeles Times)

At Wednesday’s protest, not everyone was opposed to UC Berkeley’s plans. Various spectators watched from the sidelines.

Drew Nguyen, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, said he felt “caught between a community of students” who support the protesters and others who feel no connection to the park and the activists and homeless people who have made it their home. Many UC students, he said, are also divided, wanting more housing options in Berkeley but realizing that People’s Park is a treasured stretch of green.

Four groups had sued the university’s plan, including the People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group and make UC a good neighbor. They argued, among other things, that the university had other options for developing housing and had not sufficiently explored them, as required by California’s Environmental Quality Act.

Judge Roesch disagreed, with UC Berkeley saying it would try to balance nature, history and housing need. “The project will preserve more than 60% of the site as revitalized green space,” the university said in a statement, and will include a memorial to the park’s historical significance.

An activist descends from a tree at People's Park in Berkeley.

An activist descends from a tree after protesters at Berkeley’s People’s Park reoccupied the site, following a decision by UC Berkeley to halt construction and remove police and construction workers.

(Stuart Leavenworth/Los Angeles Times)

People’s Park originated in 1969, when the university announced a plan to develop the land, which is about four blocks south of the Berkeley campus, just east of Telegraph Avenue.

Furious at the proposed development, hundreds of people dragged grass, trees and flowers onto the vacant lot and proclaimed it a people’s park. In response, UC erected a fence. The student body president-elect urged a crowd on campus to “take back the park” and more than 6,000 marched on the Telegraph to do just that. A violent clash ensued, leaving one dead and dozens injured.

A black and white photo of a crowd in People's Park.

People crowd the Berkeley field that will become People’s Park on May 12, 1969. Participants mobilize with rakes, shovels, pickaxes and other implements to level the ground and beautify the once vacant lot.

(Associated Press)

While many Berkeley residents were considered a city institution, others saw the site as a blight and dangerous to nearby residents. The park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May. Although the Berkeley City Council once opposed the development, the current council supports the university’s plan.

In recent years, and especially during the pandemic, the park has become a camp for homeless people and those with other problems. “This place has become a sanctuary,” Auerbach said. “There was nothing else like it in the city. There was an incredibly welcoming feeling.

Working with the city and nonprofit groups, the university provided transitional housing for park residents for a year and a half, as well as meals and social services.

A few homeless people could be seen camping in the park on Monday morning, but the numbers were much down on previous months.

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