Who Owns the Park?
The continued existence of People's Park proves something dangerous: you, too, can seize something from the most powerful people in town, make it into whatever you want, and hold it for half a century.
Since this was written, defenders of People’s Park have reclaimed the space, and have been occupying it tirelessly. They have been working to clean the mess and repair the damage left by the police and private contractors’ assault on the gardens, the trees, and the belongings of the park’s inhabitants. On August 5th, a state appeals court issued an injunction temporarily halting construction in the park, and the University of California vowed not to restart the project until it is “safe” to do so for contractors, indirectly crediting direct action with successfully delaying the park’s destruction. For updates and alerts to mobilize in defense of People’s Park, text SAVETHEPARK to 74121.
Around 4:00 A.M. on August 3rd, the University of California deployed dozens of cops and contractors to descend on a small homeless encampment in People's Park. Officials waited until the first legally permissible moment to send in police to trash the meager belongings of the poor. As dawn broke, fences rose around the tiny 2.8 acre plot in Berkeley’s Southside. This was far from the first time People’s Park has found itself fenced in.
Just last year the university fenced in the park with the same goal, attempting to start construction on a student housing project that was first announced in 2018. This time, within hours, park defenders tore down the new fences, and clashes broke out between them and the police (UCPD and California State University cops had been joined by Highway Patrol; the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office refused to “assist in crowd control” due to Berkeley’s recent ban on tear gas). Seven people were arrested, and two police allegedly injured. Construction halted, equipment was smashed and vandalized, and a crowd of hundreds marched from Sproul Plaza to reclaim the park. While the fences fell that same day (as they have before), the park’s enemies won a victory they had been dreaming of for decades: both the encampment and the trees had been uprooted and destroyed. Of course, the property owners responsible for bulldozing the park and brutalizing its people claim to be doing so for the sake of both. Accompanying the student housing it plans to construct, the University of California offers laughably paper-thin promises of shelter for 125 homeless park residents and an “open space design [that] will be a commemoration of the history and significance of People’s Park.”
A five decade low-intensity war has been waged over this small patch of ground located amid a sea of coffeeshops and high-end retail. This war has pitted, on one side, the University of California, downtown merchants, successive city and state governments (including one-time governor Ronald Reagan himself), the police, and the military against, on the other, a loose assortment of hippies, freaks, punks, socialists, communists, anarchists, progressives, artists, gardeners, environmentalists, historical preservationists, pranksters, and scores of people who have made the park a temporary home. The conflict has seen bombings, beatings, dozens of riots, countless arrests, a National Guard occupation, and two deaths by police bullets.
The casual news consumer or your typical UC student are surely left wondering why, exactly, this historical curio has inspired so many years of bitter struggle and constant warnings by university police to “avoid the area of People’s Park.” Why have park people been willing to fight and die, and why has the UC – the property’s legal owner – never been willing to cede the ground, to let People’s Park simply be what it has been for a half century: namely, a public park? News reports offer woefully little in the way of historical context, glibly asserting that the “historic” park played a role in the movements against the Vietnam War (sure, yes, kind of) and the Civil Rights Movement (no, not really, not exactly). The history of the park is almost universally misrepresented; sometimes out of malice, usually out of simple ignorance. To orient ourselves in this fight, a fight constantly justified on the basis of the park’s historical nature, we feel that a few remarks on that history are in order.
To understand the park, we first need to understand that it wasn't created as a mere supporting player for other social movements. The movement for People's Park had, and has, its own independent, autonomous life. The park is its own demand. Its existence makes a statement, and poses, in the strongest possible terms, a question. This is the same question that, 174 years ago, Marx and Engels instructed communists to always “bring to the front.” It is the question of property.
Who does the land belong to? Why, and how? The core theoretical text of the park movement, an unsigned broadside written by Frank Bardacke, asks precisely this question: “Who Owns the Park?” Bardacke offers an answer by way of a story. "A long time ago the Costanoan Indians lived in the area that is now called Berkeley. They had no concept of land ownership. They believed that the land was under the care and guardianship of the people who used it and lived on it. Catholic missionaries took the land away from the Indians. No agreements were made. No papers were signed. They ripped it off in the name of God." From the Catholic missionaries follows a series of rip-offs at gunpoint, as the land passes from the church to the Mexican government, to the American state, to white settlers and other “rich white men,” and finally to the University of California. The UC's title to the land, the park people assert, is illegitimate, built on a legal fiction that serves to cover for naked theft. "Your title is covered in blood. We won't touch it. Your people ripped off the land from the Indians a long time ago. If you want it back now, you will have to fight for it again." The struggle for the park is the struggle for control over land and space.* As Bardacke makes clear, we can trace this fight all the way back to the first arrival of European colonists. But to make the story readable, we’ll start in 1966.
The first blow in this battle was struck, not by disgruntled, idealistic students, but by the UC itself. For eight years, the university had been flailing as it tried to crush and contain rapidly escalating student activism, which in the years since 1958 had gone from small pickets against local housing ordinances and capital punishment to the open rebellion of the Civil Rights Movement, the Free Speech Movement, and the burgeoning Antiwar Movement of the mid-1960s. As student political activity ratcheted up, thousands of people from across the country were drawn to Berkeley’s atmosphere of dissidence, creativity, and cultural experimentation. The South Campus area was the epicenter of a growing community, where the Haight-Ashbury's freewheeling attitudes about sex, drugs, and art blended with the political combativeness of the Berkeley protest millieu. For the university, concerned with student recruitment, property values, and maintaining order on campus, it was bad enough simply to share space with this new radical bohemia. But worse, the “non-students'' paid no heed whatsoever to the traditional boundaries between campus and non-campus life that had characterized Berkeley for so long. As non-students mingled with students, actively participating in – even leading – student political organizations, such as the Vietnam Day Committee, the administration feared that the young adults in their custody were being corrupted.
In 1966, convinced that non-students were the engine behind campus disruptions, the City of Berkeley spearheaded an “urban renewal” effort in Southside. Like the “renewal” programs elsewhere in the Bay Area and across the country that targeted racialized and working-class neighborhoods, it was, in fact, a campaign to remove a troublesome and ‘undesirable’ population. Police stepped up harassment of Telegraph Ave residents, causing arrest numbers to skyrocket, allowing the city to designate it a high-crime area. Soon, following the pattern of redevelopment everywhere, buildings started coming down. Encouraged by the city and the university, property owners began destroying the neighborhood’s old Victorians, which they replaced with cheaply built apartments. Residents complained of a “plastic invasion” and a state of “total war” waged by realtors. The fight back began almost immediately. Tactics ranged from the destructive (bulldozers were dynamited on at least one occasion) to the constructive (environmental activists planted guerrilla gardens on the sites of recently demolished houses).
It was as part of this campaign of “dispossessing the hippies” (as the San Francisco Examiner bluntly, and approvingly, put it) that, in the summer of 1967, the UC Regents exercised their power of eminent domain, seizing the area they called “lot 1875-2,” a piece of property that took up most of the block between Telegraph Ave, Dwight Way, and Haste and Bowditch Streets. This particular block had housed a number of well-known local radicals, including Robert Scheer, the editor of Ramparts Magazine and a prominent left-wing organizer. Ostensibly, the regents had “purchased” lot 1875-2 in order to turn it into a playing field (the commonly reported myth that People’s Park was a rebellion against planned student housing is a case of historical confusion too dull to explain here). But in February 1968, when they expelled the block’s residents and demolished their homes, no money for new construction was forthcoming or expected. For the next 14 months, the area lay fallow. Dirty, unmaintained, and disused, Telegraph Ave shoppers took to parking their cars on the dirt lot.
This was the context in which, in April 1969, a motley assortment of Berkeley agitators – veterans of antiwar, Maoist, and anarchist groupings, as well as relatively non-political artists -– placed an ad in underground newspaper the Berkeley Barb, calling on readers to “bring shovels, hoses, chains, grass, paints, flowers, trees, bulldozers, top soil, colorful smiles, laughter and lots of sweat” to the parking lot, in order to build “a cultural, political, freak out and rap center for the Western world.” “We will not be fucked over by the pigs ‘move-on’ fascism,” the notice declared, directly referring to the city’s attempts to sweep hippies out of the neighborhood.
From the beginning, People’s Park defined itself as belonging to a different social and political order than that which controlled the surrounding society: “We will police our own park and not allow its occupation by imperial power.” Park people saw it as a direct response to Black Panther Party Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver’s recent injunction to Berkeley radicals that they “must develop a territorial imperative,” (an early idea for the park’s name was “Eldridge Cleaver Memorial Park,” quickly abandoned when some remembered that the Panther leader, though on the run from authorities, was still very much alive). When a contingent of Black Panthers visited the park under construction, party chairman Bobby Seale toured in awe, telling park organizer Stew Albert: “this is really socialistic!”
No mere community garden, People’s Park was a “liberated zone,” (a term borrowed directly from the Vietnamese national liberation struggle) an experiment in “living socialism.” Organizers deployed creative work itself as a political tactic. Ordinary (non-hippie, non-”politico”) students and community members came out in droves to build the park, lay out turf, plant vegetables, build sculptures, cook food, and sing songs. For what may have been the first time in the history of the American left, park people elevated ecological questions to the center of their socialist strategy. The militants of People’s Park flew green flags alongside red ones, held mass teach-ins on ecology, and proudly wrote that the park was “the beginning of the Revolutionary Ecology Movement.” The importance of an ecological vision to socialist politics, and the truth of the park people’s dictum that “Ecology and Politics are no longer separate or separable issues,” have only grown more obvious in the decades since April 1969.
When the inevitable crackdown on the park came on May 15th, these participants could only react with horror. Park organizers turned that feeling of horror into a political lesson. “What monumental pettiness!” one reflected, “Experience, far better than theory, has taught us the obscenity of private property.”
The specifics of the battles of May 1969 have been recounted many times elsewhere. In short: The park was fenced in and destroyed. Smirking police erected a sign declaring the park “Fort Defiance,” proudly confirming Bardacke’s argument that the UC and its enforcers directly inherited the lineage of indigenous genocide. Later that day, a crowd attempted to remove the fences. Alameda County Sheriff’s Deputies opened fire with live ammunition, wounding 128 people, blinding one, and murdering non-student James Rector, who had been watching the scene unfold from the roof of the Socialist Workers Party’s Granma Books. Governor Reagan deployed the National Guard, who proceeded to occupy the city. Public gatherings were banned, forcing mass meetings to take place beyond the city limits in Oakland. Demonstrations continued. The Guard trapped crowds on campus and indiscriminately blanketed Berkeley with tear gas from a helicopter, inducing vomiting in the homes of faraway residents and hospitalizing school children across the city. Demonstrators defiantly created a second park, which still stands today, on land cleared for BART construction. Police made mass arrests in Downtown Berkeley, hauling hundreds of “freaks” out to Santa Rita Prison Farm in Pleasanton, where many were forced to endure torture conditions (numerous police brutality charges were filed; none stuck). On Memorial Day, a crowd of 30,000 marched peacefully to the site of the demolished park but failed to remove the fences.
The UC followed through with its promise to construct a playing field on the site (“Fort Defiance” now became “Haste Field”), but it went unused. Out of respect for the movement’s dead and maimed, everyone from campus radicals to student government to the Berkeley intra-fraternity council refused to have anything to do with the field. The same went for the parking lot which the university made from the remainder of People’s Park. Activists bearing signs reading “DON’T PARK ON BLOOD” kept a vigil; any car left in the lot was sure to be heavily vandalized. This could have been the end of the story; one-time park people and subsequent generations of militants could have easily left People’s Park in the romantic graveyard of crushed utopian dreamers. Instead, in 1972, during particularly severe antiwar rioting, a group of revolutionaries tore the fence to the ground, and the following morning hundreds filled the field to rebuild their park. Despite numerous attempts by the city and the UC to reassert control over the land, they have failed to decisively reconquer it for 50 years. In that time, the conflict has ebbed and flowed, swelling into at least six waves of riots.
As the utopian spirit of the 1960s gave way to the defeats and malaise of the 1970s, the Telegraph scene became frayed and worn, with many becoming locked in deadly spirals of heroin addiction. As the decades wore on, tensions around the park increasingly became about homelessness, gentrification, and drugs. The cheap rents of Southside disappeared, and along with them the politically and culturally radical community that had given the park life. Gradually, the world of the park and its people became separated from that of the students and the neighborhood. As the New York Times condescendingly noted in the 1980s, “People’s Park is usually avoided by people here. Students rarely visit the site unless they are seeking LSD or a ‘lid’ of marijuana. Most of the visitors are homeless, and there is a perception among many Berkeley residents that the park is dangerous,” (tellingly, to the Times, homeless visitors didn't fall under the category of “people”).
It is obvious that the People’s Park is not responsible for the misery of homelessness in the Bay Area. It is responsible, however, for forcing that misery into the sightline of wealthy students, homeowners, and merchants. This is a crime as unforgivable as the original sin of the park itself. In North Berkeley, the park that began life in May 1969 as People’s Park Annex (or “Insurrection City”) is now known as Ohlone Park. This space where revolutionaries once held acid-fueled orgies as a “war tactic” has been fully incorporated into the neighborhood as a charming public green space, enhancing the property values of nearby homeowners. The first People’s Park has had a very different fate, no doubt owing to the kinds of communities that make use of it. As real estate capital – the real force behind the homelessness crisis – swallows up the Bay Area, disfiguring everything it encounters, People’s Park has remained outside the private property nexus. In the disapproving words of UC Chancellor Michael Heyman, it is “a vacuum of anarchy” amid the affluence of an elite university town.
Whatever else People’s Park is or isn’t, it remains a highly potent statement of anti-capitalist defiance. Taking up a block of extremely valuable East Bay real estate, it turns a profit for no one. It looks the region’s masters in the eyes and says you can’t have everything. Its continued existence proves something dangerous: you, too, can seize something from the most powerful people in town, make it into whatever you want, and hold it for half a century. They will hit you hard, so hard that some of your people will die. But if you fight for it, you can keep it. This challenge is its meaning. The park is its own demand, and it concedes nothing to the UC and Berkeley’s power brokers. People’s Park has already experienced one cycle of death and resurrection. Of its many defeats, none have been final. The question will be asked over the coming days and weeks by skeptical onlookers and curious investigators: “Who owns the park?” We do. If we want it back now, we will have to fight for it again.
Left in the Bay is an independent research collective working to document the history of people’s struggles in the San Francisco Bay Area. Twitter and Instagram: @leftinthebay
* Bardacke’s knowingly simplified account of the history of property in Berkeley is sometimes clumsy, and his theoretically undeveloped framing of white revolutionaries fighting “in the spirit of the Costanoan Indians” today reads as tone deaf at best and racist at worst. The park people’s claim on the land sits somewhat uncomfortably with the Bay Area-based Indians of All Tribes’ assertion later that same year that “This is Indian Land.” Unfortunately, there isn’t adequate space in this piece to explore the contradiction between these two conceptions of land ownership, or the connections and fissures between the park movement and the occupation of Alcatraz six months later (both of which Berkeley indigenous activist LaNada War Jack participated in).