August Invasion of People's Park Sparks More Questions than Answers
This piece was originally published in the October 2022 issue of Street Spirit and can be read online there. Support your local Street Spirit vendors!
It was the middle of the night on August 3 when the invasion of People’s Park began. By 5 p.m., over 40 trees in People’s Park were cut down, an unbreakable fence had been toppled, five heavy construction vehicles were rendered useless, and over 100 police had abandoned the scene.
The price of this provocative act of destruction and incredibly poor planning was later estimated by Chancellor Carol Christ to be approximately $1.5 million and that doesn’t even account for the cost of police and overtime. Who is accountable for this waste, and what will the consequence of their actions be? Was this simply poor planning, or calculated waste? Who benefits from this incursion? Is this what happens when the UC rides roughshod over the will of a community with roots that are 53 years deep? At approximately 12:00 a.m. on August 3, park activists activated the “bulldozer alert” when it was clear that streets were being barricaded and heavy equipment was being moved in. The UC hired private security and put up fencing to block traffic on the streets adjacent to the park despite the fact that no notice had been given for any street closures. Did the UC get permits to block off the public streets and sidewalks? There was no notice given to the neighbors whose cars were towed from all adjacent streets in the middle of the night. Instead, they woke up to their cars seemingly gone and a meager gift card as compensation for the inconvenience, another wasteful and disruptive use of money on the UC’s part.
Peter Radu, the Assistant to the City Manager, was on hand along with members of Homeless Response Team (Okeya Vance, Tony Alcutt, and Eve Ahmed) to try to lure unhoused people out of the park one last time. However, they had very little to offer unhoused park residents, their primary incentive being spots in a shelter known to be closing within a month. Ruben Lizardo (Director of Local Government and Community Relations and for UC Berkeley) and Dan Moguloff (Spokesperson for the UC) were also on site to oversee the operation.
Over the course of 12 hours, at least 7 individuals were arrested. University police were on site in riot gear in the wee hours of the morning, as contract workers (who would not identify themselves) drilled into the concrete sidewalks surrounding the park so that they could secure fencing with razor sharp edges. The fencing itself blocked the middle of the sidewalks, thereby rendering them completely impassible and in flagrant violation of the ADA. Did the UC have permission to violate Berkeley municipal codes for the purposes of this fence? How long was the UC planning to leave a fence cutting directly down a public sidewalk?
UC police were not the only law enforcement on site. The UC brought cops from other UC campuses and State Universities as well as dozens of CHP officers. Unconfirmed estimates place the number of officers brought to the site to be as high as 100 and more at first. However, what was the point of all of these officers? Why were they so unable to defend the area they had been called to secure?
Ultimately, expensive fencing was torn down and huge numbers of cops were called in. Bulldozers and heavy equipment were abandoned, allowed to be vandalized, and disabled with no plan for their removal. Planners should have known that people would be angry after having their park destroyed and trees decimated. It was to no one’s surprise that the abandoned machinery was vandalized and eventually disabled by angry protesters and passers-by. The broken equipment posed a significant hazard when toxic fluids and even diesel fuel were allowed to leak onto the basketball court. Neither the UC nor the construction company addressed the hazards they had created. There was a high risk of a random spark igniting some of the liquids in the midst of a space that was now covered in burnable mulch, wood chips, dry logs and other easily flammable tinder. Fortunately, park activists used laundry powder and kitty litter to absorb most of the flammable and toxic spill.
The University acted rashly and it backfired. Once students and community members actually saw the devastation in the park, many decided to become active in defense of the Park. In the weeks since the incursion, new gardens have been planted, new trees are taking root and new people are becoming active in defense of open space and the public commons. Although the UC has been prohibited by the court from any new construction until the October court date when the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) will be re-evaluated, they are still technically allowed to erect a fence around the park.
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Photo by Alastair Boone for Street Spirit Newspaper Oct. 2022.