Fifty-two years after founding People’s Park, Michael Delacour stood in front of a crowd that had gathered Friday afternoon to protest UC Berkeley’s plan to develop housing on the park’s grounds.
Delacour, now 83 years old, told the crowd how he helped turn a vacant lot into a park during the heart of Berkeley’s anti-Vietnam war movement. Then, he eyed the fences erected by the university 10 days earlier in preparation for the development of student housing on the site.
“What are we trying to do, take down this fence?” Delacour asked, and was met with cheers. “Looking at the fence, we have the numbers here,” he said. “You guys can decide what to do.”
Moments later, more than 100 protesters toppled fences to the ground all across the park. The crowd, which included Cal students and community members, then carried the fences up Telegraph Avenue, through Sproul Plaza and deposited them in front of Sproul Hall, chanting, “Whose park? People’s Park!”
“This is the beginning of the next stage of resistance,” said Russell Bates, a long-time activist at People’s Park. “We are not going to go quietly into the night, we are going to rage into the dying of the light,” he said, referencing a Dylan Thomas poem.
The rally is one of the most decisive attempts to oppose development at People’s Park since UC Berkeley announced plans in 2018 to build student housing on the 2.8-acre lot. On Jan. 19, the university had started to erect temporary fences around parts of the park to do drilling for soil analysis. The effort meant that officials closed off sections of the park and asked tent dwellers to move, at least temporarily.
“They thought they were going to get away with doing their soil samples,” Bates said, referring to UC Berkeley. “We’re saying, ‘No, you cannot get away with it. This is going to be more costly than you know.’”
The park has been a symbol of resistance since 1969 when Delacour and other community members converted a trash-strewn barren lot into a park that was meant for the entire community. UC Berkeley had acquired the land a few years earlier and had razed numerous traditional Berkeley brown-shingle houses lived in, supposedly, by groups critical of the university.
On May 15, 1969, UC Berkeley reasserted its right to the land. Administrators brought in police and workers erected an eight-foot-tall fence around the park in the early morning.
That action provoked outrage. A rally scheduled for Sproul Plaza that day turned into a protest with Dan Siegel, the incoming student body president, famously shouting: “Go down there and take the park!”
Thousands of park supporters marched down Telegraph Avenue toward the park and were met by police, who let off tear gas canisters. Deputies from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office fired birdshot at spectators gathered on the roofs of buildings on Telegraph Avenue, killing one man, blinding another and injuring many others. While the efforts of the 1960s were focused on the Vietnam War, Friday’s rally focused on preventing displacement and the preservation of green space.
“It’s a microcosm of the greater struggle against displacement and gentrification,” said Shmuel Cooper, the vice president of external affairs at the Berkeley Student Cooperatives and a student at Cal involved in the rally.
To some, the rally felt like a passing of the baton from the old guard of People’s Park activists to today’s young organizers.
“It meant a lot to have the co-founder of the park stand up there and say, ‘we can do the same thing that we did, again,” said Delainey, a second-year Cal student.
“It’s students who set up People’s Park in the first place, so it’s our place to defend it,” said Athena Davis, a first-year student at UC Berkeley who spoke at the rally. “It’s up to students to reject the idea that our housing needs to come at the price of destroying green space and homes for the marginalized.”
UC Berkeley plans to build housing at the park for more than 1,000 students and 150 formerly unhoused and low-income individuals, in addition to preserving some green space. The plan is part of the University’s effort to double the amount of housing available to undergraduate and graduate students within the next decade.
“We need to develop every site, not some sites, but all of them, to be able to meet that goal,” said Kyle Gibson, the director of communications for UC Berkeley’s Capital Strategies, which oversees development.
“What they’re trying to do is erase history”
Despite the promise of housing, the plan was met with opposition at the rally. Beginning at 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon, a range of individuals spoke out in opposition of UC Berkeley’s development project in front of a crowd of about 200 people.
“What they’re trying to do is erase history. If you allow it to be destroyed, what do you have left?” asked Aidan Hill, who ran for mayor of Berkeley in 2020. Opponents of the plan said People’s Park has a symbolic significance that should be preserved. In response, the university said it is “committed to commemorating the significance of People’s Park,” according to Gibson, who pointed to a section in the plans that will commemorate the history of the park.
Others were skeptical that the housing units would benefit the approximately 30-40 unhoused people who call the park home today. Before the pandemic, overnight sleeping was not permitted, but UC officials now have backed off enforcing the ban. Tents are ubiquitous in the park.
“Housing for who and at what price?” asked Dayton Andrews, an organizer with the United Front Against Displacement, which opposes gentrification in Oakland. “They’ve been trying to develop this land since 1969. And they’re still trying to develop it. Their priority is their bottom line.”
During his speech, Andrews encouraged students to become politicized. “It’s about the larger revolution and movement,” he said, urging the crowd to carry on a legacy of resistance. Delacour crystalized the idea when he invited protesters to knock down the fences.
“The university respects everyone’s right to express their opinions and views, but we found today’s actions that physically removed temporary safety fencing” to be “very unfortunate,” said Gibson, adding that the fences were put up to protect people during the soil analysis. Before the university assessed the damage, Gibson would not comment on whether the university planned to put up the fences again or discipline students.
The crowd brought the fences to Sproul Hall, whose steps Siegel and others stood to decry the university’s fencing off of the park. On Friday, Ryan Smith was among those trailing the protesters carrying the fences up Telegraph Avenue.
“Whenever the University builds housing, they build it above market rate,” said Smith, who has volunteered with the People’s Park Committee since 2013. He hopes that the rally will dispel what he called the “false narrative” that UC Berkeley housing leads to more affordable options.
“I want the university to know what it’s like to be fenced in,” said Cooper of the symbolic move to leave the fences in front of Sproul Hall. On their way to Sproul, protesters passed Greg Jalbert, also with the People’s Park Committee, holding two signs that reflected the day’s speeches: “Cherish People’s Park green space” and “Stop predatory capitalism.”
Back at the People’s Park, students listened to a man giving a speech from atop a dumpster next to the basketball court. Across the park, Delacour talked with Andrea Prichett, founder of Berkeley Copwatch and a 30-year activist at People’s Park, about the park’s legacy.
“To resist the attempt to crush the counterculture, that’s what People’s Park was about at the time. Right now, it feels like a class struggle.” Prichett said, looking up at a helicopter flying overhead. “It’s a fight for survival that’s symbolized in this park.”