I thought it was hopeless to try to defend People’s Park. But then, on Aug. 3, in the early morning hours, park defenders tore down fences UC Berkeley erected to begin construction on student housing, reoccupied the space and sat in front of the big yellow front loaders and excavators. That evening, they held a rally and as I listened to them speak I realized: They are the ones who will determine what is hopeless and what is not.
Each person who spoke expressed the need to protect open and unpatrolled space, a place for trees to grow large, and for housed and homeless people to gather and share what they have in common. They mourned that they had not been able to prevent the university, in its first act that morning, from cutting down a grove of redwoods, some with trunks 3 feet in diameter. Homeless people, who had sheltered in their shade, spoke of them as friends they had lost.
In the 60s, we had a slogan: “Be realistic, demand the impossible.” Today’s People’s Park defenders are demanding the impossible: That the park’s 2.8 acres be recognized as “commons,” a space that no one owns or controls. That was the vision in ’69. That’s their vision now.
University officials were not present to hear those speeches. Neither was the city of Berkeley’s mayor or councilmembers, who have enthusiastically supported Cal’s plans to build 700 units of student housing, enough for 1,100 students and 100 units of supportive housing for “the homeless.” There will be green space, 60% of what’s there now, according to the university’s plans for People’s Park. There will be “Gardens + Grove” incorporating “colorful native plantings and a lush grove of trees,” from which you can look through to a “sylvan glade,” which shall be named the “People’s Park Glade.” The architects’ renderings show students strolling and a family sitting on a blanket with their little child. There are no homeless people and certainly no redwood stumps.
They did not need to point to the contrast that is there today. For years, they have painted the park as a benighted, desolate no man’s land where the homeless hunker down, strew their belongings, lineup for free food, and scrape together scary lives circled by chaos and violence.
It is a picture that is in UC Berkeley’s interest to promote. And insofar as it is a reality, it is one to which they have contributed. For 53 years, the university has prevented development. For 53 years, it has intentionally undeveloped the park. The university’s forever goal has been the undoing of ’69, to demonstrate that the experiment, which began then, has been a failure. Cal believes its time has come. It has all its ducks in a row. All that remains in its way are those pesky demonstrators.
The park defenders say: “We do not doubt students and the homeless need housing. Build it somewhere else.”
Who should decide? In ’69 and today, that answer is contained in the park’s name: “The People.” Who are “The People?” It’s not a simple question. “The People” are always the underdogs. Individuals become “The People” in a self-conscious collective struggle for their rights. “The People” certainly include today’s park defenders. They should have a say in the park’s future. They have organized to defend their utopian and deeply unrealistic vision. For now, they have regained control. How much longer remains to be seen.
These days, when reality sucks, it is realistic to be unrealistic. The impossible visions are the ones most worth fighting for.
Osha Neumann has been a muralist and lawyer for “the homeless.” He designed the mural, A People’s History of Telegraph Avenue, which depicts the founding of People’s Park.