A torn-down black steel fence, smashed window glass from construction vehicles, colorful posters reading “Save People’s Park No More Gentrifiers,” tree branches on the ground and one last standing tree, was the aftermath scene at People’s Park in Berkeley, California. The evening of Wednesday Aug. 3, protesters forced University of California, Berkeley to halt construction on the controversial project to build housing for students.
Brandon Ramon Mendoza, organizer with Defend People’s Park and recent UC Berkeley graduate, said he went to the park in the early hours of Aug. 3 when construction workers showed up at midnight.
“[There were] so many police, so many goddamn pigs. Police from all sorts of departments from the Cal State Critical Response Unit to UCPD to eventually as the day progressed California Highway Patrol,” Mendoza said. “It was a terrible sight to see them come in and touch down almost every single tree and so rapidly, with almost no remorse and with so much police protecting them as they enact their violence, destroying trees over 50 years old.”
He said the trees were homes to many birds, squirrels and other animals that, now, no longer have a home.
“We’re not going to continue to allow them to take away the park, it’s been here for 53 years and it will continue for as long as the people are here,” Mendoza said.
Protecting and saving the land has been controversial since the late 60’s. Despite negotiations about the land, on May 15, 1969, 300 police in riot gear cleared the park and 2,000 National Guard troops were sent by then-governor Ronald Reagan, in what is known as “Bloody Thursday,” according to People’s Park website.
Rafael Jesús González, who became city of Berkeley’s first Poet Laureate in 2017 and who was at the 1969 protest, said history continues to repeat itself.
“We surrounded the park and confronted the university and armed forces. Our citizens were tear gassed and there was at least one death,” González said.
He said it makes him “happy” to see the people pursuing to protect the park and confront the institutions that sway over them.
“It’s very heartening and it’s up to the younger generations to take up the issues and battles of the revolution that we started in the middle to late 60’s,” González said.
González also said homelessness will not be solved by building huge apartments for the affluent, including Berkeley students, and that the park must be preserved as it symbolizes freedom.
“[People’s Park] is exactly what the name stands for, a park by the people for the people, for the public,” he said. “Freedom is for the people to have their needs met and symbols are not to be denigrated. They are real and they are concrete.”
Señor Gigio, Bay Area independent hip-hop artist and tarot card reader at Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, said People’s Park is not only a home to many but a focal point for people to gather.
He hosted and performed one of his first gigs at the park in 2013.
“They used to do these events called hip-hop at the park that started in 1997 and it was a pretty big event every first Saturday of May,” Gigio said. “It was more than just performing, it was connecting with the people and talking with them. The park embodied a spirit and it’s supposed to be there, not just for the Bay Area but the world at large.”
He said throughout the years, people traveling from all around the world would seek the park.
“People would ask ‘where’s People’s Park?’ and people go there to find themselves and explore,” Gigio said. “They find where they fit in and define their talents with others who are doing the same.”
The park is so dear to him that he recently decided to film a YouTube documentary film, capturing the essence of the park and its historical and cultural significance to the locals.
“My experience going to People’s Park is that it’s a diverse culture. You find people mixed with each other,” Gigio said. “Do what you can to contribute and get involved. If you’re a Bay Area resident and you care about the Bay, then you should definitely care about People’s Park.”
Mendoza said People’s Park is the last green space in the entirety of southside Berkeley and although there is Willard Park, it’s not part of the southside community.
“To have seen dozens of trees, to see the garden destroyed is just another message by the University saying they do not care about what they do to the community,” Mendoza said. “UC Berkeley is supposed to be part of the community, yet over the course of over 100 years it continues to honestly be a plague to the community and harm community members.”