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Berkeley mayor, county sheriff spar over People's Park protest response

Berkeley mayor, county sheriff spar over People's Park protest response
Berkeley mayor, county sheriff spar over People's Park protest response 02:51

BERKELEY (KPIX) -- The fight over the future of People's Park in Berkeley continues as a group trying to preserve the park filed a lawsuit against the University of California on Thursday to block construction of a student housing project.

There are dozens of protesters still occupying People's Park saying they're committed to staying for as long as it takes to block a student housing project.

Aidan Hill, who uses they/them pronouns, says they are helping to facilitate the encampment by organizing food drop-offs and medical supplies.

"There's a difference between a homeless encampment and a political protest encampment. We're here because we want to save the park. That's our major concentration. It's not because we don't have anywhere else to go. It's because People's Park is our home," Hill said.

The most recent issues around People's Park started early Wednesday morning when construction began on a new housing complex slated for the site. The project would provide housing for 1,100 students and 125 low-income residents.

Shortly after construction started, protesters began facing off with police, knocking down fences and damaging construction equipment.

A spokesperson for UC Berkeley said the university was forced to stop the project temporarily because of the safety risks but does still plan to move forward with construction.

The question now is how and when to remove the protesters from the park.

"What happens at People's Park is going to effect the neighborhood around it," said Berkeley mayor Jesse Arreguin.

After the clashes with police Wednesday, Mayor Arreguin, called for a meeting Thursday asking the city council to reconsider the city's ban on using tear gas for crowd control but the mayor said he then reconsidered.

"Our police had requested that we consider suspending this policy so we could get those mutual aid resources coming to Berkeley. I still believe that using tear gas in law enforcement situations is wrong. These are weapons of war,"  Mayor Arreguin said.

Since Berkeley prohibits officers from using tear gas, it limits bringing in additional officers to help with crowd control. The mayor specifically called out the Alameda County Sheriff's Office on Thursday saying that, because of the ban on tear gas, the sheriff's office would not provide mutual aid.

Alameda County sheriff Greg Ahern said that was never the case and, as long as he's been the sheriff, the department has never rejected a request for mutual aid.

"Some agencies will not respond if you're not going to allow tear gas to be deployed if tear gas is needed to disperse the crowd," said sheriff Ahern. He went on to say the deputies train for crowd control with tear gas. He said it's used as a step during force escalation before deputies move to less-lethal rounds like bean bags or rubber bullets. He said it would be a threat to officer safety for them to try to do crowd control without the tools they've trained with.

"My agency would not be able to respond to assist in crowd control, if you're not going to allow us to use those tools. However we would assist by providing transportation, booking," Ahern said.

In the meantime, a UC Berkeley spokesperson said the university is still assessing options for how to handle the situation at People's Park but emphasized the housing is still desperately needed.

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