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Protest shuts down construction at Berkeley's People's Park

Protests halt construction of housing at People's Park in Berkeley
Protests halt construction of housing at People's Park in Berkeley 01:55

BERKELEY -- Protesters took over People's Park in Berkeley Wednesday afternoon, bringing construction of a new student housing project to a halt for the day at least.

The clash started in the predawn darkness, when dozens of riot-geared police officers and work crews descended upon the park to clear out debris, homeless and housing advocates who have waged a months-long battle over the proposed UC Berkeley housing project.

But by Wednesday afternoon, UC Berkeley stopped construction and pulled both workers and police officers out of park after sustained confrontations between police and protesters. Dozens of environmental and homeless activists succeeded in stopping the work by forcing their way into the park, which had been fenced off, and blocking workers from tearing up the property.

Activists also tore down the fencing after the police had left the scene Wednesday afternoon.

"We're not going to stand here and let something so culturally significant and important just be taken away from us," said Bryce Smith, who was there for the protest on Wednesday. "You can't always agree to disagree on things. There's a lot of people who agree with me. If we have enough people come forward and show what our appreciation is for the land and the culture and everything that Berkeley is rooted in, I think that's a big first step."  

A protester seen vandalizing construction equipment at People's Park in Berkeley on August 3, 2022. Alameda County Sheriff's Office

By evening, hundreds of people gathered at Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus and marched down Telegraph Avenue back to the park.

"Them creating housing here is just an excuse to push people out that are poor and folks who are here to gather and connect with the community," said Chaga Kwania, a protester, "It's just an excuse."

Aidan Hill, another protester, said, "It's sad because all those trees, all the trees that I pruned and made sure were alive, they took them all."

For some in the crowd, Wednesday's protests were reminiscent of the original free speech protests in People's Park in 1969 that led to "Bloody Thursday".

"I so admire what those people did up here, and I was a young teenager. So here I am doing my little part today," said protester Toby Blome.

The school announced it postponed the project until further notice.

"Due to the destruction of construction materials, unlawful protest activity, and violence on the part of some protesters, the University has decided to pause construction work on the People's Park housing site. All construction personnel were withdrawn out of concern for their safety," said a statement from UC Berkeley's department of communications.

"In the course of preparing and planning for the start of construction, safety has been the University's highest priority, and that remains the case now. In an effort to avoid further confrontation, law enforcement officers have also now withdrawn from the site. The campus will, in the days ahead, assess the situation in order to determine how best to proceed with construction of this urgently needed student housing project," the statement added. "There were multiple arrests, but we will not be able to provide confirmed, detailed information about numbers, charges, etc, until tomorrow morning."

Wednesday morning's push came after an Alameda County judge ruled the week before that UC Berkeley could go ahead with the construction of two 12- and six-story dorm buildings later this year after university officials promised the new structures would include a memorial to the historic nature of the park.

Among the ideas university officials have floated is a memorial walkway of the May 1969 "Bloody Thursday" protest in which a person was killed by police and also murals and photo displays.

They also have promised to preserve 1.7 acres of the sprawling park site as open space. 

"We really believe this project is completely consistent with the founding values of the park," said Dan Mogulof, a UC Berkeley spokesperson. "The University is donating land worth $8 million for the construction of supportive housing for unhoused people – very low-income people – 60% of the park will remain as open green space. It's going to become a park for all of the people."

Mogulof says there's an urgent need for more student housing.

"Students thrive when they can live close to campus. For too long, too many of our students have to live distant from campus or in inadequate and extremely expensive housing in the city of Berkeley," he said. "Two years from now we'll be looking forward to students moving into the dorms here. 60% of the park will remain as open green space."

Some protesters said People's Park isn't the place for the housing project.

"I know Berkeley needs housing. But, not here. This is the most densely populated part of town already, as someone who lives two blocks away," said Luna Oxenberg. "There are other places to build housing in this town. How about where – they bought the roadway in, how about building a nice big building right there on University Avenue with all of the other big buildings."

"The campus will, in the days ahead, assess the situation in order to determine how best to proceed with construction of this urgently needed student housing project," UC Berkeley spokesperson Kyle Gibson said.

On Wednesday afternoon, a group opposed to the construction of housing at the park was seeking a court stay of demolition against the university.

"When work began earlier this morning, there were two or three unhoused people in the park, each of whom had been previously offered shelter, repeatedly notified that the park was soon to be closed and informed that overnight camping in the park is not permitted," university officials said in a news release.

"Last night, alternative shelter, transportation, and storage for belongings was offered again to each and every person when the park was closed," officials added.

In the news release, university officials said work slated for Wednesday included placement of construction site fencing, removal of trees from and around the footprints of the new buildings and dismantling the stage as well as the temporary kitchen which had ceased food preparation in the early spring.

The $312 million project will provide housing for 1,100 university students and 125 homeless residents. No information on the court appeal was available from the opponents early Wednesday afternoon.

Max Darrow and Katie Nielsen contributed to this story.

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