by Osha Newmann


I did not believe it was possible to defend the park. It seemed like a hopeless struggle. But then the defenders of the park tore down the fences the University had installed and reoccupied the park; they sat down in front of the big yellow front loaders and excavators, which had arrived in the middle of the night. The drivers got out and left. The police left. In the evening and the Park Defenders held a rally on a stage and I listened to them speak and I realized: They are the ones who will determine what is hopeless and what is not.

I listened as speaker after speaker expressed in different ways the crying need to preserve and reclaim space that is not controlled, that remains open, unpatrolled, resistant to incursion, a place for trees to grow large, the homeless to shelter and the housed to mingle and plan the revolution.

The first act by the University in its attempt to reclaim total control of the park was to cut down a grove of redwoods, whose trunks, some 3 feet in diameter, lay next to the stage, stacked and ready for the sawmill. Some distance away a giant palm felled by a chainsaw, sprawled on the ground, its trunk so wide you cannot put your arms around it. Speaker after speaker mourned those trees. Homeless people who had sheltered in their shade spoke of them as friends they had lost.

In the Sixties we had a slogan: “Be realistic, demand the impossible.” The People’s Park defenders today 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 1969. That’s their vision now.

University officials were not present to hear those speeches. Nor was the mayor of the City of Berkeley or its councilmembers, who have enthusiastically supported the University’s plans. They make their position clear on their websites and in the media to which they have easy access. They congratulate themselves on the agreements they have come to. They plan to build 700 units of student housing, enough for 1000 students; plus 100 units of supportive housing for “the homeless.” And there will be green space, 60% of what’s there now. There will be a “Gardens and Grove” incorporating “colorful native plantings and a lush grove of trees,” from which you can look through to the a “sylvan glade,” which shall be named the “People Park Glade.”

The architects renderings show students strolling, a family sitting on a blanket with their little child. No obviously homeless people though. And certainly no redwood stumps. They do not need to point to the contrast of what is there today.

For years they have painted the Park as a benighted and desolate no man’s land where the homeless, and really only them, hunker down, strew their belongings, line up for the donations of free food, and scrape together scary lives circled by chaos and violence.

It is a picture that is in their interest to promote. And insofar as it is a reality, it is one to which they have contributed.

For 53 years they have prevented development. For 53 years they have inhibited all community plans to improve the Park, to make it more “beautiful and livable.” They have intentionally undeveloped the Park. Their forever goal has been the undoing of 1969, to take back full control, to demonstrate that the experiment that began then has been a failure. They believe their time has come. They’ve got all their ducks in a row. The City of Berkeley is on board. All that remain in their way are those pesky demonstrators.

The architects’ plans are beautiful. Build them somewhere else say the People’s Park defenders.

No one doubts the need for housing – for students and for the homeless. Most homeless people desperately want to be inside where they can take a hot shower, lock the door behind them, and lie down to sleep with a soft pillow under their head; and perhaps one by one, their wish or some semblance thereof may be granted. But there will be others, many, who will remain outside, newly minted homeless are created every day. And they are the ones that need a place, temporary as it may be, where they are not harassed and intimidated. Those places are disappearing.

The Park has been one such place.

True, it has symbolic importance. But it is more than just a symbol. The large redwoods are not just symbolic. A haven for people who are homeless is not just a symbol.

Who should decide what happens to the park? In 1969 and today that answer is contained in the name: “The People.”

Who are “the People?” It’s not a simple question.

“The People” are always the underdogs, the ones who come together to struggle for their rights.

“The People” are formed in struggle. In struggle they become self-conscious.

“The people” certainly includes today’s Park defenders. They should have a say. They have organized to defend their utopian and deeply unrealistic vision. For now they have regained control of the park. For now those big yellow machines sit immobilized, stuck like sabretooth tigers in the La Brea tar pits, their carcasses gnawed by graffiti. How much longer remains to be seen.

These days, when reality sucks, it’s realistic to be unrealistic. The impossible visions are the ones most worth fighting for.

(Osha Neumann has been a lawyer and advocate for “the homeless” for over 20 years. His mural, A People’s History of Telegraph Avenue, painted with the assistance of many artists, depicts the creation of People’s Park and the demonstrations that took place when the University tried to fence it in.)

(To see the incredible People’s Park murals that Osha and others have created):

To purchase a copy of Osha Neumann’s incredible book DOODLING Tianic: The Making of Art in a World on the Brink:

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