Plan to build in People's Park incites riots in Berkeley


BERKELEY, Calif. -- At People's Park, a scruffy 2.8-acre plot of grassy land where the 1960s counterculture once denounced the Vietnam War and planted a communal garden, a heated, sometimes violent confrontation is being played out between the park's legal owner and advocates for the homeless who now live there.

For five nights in a row, as many as 600 demonstrators have marched through the streets and clashed with hundreds of police officers in riot gear. Several times, police have fired wooden and rubber pellets into the crowd, a diverse group of street people, non-violent activists and students.

Included among the demonstrators are bands of toughs who have broken windows, looted stores and thrown rocks at police.

The protest centers on the construction of two redwood volleyball courts in the park by the University of California, which owns the land but has for the last 22 years allowed community people to control it. The park, a powerful 1960s symbol of anti-authority politics, has been a refuge for the homeless.

"The university has never wanted to surrender this park," said Bob Mandel, who was active in developing the park in 1969. "Now they want it back and they think that with the alienation against panhandlers and the homeless, they can split students and residents and take the park back."

Drug dealing is prevalent now in the park, which has two portable toilets, a faucet with running water and a ramshackle vegetable garden. The university says improvements will help stop crime.

"We want it to be a park where everybody feels safe and welcome, a friendly type of recreational facility," said Jesus Mena, a university spokesman. He said the university did not plan to drive out the homeless.

At least 85 demonstrators have been arrested so far, police said. Nearly every store window is boarded up or broken in a six-block area near the park on Telegraph Avenue -- a collection of left-wing cafes, bookstores and used clothing shops.

The park was created after the university removed several houses from the land in the late 1960s with the intention of building dormitories.

But when the land was left vacant for more than a year, anti-war activists came up with the concept of a "Power to the People's Park." They tossed around ideas at the Caffe Mediterraneum, with some of the most cogent thinking seeming to come late at night.

"It was a joke that only in Berkeley would the revolution come after 10 p.m., after you've had your cafe latte," said Jon Read, one of the park's founders. He envisioned the park as a place to demonstrate how "we could make a better world." The Berkeley Barb, an alternative newspaper, declared, "We want the park to be a cultural, political, freak out and rap center for the Western World."

In 1969, students and residents fought with police after the university ordered the gardens and flowers bulldozed. Police shot and killed one bystander and wounded more than a dozen others.

Ronald Reagan, who was then governor of California, ordered in the National Guard.

But while the mission of the park activists has remained the same, times have changed in Berkeley since the '60s, with access to gourmet coffee and pastry shops now viewed by many as an essential part of life. The City Council unanimously approved the volleyball courts as a compromise to the dormitories the university had proposed building again.

A group of park users met with city officials this week to try to negotiate, but no settlement was reached.



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