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Another battle at the Park

Z. Byron Wolf
Friday April 07, 2000

Daily Planet Correspondent 


People’s Park, as it sits today, is a free hotel and food and clothing distribution point for homeless people, outdoor basketball site and gathering place for free concerts, and a place for reminiscences of the student protest that saved the park during Berkeley’s radical years. 

The park arguably represents unused space to administrators and planners at UC Berkeley, who are already trying to grapple with rising enrollment, and congestion of housing, academic and bureaucratic space is undoubtedly bound to become more and more an issue. The university’s chancellor, Robert Berdahl, for instance, said last year that maybe building dorms on the site would be a good idea. His comments were quickly classified by university officials as representative only of the chancellor’s opinion and not an indication of construction to come, but the fact remains that the park is not, from a university eye, being put to good use. 

It is People’s Park’s status as a symbol of student unity and protest in the 1960s and ’70s that saved the park from becoming the site of a new dorm or other university building – the school does, after all, own the land. 

A controversial initiative slated to appear on next week’s ASUC election ballots addresses the future of the park by asking students what they would like to see happen to the space. The initiative’s sponsor, ASUC Senator Kevin Sabet, points out the initiative is non-binding for the university, which owns the park and can technically do whatever it wants with the space. Sabet says he sponsored the initiative simply to give students a voice in the eventual debate that is sure to take place over the park. Since the ASUC election can in some years attract as much as 20 percent of the student population to vote, Sabet says it presents the perfect opportunity to poll students attitudes. 

“It’s only meant to give students a place in the decision-making process,” Sabet says. “The initiative is not meant to be any sort of ‘anti’ or ‘pro’ People’s Park tool.” 

But the initiative has sparked a furious pro-park campaign by community activists and students afraid that their peers might demonstrate their apathy toward the park with a “no” vote on the initiative. In other words, what is meant as a poll of student opinion, some fear, could turn into a green light for university officials to change the park. 

One major problem park proponents have with the initiative is its concentration on students, most of whom were not born when People’s Park was created and thus do not have the same attachment to it that many permanent community members do. 

“I don’t think that the students alone should have decision making power regarding People’s Park,” says UC Berkeley student and ASUC Senate candidate Chuck McNally. “The park is part of the community and it is mostly community members that use it.” 

McNally says less official polling methods could determine student opinion without relying on uninformed decisions. He points to the prospect of a public forum or an informal poll of students. 

While McNally sees flaws in the existence of the initiative, both he and Boalt Hall Law School student Jon Tanghe have been active in hastily throwing together a People’s Park information campaign they hope will influence the way students vote. 

The campaign shifts into high gear this Saturday when Berkeley notables like fold singer Wavy Gravy and the “father of people’s park” ’60s radical Michael Delacour – he prefers to be referred to as a park co-founder – appear at a rally from 1 to 5 p.m. at People’s Park. There is also a pro-park rally planned for Monday afternoon on Sproul Plaza. 

Sabet, while maintaining his impartiality, says that despite the park’s history, there are aspects of it that mar the community, like its dirty, unkempt appearance and the illegal activity reported there each year by UC and Berkeley city police. He says the campaign to support the park ignores these problems. 

“Berkeley is the No. 1 school in the country for drug-related arrests,” he says, pointing to People’s Park as an example of Berkeley’s drug problem. “This is not about small-time marijuana use either. There are high amounts of trafficking in that area. It’s essentially a supermarket for drugs.” 

McNally and Tanghe counter that any construction on People’s Park would not solve Berkeley’s drug problem, but would only move it to different places.