This weekend’s 34th anniversary celebration of the People’s Park riot wouldn’t have been the same without a little controversy.
The celebration, which took place at the park Sunday afternoon, was full of speeches and songs and art. But there were also murmurs about a recent decision by UC Berkeley to take down an acacia tree on the east end of the park.
The university-owned park has been a battleground since 1969 when 2,000 activists, at the height of the political ferment of the sixties, clashed with local authorities over plans to build student housing on the small patch of land just south of campus.
Ever since then, local activists, gardeners and homeless people have staked claim to the park, engaging in sporadic, territorial skirmishes with the university. The latest emerged two weeks ago when UC Berkeley took a chainsaw to the acacia.
“It appeared to be in danger of falling over,” explained the university’s Director of Community Relations Irene Hegarty.
Hegarty said the university was particularly concerned because the tree was near a children’s play area and a similar acacia had fallen of its own accord just a couple of years ago.
But activists objected.
“I was just astonished that they would do this,” said longtime activist Lisa Stephens. “It’s not the university’s decision. They may think they own the park, but they don’t. It’s our park.”
The university did, in fact, run the idea past a community advisory board and one member, Dana Merryday, said the decision seemed like a no-brainer at the time.
“The acacia was cracked and we agreed as a group that it could be unpredictable,” said Merryday. “We really didn’t think of the historical value of the tree.”
Stephens said the public process should have involved more than the advisory board. “They know that’s not adequate,” she said. “This is a major, major change to the park.”
Hegarty said the university has delayed plans to take down three more tress in the face of community concerns.
Talk of the acacia controversy rippled through Sunday’s celebration of the 1969 riot, but a festive mood dominated the event.
Children played basketball and skateboarded, vendors sold jewelry and glass art, and liberal icons like hippie performer Wavy Gravy and U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) made speeches. Country Joe McDonald and Will Scarlett performed music.
“This has been 34 years of keeping hope alive, of keeping democracy alive and of making sure the Constitution lives,” said Lee, as quoted by the Associated Press.
In an article on the Creative Re-Use workers’ union efforts in the April 25-27 issue, the Industrial Workers of the World were incorrectly identified.