The Arrogance of the Powerful, From Palestine to People’s Park

Image by Rami Gzon.

I lived in Berkeley in 1981. In fact, I’d been there for a few years except for a summer in Santa Cruz and a winter in San Diego. I spent a lot of the time I wasn’t working some day job hanging out in People’s Park and on Telegraph Avenue. I wasn’t alone. In fact, there was still a fairly vibrant counterculture community of folks who did the same. Some were students, some were street people, some were street vendors and some were musicians and workers at the restaurants and shops lining the avenue. After an uptick in police harassment of all of these groups, and an attempt by the University of California to take back part of the park and turn it into a parking lot, a group of US got together and organized. Calling ourselves the People’s Park committee, we created a garden in the park’s west end, built a stage, put on concerts and published a newspaper. Our efforts were welcomed and even encouraged by Berkeley residents, students and politicians.

The University of California (UC) did not like what we were doing, primarily because it made the park an even greater part of the community. The university’s trustees were determined to take back the land it arrogantly claimed was its own. It was the university’s strategy to allow the park to become a haven for crime and despair, ultimately alienating it from the surrounding neighborhoods. In addition, they attempted to shut down events we had set up; one such attempt turned into a riot when police tried to arrest a speaker calling for the legalization of marijuana. In between events, teams of UC Berkeley police conducted daily sweeps of the park, intimidating and harassing those trying to enjoy it. The reason for this was simple. UC wanted its property back. Fortunately, the Berkeley city government at the time disagreed, as did many if not most Berkeley residents.

Alas, this no longer seems to be the case. Currently, the park is enclosed by double-stacked shipping containers that illegally block the sidewalk around the park along with parts of the street. In fact, the container perimeter is itself illegal. Of course, the university and current Berkeley city government don’t acknowledge or care much about the legality of its destruction and occupation of the parkland. The law, after all, is for those the powerful need to control not for the powerful. As further proof of the authority’s disregard for the law, it should be noted that the eviction of people from the park and the subsequent barricading of it was in violation of an existing injunction that forbade such actions. I cannot help but compare these actions with the actions of the US and Israeli governments in Palestine, where people are being violently forced from their residences and forced into an existence marked by fear and violence. The prelude to both evictions share numerous similarities; most markedly is the rejection of sincere negotiations and ignoring those agreements that were negotiated. Another is the portrayal of those on both lands as being somehow less than human.

Back to that newspaper we published in 1981. An article written by a friend and I was titled “People’s Park and the World”. The quote below distills the essence of the piece.

“The Park is a symbol to those who support it of freedom and the struggle for freedom. … The struggle in People’s Park is a part of the struggle of people everywhere to be free. To some, the Park is an eyesore to the community. To others, it is an oasis where one can freely express themselves.”

As the reader can see, the essence of our argument was that the struggle for the park was both a metaphor for the endless struggle against those who see land and people in terms of profit and an actual part of that struggle. Similarly, it is not the intention of this piece to trivialize the specific circumstances of the Palestinian people with the specifics of those of the park. However, both narratives indicate an attitude of the powerful that intentionally denies certain humans what we consider basic human rights. The fact that the powerful get away with this is even more concerning, as is the apparent indifference of those of us who allow it.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com