People’s Park, January 2024. Credit: Amir Aziz.
[T]wo things are absolutely necessary for the life of a State: arms and religion … force and consent; coercion and persuasion; State and Church; political society and civil society; politics and morality … law and freedom; order and self-discipline; or … violence and fraud.
- Antonio Gramsci (1971: 170n71)

eople’s Park is a contested space in Berkeley, California over which the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) and successive generations of residents and students have been struggling since the mid-1960s. After UCB acquired the site through eminent domain in 1967, it removed existing housing—deteriorating and radical (Allen, 2011) from the university’s perspective, affordable and symbolic (Van der Ryn and Silverstein, 1967) according to inhabitants—but did not develop the site. The neighborhood transformed the space into People’s Park in April 1969, but UCB and law enforcement violently reclaimed it on 15 May, during which the police fatally shot James Rector and after which the California National Guard occupied the city. Park supporters de-fenced the site three years later, and despite the university’s repeated attempts to control the park, they have held the space for over five decades. People’s Park is an example of how inhabitants can collectively transform their environment, as well as a testament to people’s creative power in resistance to development, authority, and capitalism.

Police officers raid People’s Park. Credit: Ximena Natera.

When police officers and construction crews returned to People’s Park just after midnight on 4 January 2024—seventeen months since they were prevented from starting construction on People’s Park Housing, a student and supportive housing development planned for the site—they arrived with unprecedented force. Park defenders had anticipated a raid since the park was surveyed and plans were leaked, but the 50 to 100 people occupying and living at the park were outnumbered; an estimated 800 to 1,400 officers from the UC and Berkeley Police Departments, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, California Highway Patrol, and Apex Security were prepared to secure the park. Posts on Instagram and X show officers in riot gear removing several people from the Free Kitchen and treehouse and leading others out of the park before construction crews demolished the community-built structures, cut down trees, and removed tents. Law enforcement closed nine blocks of the surrounding neighborhood with metal barricades, police vehicles, and lines of officers; identification with proof of address was required to access this perimeter. Most shocking, however, was the arrival of 160 shipping containers, which construction crews positioned into a wall around the park and increasingly fortified over the next week. For many, including writers in the San Francisco Chronicle and Berkeleyside, it resembled the makeshift wall constructed along the border between Arizona and Mexico.

People’s Park is now secured by double-stacked shipping containers, large gates, razor wire, and barricades, as well as private security and surveillance cameras. While UCB was permitted to fence the site, it cannot begin construction until the state Supreme Court decides on its appeal of a lower court’s decision that the university did not consider alternative sites for, nor the noise impacts of, the redevelopment project. That case will begin in early April, but the university is confident it will win after the state passed legislation specifically stating that occupant noise is “not a significant effect on the environment” and public universities are “not required to consider alternatives to the location of the proposed project”. Despite rallies on Telegraph Avenue and along the park’s perimeter in the two months since its closure, UCB continues to control the site, and it plans to keep the shipping containers in place until redevelopment is complete. Nevertheless, protestors very presence—in the Dwight Triangle where they maintained the People’s Free Store and a memorial for those who died since the park’s closure, or on Bowditch Street where they painted a street mural, as well as at teach-ins and even online—is a reminder that People’s Park is not necessarily fixed spatially and temporally, but rather, exists where the people are.

Shipping containers surround People’s Park. Credit: Ximena Natera.

What Happened?

In a recent article (Woolston and Mitchell, 2024) on People’s Park, we examined the cultural, economic, political, and social pressures and opportunities that are employed and deployed by different groups at different scales—a method we call conjunctural mapping, based on the writings of Antonio Gramsci (1971) and Stuart Hall (1988) as well as recent work by geographers (e.g., Camp, 2016; Leitner and Sheppard, 2020; Hart, 2024). This method enabled us to answer the questions of context and consent underlying this spatial struggle: How was the university attempting to win consent for its project and how were park defenders countering these hegemonic efforts based on different forces intersecting on the site at the levels of the subject, city, and state? We researched and recorded the strategies of the university and the tactics of park defenders, careful to note the site’s two-dimensional context (horizontal forces and vertical scale). We found that both diverse constituencies were effective at deploying their arguments and actions, and that while it initially appeared that the university was winning over critical allies, events since mid-2022 made us reconsider whether, in fact, the two sides were at a stalemate.

A conjunctural map of People’s Park. Credit: Authors.

Recent media supplement our findings of ongoing hegemonic struggle, even amid the actions of 4 January. For example, a Berkeley News article, published as the university began to forcefully contain the park, reveals the ideological efforts to bring stakeholders and onlookers onto its side. In the article, UCB presented anodyne descriptions and renderings of the redeveloped site, selling the new design to those who might be potential consumers of the space. In contrast, it again emphasized the existing park as unsafe—“crime there has escalated alarmingly.” The university continued to tout its partnership with the city of Berkeley and its support for the unhoused people living at the park, as well as emphasized the contribution the project would make to the region’s housing crisis. Finally, it implied how UCB was standing up to CEQA lawsuits for colleges and universities throughout the state, paradoxically describing its opponents as both “violent, unlawful, and destructive” and “a few wealthy Berkeley homeowners.”

On the other side, as revealed in @peoplesparkberkeley’s Instagram feed, park defenders continued to appeal to the importance of creative politics and political subjects, calling on people to “Bring People’s Park to the Streets” through rallies and mutual aid. They portrayed the university’s housing efforts as actually contributing to urban and regional gentrification; they also connected the sanitized ‘greenery’ of the UC’s vision for the park with the high cost of coercion, alleging that the university spent $53 million on “riot police, fences, and lawyers” and arguing the redeveloped park would be “a glorified, policed dorm lawn.” A collage, showing police leading protestors through an open space designed to commemorate the park while the park itself is destroyed in the background, illustrates this argument. Park defenders also emphasized the ecological damage caused by the university’s actions, most recently by hydroseeding over the native plants that they had introduced to the park and causing rainwater runoff during winter storms. Finally, they linked the struggle over People’s Park to struggles elsewhere, expressing solidarity with “Stop Cop City” in Atlanta and declaring “Free People’s Park and Free Palestine”.

These competing narratives of the park and what it means to develop or preserve it continue to produce contradictory common sense feelings about People’s Park. In an op-ed in the Chronicle, Joe Garofoli writes, “the dwindling number of park preservationists has lost the plot … even ‘the man’ in the last half-century of this saga—aka UC Berkeley—is on the side of the people” because the university will build student and supportive housing. A letter to the editor similarly argues, “The proposed project will include housing for the displaced homeless population now removed from the park and will also include public access park areas that will be attractive and respectful of the property’s history.” Online commenters are even more direct: in the New York Times: “People’s Park is no longer for the people; it has become an unfortunate wasteland,” and “[i]t is a homeless encampment”; and on Reddit: “Any other Berkeley students GLAD that this is finally happening???” and “Pave People’s Park”.

However, others echo the narrative presented by park defenders. More letters in the Chronicle actually denounce UCB’s action; for example:

Knowing the university has multiple site options to construct on more quickly and with less pushback, it becomes clear that People’s Park is not a housing issue at its core. The park is a symbol of radical resistance and community care, but for the university, it’s about control.

An editorial in The Daily Californian also criticized the university’s actions—“the dystopian state of surveillance that now shrouds the park contradicts the values Berkeley students have long championed, especially those that the park itself was founded upon.” Finally, on Instagram, there are many posts and comments against the redevelopment of the park. For instance, in comments on @ucberkeleyofficial’s post in the early morning on 4 January, critics write: “Are ANY of the housing options provided by the university actually affordable?” and “yall love to co-opt and sanitize the radical legacy of the park with your murals”.

All these findings, published or posted since 4 January, evince a continued stalemate in terms of consent and persuasion, encompassing multiple different participants and onlookers. Indeed, from the vantage point of our writing between August 2022 and August 2023, this was the type of back and forth that we observed: how park defenders blocked university attempts to retake the park and celebrated a number of provisional victories, while at the same time, the university, along with city and state politicians, consistently claimed the struggle was far from over. While we were deeply aware of the power imbalance and the potential for more coercive measures by the university, as were used in August 2022 and years prior, we were nevertheless surprised by the rapidity of the shift from multiple, interscalar efforts to win over popular consent to the strong-arm strategies employed by the university in January 2024.

Was the ongoing discursive stalemate over the future of the park a factor in the university’s shift to more coercive actions, and will UCB’s latest attempt at control be more enduring? Moreover, what is it about this moment that makes the unprecedented use of force not only acceptable but also seemingly desirable for so many? Organizers and scholars have noted the way UCB frequently takes advantage of setting and timing (i.e., by making forceful moves like this during a school break or in the middle of the night). While this helps to answer the question of the immediate success in reclaiming the site, long-term answers require attention to the site’s broader historical and geographical context.

Why and What’s Next?

The following thoughts are our initial efforts to make sense of what is happening as we write. In terms of the positive responses to the actions of 4 January, it appears that the university’s strategies that we documented in our article and above were ultimately more effective in shaping common sense about the park than we at first realized. Some of the more successful strategies of winning over local and national opinion clearly involved the representation of the park as unsanitary and unsafe. Much of the university’s rhetoric about the park implied that the lack of security related to the park was affecting proximate neighborhoods, including students who lived or traveled through these areas. In this, the university clearly had time on its side. Through their actions and non-actions, the university created the conditions in which the park did indeed become physically less and less appealing. While clearing the park in 2018 and 2022, trees were removed, gardens taken out, and social spaces destroyed. By the time of our writing, the actual infrastructure and greenery of People’s Park was indeed degraded substantially from the times when it flourished; the following photos show some of the deteriorated conditions of the park in October 2022.

People’s Park, October 2022. Credit: Katharyne Mitchell.
People’s Park, October 2022. Credit: Katharyne Mitchell.

As the physical infrastructure and beauty of the park deteriorated, it was made less attractive as a place for people to connect or recreate, leading to a decline in use and the greater potential occurrence of more and more negative social encounters for those residing in or walking through the park. Negative encounters or criminal activity that did occur were transmitted by the university to the public, buttressing its claims that the best use for the park was its redevelopment as both a safer park as well as much needed housing for students. As we discussed in our article, this was a discursive strategy aimed to bring people on board with the university’s redevelopment plans, but what we perhaps did not comprehend well enough was the effectiveness of these claims given both the material reality of a degenerating physical space and a growing chorus in and about the Bay Area regarding homelessness, drug use, and crime.

But how did the university’s brute force, using police, equipment, and fortifications redolent of war and despised forms of border control, roll through a city and over a park sacred to many as the heart of successful resistance to authority by and for the people? We wonder if it is too much of a stretch to link what is happening at People’s Park today with the more general acceptance of authoritarian actions and the use or threat of violence in the United States and worldwide. Certainly, both coercion and persuasion, or “the violence of hegemony” (Morton, 2017) have always gone hand in hand, the ‘dual perspective’ that Gramsci (1971: 170n71) identified as “absolutely necessary for the life of a State”. As Hall also noted about the crisis of the welfare state and rise of Thatcherism and neoliberalism in Britain, moments of crisis are often resolved through the lure of authoritarian populism—the velvet fist that pairs consent and force, making the latter palatable for many through the deployment of various hegemonic strategies over time (see also Hall et al., 1978). The question for us now is: are we at a similar moment of crisis and stalemate paired by brute force, a kind of force to which people have become desensitized, acquiescing to that which would have been unthinkable even a short while ago?

In privileged domains, such as Berkeley, where individual rights and free speech have been hallowed and staunchly defended for decades, persuasion has seemed, through time, to nudge ahead by a hair. Undoubtedly, state institutions, such as public universities, have been quick to employ the policing arm of the state in moments of intense social conflict; yet they have equally often backed down in the face of ongoing resistance, public scrutiny, and student and faculty pressure. UCB has started and stopped with more coercive measures multiple times in the history of People’s Park (Cash, 2010). But somehow this time feels different.

Mutual aid at the Dwight Triangle. Credit: Ximena Natera.

Nevertheless, this does not mean the end of People’s Park. Park defenders are a diverse coalition with varied tactics, and they are likely to surprise us again. Moreover, their critical counter-narratives (e.g., connecting UCB to gentrification, exposing how much money the university spends on policing, and problematizing the ways it criminalizes spaces) continue to affect common sense about the university as well as its allies and strategies. Finally, while they may not be able to prevent the redevelopment of People’s Park, that does not necessarily translate to the end of the park as a political space of action and justice. At different times, organizers have transformed Telegraph Avenue, the Dwight Triangle, and the park’s perimeter through mutual aid, memorials, speak outs, art, and rallies, including under the watch of police and threat of arrest. In this sense, People’s Park will continue to exist anywhere and everywhere there are people collectively taking and making space for themselves.


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Katharyne Mitchell is Dean of the Social Sciences and Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Recent books and edited volumes include Making Workers: Radical Geographies of Education (2018), the Handbook on Critical Geographies of Migration (2019), and the Routledge International Handbook of Critical Philanthropy and Humanitarianism (2023).

Gregory Woolston is a PhD Student in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is currently writing a social history of motels down the Jersey Shore.