People's Park project on hold; debate over tear gas in Berkeley

At People's Park in Berkeley, dozens of protestors are making a last stand.

Some are camping out in tents, hoping to stop construction crews who began clearing trees for the University of California's plans to build 1,100 below-market student housing units and 125 units for unhoused people.

Many of the protestors, though, say they have a personal link to the land and don't want to see the historic park changed.

Nicholas Alexander has built a community kitchen there.

He says he was a foster child who became homeless and lived in People's Park before he became an English major at UC Berkeley.

"I graduated in 2018," said Alexander, "We're not here to get people hurt. We're here to save the park."

The land is owned by the University of California.

On Thursday, construction equipment at the park had been taken apart, tagged with painted and smashed.

That caused Cal to stop work on the project temporarily. 

"We have no choice but to pause and assess the best way of moving forward, with two challenges: the challenge of needing to get this going as soon as possible because our students need housing, but also prioritizing safety along the way," said Dan Mogulof, a UC spokesman.

A UC statement says the clash between protestors and police Wednesday led to two officers being injured. Seven protestors were arrested for charges including battery on a peace officer, trespassing, and resisting an officer.

UC says the delay is jeopardizing the plan to create affordable housing.

"We have to add 8,000 beds if we want to guarantee all freshman and sophomores a spot on in a university dorm," said Mogulof, who added that there are other sites in the city that are being prepared for development.

UC police are responsible for Peoples Park, but the city of Berkeley is also concerned about safety on the surrounding streets.

On Thursday, Mayor Jesse Arreguin called Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern about mutual aid, raising the question of whether deputies would respond to an emergency request while also respecting the city's ban on tear gas.

"We were told the past couple years that the Alameda County Sheriff would not send mutual aid to Berkeley because of the ban on the use of tear gas," said Arreguin.

Ahern said deputies and would be available to help in the future, but not with crowd control if the ban remains in place.

"Our units are trained with tear gas and that's how we disperse violent crowds that are damaging property or harming individuals, so we will respond, we just won't be responding to assist with movement of the crowd," Ahern said. 

Berkeley's mayor says another concern for Berkeley Fire Department is fire danger, as the abandoned trees left by construction crews dry out.

"They're very concerned about the fire risk there and so one of the things I've talked with the University about is we need to work to clear the debris," said Arreguin.

There is no word on when construction might continue.