The May 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Oakland Tenants Face Eviction

UC Attacks the Berkeley Freebox

Berkeley Freebox Poetry Contest

Reform Profit-Making Nursing Homes

A Berkeley Fair for Street Youth

Ultimate Gift of a Homeless Veteran

Tax Cuts for Rich Harm U.S.

Many Children Left Behind

S.F. Bayview: History Lesson in Urban Removal

Let Their Chains Fall Off

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Poets and Poetry

May Poetry of the Streets


April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005




Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

University of California's Disgraceful Attacks on the Berkeley Free Box

by Terry Messman

In Berkeley, activists have worked tirelessly to rebuild the Free Box in People's Park, replacing it as often as UC officials destroy it. Lydia Gans photo

Imagine if the powers that be marched into every church, confiscated all the poor boxes, outlawed all the free clothing programs, and banned charitable meals. For many Berkeley residents, that is precisely what is at stake when University of California officials order UC police officers to swoop down on People's Park and demolish its free clothing program -- the free box.

The destruction of the free box in People's Park is an unconscionable act of vandalism by UC officials, who have destroyed it five times in the last four months. To add insult to injury, police seized and hauled away a newly built mobile free box on Monday, April 24, the morning after the People's Park's Anniversary was celebrated this year.

The University of California's immoral and disgraceful war on the free box is considered to be an act of desecration by many People's Park supporters, on a par with police marauding through a church to destroy the poor boxes that collect charitable contributions for the poor.

Why do Berkeley activists react so strongly when the free box is attacked? After all, it is merely a box built of wood, set up so people can donate surplus clothing to the poor. And, there are admitted problems with the operation of the free box. Sometimes the "wrong elements" take the clothes to sell at used clothing stores, or leave clothes scattered about.

Yet, instead of trying to solve these problems in a constructive way, and thus preserve the public's ability to donate used clothing to poor people who badly need it, UC officials have repeatedly used the most crude and violent methods to destroy and outlaw the free box.

Acts of desecration

These repeated acts of destruction by UC officials should indeed be considered acts of desecration, on two levels. First, UC officials and police have attempted to demolish the act of giving itself, a sacred calling and moral obligation for many. Second, activists consider the assault on the free box to be an attack on the spirit of People's Park itself, an assault on the very values that gave birth to the Park in 1969.

In recent years, many free-clothing programs have been shut down in Berkeley; most notably, the free clothing store operated by the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy to the Homeless was closed due to lack of funding. As a result, homeless and poor people truly have a critical need for the free clothing they find at the free box.

When the powers that be destroy the free box, they are simultaneously destroying the public's ability to give help in the form of warm, dry clothing to the poor. Since clothing is a life-sustaining necessity -- especially for homeless people constantly exposed to the elements -- it is almost impossible to overstate how cruelly inhumane the University of California's acts of destruction really are.

Banning the Works of Mercy

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, the founders of the Catholic Worker, reminded us that feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and clothing the naked make up the "works of mercy" and are a sacred obligation. No official should ever attempt to ban the works of mercy.

The constant attacks on the free box by UC officials and police are inhumane in any civilized society; and for people of faith who practice the works of mercy, the destruction of the free box is nothing less than sacrilege. One wonders how a UC official, or a cop carrying out orders, could ever sleep at night after attacking and outlawing the practice of compassion itself.

Food Not Bombs members are concerned that UC officials may crack down on their meal programs in People's Park. In an open letter to UC Regent Richard Blum, activist Dan McMullan wrote: "UC police officers are stationed in People's Park to cite those that would have the audacity to donate clothes or food to Berkeley's homeless and working poor."

The Spirit of People's Park

The ceaseless attacks of UC officials also amount to a desecration of the values of peace, love and justice that brought People's Park to birth. In an era when the average UC official or student may see People's Park as an unwanted anachronism, perhaps it is time to recall our history.

Berkeley activists fought for decades to establish People's Park and then preserve it as a haven for ALL the people. Every step of the way, they had to battle the malign forces of the University of California and its heavily armed police.

This was a political fight for the soul of Berkeley from the beginning. Far from being some innocuous bureaucracy merely trying to protect its real estate, the UC administration began carrying out reactionary political maneuvers back in 1967, when it used the power of eminent domain to take over land in the South Campus area zoned for residences.

UC officials pretended they needed to demolish homes located there to create a soccer field. Instead, UC administrators left the land vacant for months, letting it become a parking lot and a dumping ground for trash, litter and junked cars.

Since they left it vacant, why did they take over the land in the first place? Fred Dutton, a UC Regent who opposed the decision, said UC's land grab was a deliberate "act against hippie culture." Robert Scheer wrote that UC officials were carrying out "a strategy of eliminating the culture of protest by denying it its turf."

UC officials refused the requests of area residents to build a park on the vacant lot, and left it as a junked-out parking lot and eyesore. So it is the height of hypocrisy for UC officials to now pretend they have to tear down the free box because a few clothes are occasionally scattered about. The whole park was a dumping ground when UC officials controlled it.

Finally, in April and May of 1969, activists mobilized and resisted the Berkeley police and then-Governor Ronald Reagan's National Guard in order to liberate People's Park. Tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Berkeley to protest the University of California's attempt to take back the Park. More than 100 people were injured by police firing shotguns into the protesters and James Rector was killed by police during the struggle for People's Park.

Countless people gathered with shovels, hoes and rakes to transform the empty parking lot into a park for the people. People's Park thus became one of the only spaces of land in the entire United States to be liberated from corporate control by the power of the people.

It is of crucial importance today to understand the dedication of activists who fought for People's Park against that overwhelming police presence. For that same level of commitment to the Park is the reason people were so outraged when UC police hauled away the free box once again.

For many of its supporters, the free box is emblematic of a time when people gave a damn about social injustice and the ideals of brotherhood and sisterhood. People's Park lives as a concrete expression of the values of sharing, community and freedom.

A park liberated for use by the people is an alternative to a society dedicated to massive greed and the selfish pursuit of power. It keeps alive the rebellious spirit of the counterculture, when peace and love and justice were higher values than money and possessions and real estate.

God Save the Village Green

The works of mercy are feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked. That is what at stake here: UC officials are trying to abolish the works of mercy. They must be resisted.

The Kinks, one of the finest musical groups of all, once recreated themselves as the "Village Green Preservation Society," and dedicated themselves to saving the beautiful emblems of a passing era from destruction. The most important thing to be saved was, of course, the village green itself, the commons belonging to all people.

What is at stake in the struggle over the free box is the very soul of People's Park and the very concept of the village green. The Kinks released the "Village Green Preservation Society" just as the struggle for People's Park was heating up. Their anthem concludes with a passionate prayer that is just as meaningful today: "God Save the Village Green!"

Preserve the free box, if only as a way to declare that the money economy won't have the last word in our society. Preserve People's Park, if only to tell the soulless bureaucrats that they can't remake us all in the image of selfish corporate greed. God Save the Village Green!

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