Claiming Space: People’s Park and Occupy Wall Street

Now that I’ve been provoked to think about it, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement has had a lot in common with one of our struggles of the 1960s in Berkeley, the fight for “Peoples’ Park.”

This had its origin when the University of California decided to claim its “ownership rights” over a small plot of unused land in the city of Berkeley.  It put up signs and a fence.   But people reacted almost immediately.   They tore down the fence and the signs, and moved into the land, putting up tents, campaign grounds, taking it over and claiming it for the people.

More than that, we went into history.  After all, what was the history of the land in the whole area?  The land on which the University and the great city of Berkeley now stood?  Originally it had belonged  to the Indians who had been its caretakers.  Indians didn’t care for property rights, but they oversaw the management of the land and forests.  Then came the Spanish conquerors, the first landgrabbers.  After then came the British, then “Americans” – the gold rush, the drive for land and property.  Finally, out of this somehow with its great funding the University emerged.  Where after all was their right?   This was the historical and moral challenge presented.

So  people claimed the Park.  It was less than the size of a city block, really a very small area.  But a scene of confrontation over some very large issues….

Well, we woke up one day to find out that the National Guard had been called out.  No only the police, but there were “soldiers,” well soldier recruits, guarding the park.  People came out with roses to stick in their bayonets.  But there was some confrontation, some tear gas.  In the end, while the moral victory may have been ours, the park area got taken back by the University.  But the issue was not forgotten.

Did the Wall Street Occupiers have the same vision?   Were they thinking of the land that had been there before the financiers and banks came, the history of that land, the Indians who had once been the caretakers of the entire Manhattan Island area, of the later Dutch, English, and all the other looters and conquerors?   Little of this has come out in the publicity of the movement, but it seems that some of this vision was also there.

Across the decades, then, from the 1960s to the twenty-first century, the claim or people to occupy and use, care for, space and land remains strong.