The camp-out at the Berkeley Post Office is in its fourth week. The action is a protest against the plan of the Postal Service to sell the building and relocate the postal services to a smaller facility. This is clearly unacceptable to the Berkeley community for a number of reasons. Mayor Bates has sent an appeal to the Postal Regulatory Commission which has oversight over the Postal Service to prevent them from carrying out the plan. Congresswoman Barbara Lee has sent a strong letter supporting the appeal to the Commission. (Their letters can be seen on line on the regulatory commission's website.) They are stressing the negative financial implications of the plan, pointing out that a convenient downtown location would be difficult to find and undoubtedly very expensive. There is no way of knowing at this point how long it will take the Commission to act.
The campers, of course are concerned with the far deeper and more ominous implications of the Postal Service plan and are intent on keeping them before the public. They acted on this with a march on July 29 with demonstrations at the FedEx and UPS office warning of the government's move toward privatizing mail service, and at the Blum Center on the U.C. campus protesting Richard Blum's profiting from the sale of the post office building.
There are now a number of tents in the front and along the west side of the post office building and quite a diverse group of people involved in one way or another. When the call for the camp-out came from Save the Berkeley Post Office and Strike-Debt Bay Area people responded. They put up their tents and hung their signs. They set up a literature table staffed by some of the organizers prepared to answer questions, another table was supplied with paper, pens, stamps and envelopes inviting people to send letters. With all this they have been very successful in reaching out to the public. Off to the side they put tables for food and drink with a plea to the public to donate - and the public donated The campers were people who don't mind saying they love the post office, they love its art and its history and they are determined to keep it as it is. Their action is meant to make sure it is not taken away from the people of Berkeley.
I have been stopping by and talking with the campers since my first story in the Planet on August 8. I have seen the population of campers become more diverse. It has been generally peaceful and continues to be committed to the cause of saving the post office. One camper said to me early on “This is not an Occupy.” Occupy has a more confrontational approach but over time people from Bay Area Occupy groups as well as other activists have joined the camp. Pirate, the name he goes by in the Occupy movement, said “We've seen a pretty successful coalition effort here between the various Bay Area Occupies, Strike Debt and Save the Berkeley Post Office. I think that the main alliance had probably come to the conclusion that occupation would be a decent tactic here so they asked for Occupy support.”
Some homeless people have also become part of the camp. Jonathan Dignes has been there since the beginning. He describes himself as an “urban camper”. He talked about seeing “changes in the culture … to a democratic process”, referring to the daily general assembly (GA) like those of the Occupy movement. He is enthusiastic about the camp. “A lot of Berkeley comes here. Berkeley is very diverse and very exciting and some of that excitement comes here” He admits that “sometimes there's little clashes”.
Younger people, some of them homeless, have settled along the western side of the post office building. The number of people and the number of tents vary from time to time. They usually have a table set up for playing chess or other board games. (It was the first time in many years I've seen a Monopoly game going on.)
David Welsh is one of the organizers. He is a retired postal worker and a musician. “The encampment has made a big impact,” he said. “I was talking with a postal worker in southern California this morning and he said that everybody in the workroom floor in the Anaheim Post Office know about this. We have great media here. That reflects the tremendous support we've been hearing from people who come by.” I asked him what he thinks about the association with Occupy. “People can call it what they want ,” he said. “We're not calling it Occupy. … We're calling this an encampment. … We feel that this is an expression of the desire of people in Berkeley to keep their post office and also just to keep the post office as a public institution, providing a public service and not seeing it privatized.”
We talked about the young people and homeless people who are joining the camp. “... we're very happy to have them because it's made us stronger and they are taking up the cause of saving the postal service. They're distributing fliers for our concert tomorrow, they participated in the march last week when we went to the campus so its becoming one movement, we just have new adherents coming in.”
On Saturday August 17 the camp sponsored a lively concert in front of the post office. Berkeley progressives from the sixties handed out song sheets with new words for the old songs and led the crowd in some lusty singing. Then some talented musicians played somewhat more up-to-date songs and the people danced.
Now Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office has looked at what they have accomplished and how best to use their resources moving on. There is much work for them; legal action, political action, education, outreach, fund-raising to focus on. They decided to withdraw from the camp as of noon on Sunday the 18th. After discussion at the General Assembly (GA) it was decided that though this group is pulling out, the encampment would continue.
I was talking with Alyssa when I stopped by the camp on Monday. She was at the meeting, she told me, when it was decided not to close down the camp. “People that were here wanted to stay so we voted to stay. It's different tactics, I guess. We're still together but we're just doing different things.” She noted that more people who had not necessarily been activist or in any organizations are becoming involved. “People who were staying on the corner before are joining in with the GA's and feeling part of things, that's what compelled me to stay. … It's really grass roots.” She went on to tell me “The other night I stayed till four in the morning. I feel good here. There's a lot of hope here.”
Kai's comments were on a similar theme. He talked about the importance of building solidarity. “It's difficult to ask homeless people to be protesters when they have to struggle most of the time just to survive to keep food in their stomach and avoid harassment from the police. It's difficult but I have seen it happen here, it is happening here.” And, he says he has seen “unity between those that have and the have nots – and we need to keep it going”
There has been some harassment by the Berkeley police, for the first time threatening campers with arrest for trespassing. But the camp-out continues. The tents in front and on the west side of the building are still there. Brian is still getting people writing and mailing letters , the literature table is well supplied and there are always people to answer questions and reach out to the public. Supporters are bringing food (though more of that would be welcome). This looks like a battle we can win.