By Doug Oakley
Supervising 3,000 high school kids at lunch has never been easy, but it's even harder now at Berkeley High School as a growing Occupy Wall Street camp across the street raises issues about crime and drug use, the principal and elected officials say.
While the park has always had its share of urban problems, an increase in crime there shows it's time for the movement to move beyond camping, according to city leaders. Since Oct. 23, Berkeley police have logged six cases of battery, one assault with a deadly weapon, one case of brandishing a firearm and one case of lewd conduct and false imprisonment.
|Civic Center Park in Berkeley has a large Occupy tent city going at a time when many Bay Area camps have been closed down. (Photo by Doug Oakley)|
|Guruprem Khalsa, right, and Jonathon Khaleel, left play a game of chess at the Occupy Berkeley camp in Civic Center Park. (Photo by Doug Oakley)|
While other Occupy Wall Street camps around the Bay Area have been dismantled, Berkeley's encampment at Civic Center Park has quietly grown in recent weeks and is nearing 100 tents.
Last week, Berkeley High Principal Pasquale Scuderi sent a letter to parents warning the camp "has complicated our supervision" of kids.
"We've seen clusters of kids in the park who, right or wrong, seem to think it's a rule-free zone and we're trying to tell our kids that is not the case," Scuderi said on Friday as he watched over students in the park at lunch. "I've also seen an increase in the number of pit bulls here. We can't say the park is now off-limits, but we do have a responsibility to let the parents know what's going on."
Assistant Berkeley City Manager Jim Hynes said there has been a "significant increase in crime and sexual assaults" in the park.
Yasmeen Mussard-Afcari, 15, who was eating lunch in the park away from the tents last week said she doesn't see the camp as a "big concern."
"Crazy people have always hung out in the park," she said. "Now there are protesters who may or may not be crazy."
But her friend Elsa de Becker said she doesn't feel safe.
"I think it definitely feels different when the tents are there," de Becker said. "I guess I feel a little less safe."
Berkeley City Councilman Jesse Arreguin, whose district includes the park, said he has given the issue much thought and concluded that while the park has always been a place where Berkeley High students go to smoke pot and cut class, he nevertheless feels people in the tent city have to start thinking about their next move.
"There have been issues in terms of safety where the tents are," Arreguin said. "This is an issue the Occupy people are going to have to think about. When is it going to end? When is the camping going to end and we move to direct action and advocacy? There have been issues about sanitation and crime and the larger it gets, the more issues we have."
Debi Mills, an Occupy camper at the park, said she was living in her van in Santa Barbara before she came to Berkeley. She said the campers want to work with the police, whose headquarters are across the street.
"There is a level of crime here, like attempted rape for example, and we want the police to come and pluck this person out of here," Mills said. "We're trying to work with the police. We just had a meeting with several officers this morning."
Berkeley police spokeswoman Sgt. Mary Kusmiss said the department has seen an increase in crime in the park.
"There has been a slight increase in the last two weeks in battery cases," Kusmiss said. "It's very likely things are happening, but there also are instances of calls for battery and crimes in which the victims and witnesses refused to cooperate."
When asked about the issue of Berkeley High students and campers, Guruprem Khalsa, a camper who also has a home in Berkeley, said the campers can't be responsible for them.
"This is a public park and if parents are concerned, they need to keep a better eye on their kids," Khalsa said. "This was never a safe park anyway."
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said city officials are watching the camp closely, but did not say the city is considering a raid.
"We think the letter the principal sent is appropriate and we're concerned about the growth of the camp and the health and safety issues," Bates said. "We're seeing a lot of people from other cities, particularly from Oakland. The character of the demonstration has somehow become something other than what it was originally intended."
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley