BERKELEY -- More than a dozen uniformed postal police and nonuniformed postal inspectors turned up the heat on protesters at the downtown post office late in the afternoon on Aug. 5, warning those occupying tents on the post office steps that they were violating federal law.
"All U.S. Postal Service property is closed to the public after normal business hours," a notice stated. "Violators are subject to arrest and prosecution."
Activists have been camping and demonstrating at the post office since July 24, protesting the postal service decision to put the historic 57,000-square-foot building up for sale.
"They're more than welcome to protest," postal inspector Jeff Fitch said earlier in the day. "We appreciate their enthusiasm. We support free speech."
But, he said, they won't be permitted to ignore the law. "We're asking people, on their own, to pack up their tents, take their possessions with them off the property. Anyone who wants to protest, they're welcome, if they're out there on the sidewalk, out in the front where they're not blocking the stairs."
But he said they cannot affix protest signs to the building. Protesters had strung a half-dozen banners between the building's distinctive pillars, including as one stating "Our post office not for sale."
"And they can't sleep at the facility," Fitch added.
The written notice given to protesters, headlined "Notice of Prohibited Conduct," included prohibitions against "The possession, sale or use of any controlled substance or alcoholic beverage," noting specifically that "Medicinal marijuana is not recognized under (federal law)." It also named prohibition against dogs, disorderly conduct and weapons.
It's likely that the Berkeley Police Department will not participate in eventual arrests. "BPD does not plan to be involved in an enforcement action by (United States Postal Service) police," Deputy City Manager William Rogers wrote in a memo to the City Council. "However, if a threat to public safety arises during an enforcement action by USPS police, BPD will respond to help maintain public safety."
Some 40 activists met at the post office in the evening on Aug. 5 to plan for eventual arrests. Some said they would risk arrest; others said they would move their tents off federal property when asked. All said they intended to continue the protests.
"Our plan is to stay here in direct defense of the post office," said retired postal worker David Welsh, who has camped on the steps since July 24. "We're saying this is our public commons. It belongs to the people and should not be sold off to private interests."
Welsh said sale opponents only occupied the post office steps after exhausting more traditional means of lobbying local, state and congressional representatives. Those efforts bore fruit, gaining the support of a unanimous City Council, both houses of the state Legislature and U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland.
Despite that official support, the postal service refused to listen to the advocates. As a result, the groups Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office and Strike Debt Bay Area -- despite the misgivings of some activists who said they feared the public might not support acts of civil disobedience -- decided to raise their profile by occupying the post office steps, Welsh said.
Some activists voiced concern at the Monday evening meeting about the growing camp of transients setting up tents on the west side of the building. A number of these campers actively participate in meetings and have joined the defense of the post office, while others know little about the issue, they said, further noting that some campers on the west side are providing security for the area.
"This post office belongs to everybody -- not just to a certain group of people -- everybody should participate in defending it," Welsh said.
Despite regular patrols by postal police, people streamed by the information table to find out what the protest was about and to sign petitions to save the post office.
Sarah McCarty came with her son to mail a letter, and stopped at one of the tables.
"I love seeing stuff like this," she said. "I think it's great when people take an interest in something like saving the post office, especially when they are out here sleeping for it."
Editor's note: Protesters remained at the post office as the Berkeley Voice went to press Wednesday afternoon. For the latest updates visit insidebayarea.com