BERKELEY -- It was 7 a.m. July 30 at the downtown post office. A half-dozen tents were lined up on the steps, as they had been since the evening of July 27. Among the banners strung between the pillars was "Welcome, the post office is open, let's keep it that way."
Mike Wilson, an organizer of the protest against the United States Postal Service decision to sell the historic building, was scrubbing the steps.
Kai Freshman, who said his grandfather had delivered mail in 6-foot snow in Kansas, was pouring coffee for protesters and passers-by. A few campers, whose signs identified them with Occupy San Francisco, were asleep in tents on the side of the building.
"Thank you for your service -- save the post office," a passer-by called out.
Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office and Strike Debt Bay Area organized the campout.
The U.S. Postal Service is losing millions of dollars every year and says it must sell buildings, consolidate facilities and outsource some services to address the red ink. But activists argue the deficit is due to a 2006 law requiring USPS to pay retirement benefits 75 years in advance, and regulations restricting the agency from profitable endeavors such as shipping beer and wine.
One of the campers, retired postal worker Dave Welsh, said activists didn't jump headlong into civil disobedience. He said they've been working for months on multiple fronts to save the building, its New Deal-era art and the country's unionized postal jobs.
They've garnered powerful support that includes a unanimous Berkeley City Council, both houses of the state Legislature and U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee. Attorneys, activists and officials formally appealed the USPS decision to sell the building; nonetheless, July 18 the postal service denied the appeals.
On the legal front, post office activists are preparing to sue USPS and will be joined by advocates of saving the historic Bronx and La Jolla post offices, also up for sale.
"Now we're trying putting up tents, as a kind of direct defense of the post office to express our determination to hold on to this as public space and public commons," Welsh said.
Berkeley police have apparently taken a hands-off approach, driving by the protest without intervening. Two federal police officers observed a Saturday rally, but protesters said they haven't seen them since.
On Tuesday morning, a postal official took pictures of a large tent erected in the parking lot; he declined to comment.
"We police ourselves and have pledged nonviolence," Freshman said.
In a July 29 phone interview, USPS spokesman Augustine Ruiz said the postal service hasn't taken a position on the campout. "This is America," he said, "and people have the freedom to express themselves and to assemble."
He said what USPS cares about is that the protesters are peaceful, do not impede customer traffic and do not block the sidewalk.
Before popping up their tents on July 27, activists held a rally that attracted some 200 people.
Councilman Jesse Arreguin argued that selling the USPS-owned building and paying high downtown rent doesn't make economic sense. "It's like selling a car to pay for gas," he said.
Postal officials say leasing space nearby -- or from the eventual owner of the post office -- makes sense because they need only a fraction of the 57,000-square-foot building for customer service.
Norman Solomon, author and founder of the Institute for Public Accuracy, also addressed the rally. "The idea that the legacy of the New Deal should be destroyed is unacceptable," he said. "The idea that it's acceptable to plunder the public space for private space is unacceptable."
USPS spokesman Ruiz told this newspaper he's not privy to specific information about potential buyers. He added, however, that he works with postal service officials who liaison with CBRE, the real estate firm charged with selling the property -- CBRE is chaired by Richard Blum, who is married to Sen. Dianne Feinstein -- and that "there probably are people interested in the building, but I don't know who they are."
Activist Kai Freshman cautioned that a sale won't stop the activists. "If they sell the building, whoever bought it -- they bought all of us, too," he said.