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UC Stadium Oak Grove Fence Prompts Violent Clash

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday August 31, 2007

It began with a flimsy yellow ribbon and ended with a riot, two arrests and a courtroom hearing. 

At about 6 a.m. Wednesday, the UC Berkeley Police Department started taping off the oak grove adjacent to the UC Berkeley Memorial Stadium to construct an eight-foot chain-link fence around the grove.  

Protesters have been camped in the trees since December in an effort to stop the university’s plan to remove the trees. 

A scuffle between the UC police and protesters during a Wednesday evening rally held by Save the Oaks turned into a riot when the police confiscated food and water that was being sent up to the tree sitters. 

UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof told the Planet that the temporary fence would create a “safety zone around trees adjacent to Memorial Stadium” to protect both the tree-sitters and the 73,000 fans who are expected at the stadium for Saturday’s football game against University of Tennessee. 

The tree sitters are protesting the university’s plan to raze the grove to make way for a $125 million student-athlete high performance center in its place, a move that led the City of Berkeley to sue the university over safety concerns. 

“Emotions and passions are running high on both ends,” Mogulof told the Planet. “A temporary barrier is needed because protesters continue to illegally occupy some trees at the site and investigations by the UC police have suggested that it would be a good idea to put a fence up before fans come to the game. We are going to analyze this on a week-to-week basis.” 

Assistant UC Police Chief Mitch Celaya told the Planet Wednesday afternoon that the tree sitters had been asked to come down before university-hired contractors had started constructing the fence. 

“They made a choice,” Celaya said. “We are not trying to start a riot. We are just trying to prevent potential problems. We don’t want the football fans to walk into the [grove]. We are not allowing anybody to go in and if anyone tries to leave or provide food or water to the tree sitters they will be cited for trespassing.” 

Steve Volker, attorney for the California Oaks Foundation—one of the three plaintiffs in the lawsuit against UC’s plans to construct the training center—arrived at the grove Wednesday to inform protesters that he had filed a restraining order for the fence that was heard Thursday in Hayward Superior Court. 

“This fence is contrary to Judge Barbara Miller’s ruling on Feb. 9 that there should be no physical alteration on the environment of the oak grove until the court rules on the merits of the case on Sept. 19,” he said. “It is a direct attack on fundamental rights, a noose on the First Amendment ... Berkeley is the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement and it now threatens to be its graveyard. This day will be remembered as a day of infamy for this university as an attempt to crush the community’s voice.” 

Citing a similar case at Cornell University where the court had upheld a student’s right to remain on a tree to protest its being cut down, Volker said that courts have repeatedly ruled that no one should be deprived of their civil rights—food and water in this case—on a college campus. 

“The sitters have a constitutional right to protest the logging of the trees,” he said. “They have placed themselves in harm’s way to protect these trees. We either make a stand now or watch our rights disappear.” 

The first altercation took place when the tree sitters got down to the lower branches and one of their supporters tried to attach a can of guacamole to a bag lowered with ropes. UC police cut the rope off with a pole cutter while an angry group of surrounded them, screaming “shame on you.” 

“Fuck you, Pigs,” said one of the protesters. “What are the rules? We will get food up there one way or the other.” 

At one point supporters started throwing apples and granola bars inside the fence while others continued attempts to tie bottles of water and food packets to the ropes lowered from the trees. 

Celaya said the police were preventing food and water from being sent up to the trees since the sitters were already stockpiled with supplies.  

After observing the situation at the grove, Mayor Tom Bates said in a statement, “While the university may have serious concerns about the safety of the protesters and football fans at Saturday’s game, there is simply no justification for UC Berkeley Police to deny protesters food and water.” 

“UC’s actions are unacceptable and I believe they are putting people’s lives at risk unnecessarily,” Bates said. “I contacted the chancellor’s office to urge them in the strongest possible terms to reconsider their position and allow the protesters access to food and water. Regardless of a person’s opinion of the merits of the tree sitters protest or the UC stadium proposal, we all need to respect basic human and civil rights.” 

Close to 6 p.m. students, community members and a few city officials gathered outside the fence to watch the tug-of-war between the tree sitters and UC police. After about half a dozen attempts to prevent the protesters from handing over more food, UC police made two arrests. 

Celaya said that Joseph Fisher, 18, was arrested on two counts of battery and one count of resisting arrest and Drew Beres, 18, could be charged with one count of resisting arrest. Nobody was injured. 

The arrests led to more pushing, yelling and general chaos at the grove. At one point police chased a man dressed in black down Piedmont Avenue. Some protesters formed a circle in front of the evening traffic and refused to budge from the spot for almost 15 minutes. 

“Cut your engine off,” one woman told a driver of a silver Toyota. “You are not going anywhere.” 

“Berkeley’s back,” yelled another oak grove supporters. Drum beats echoed in the distance and strains from the UC football band practicing for Saturday’s game added to the melee of sounds at the grove. 

“They are attempting to deny the protesters food and water to starve them out of the trees,” said former mayoral candidate Zachary Running Wolf, who was one of the initial tree sitters. “There are many measures that can be done to control crowds. They say they are protecting the sitters but are refusing them their fundamental rights at the same time.” 

“We shall overcome,” sang Berkeley resident Debbie Moore strumming a guitar as she stood wrapped in yellow police tape to show her support for what might be the longest-standing urban tree-sit. 

“How much did that fence cost?” asked Jonathan Huang, a UC Berkeley sophomore. 

“That’s my out-of-state tuition money that’s going to build a fence,” said another UC Berkeley student. “My parents worked their butts off to pay the $40,000 a year and this is what I get! I am pissed off!” 

As evening paved the way for night, the UC cops pulled out six generators and 25 spotlights. A thick yellow rope was let down for water, but this time the police did not attempt to block it. 

“I think our response will be summed up in one word: De-fence,” a masked tree-sitter told media news crews from his leafy perch. “The tree sitters and UC are too polarized and it’s hard to bridge that gap.” 

Amy Elmgren, a peace and conflict studies major from UC Berkeley, pressed her nose against the fence to watch the UC police officers videotaping the tree sitters. 

“I think this is insane,” she said. “Before today I was ambivalent about what was going on at the grove but this certainly changes it. I am hoping this will reinvigorate student activism on campus.” 

Gianna Ranuzzi, a long-time Berkeley resident, said she was worried that the poles were damaging the tree roots. 

Catcalls, boos and whistles followed the police as they patrolled the grove. The crowds started thinning around 7 p.m.  

The next scheduled showdown will be the lawsuit scheduled to be heard on Sept. 19. 

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon Mayor Bates said that he was open to negotiations for a settlement agreement regarding the lawsuit. 

“From the beginning, I have maintained that a negotiated settlement that addresses our significant public safety and legal issues is a preferred outcome,” he said. “It is regrettable that the university made no offer at the court-mandated settlement conference in February and has yet to submit any settlement offer to the city in this litigation. In fact, the university’s lawyers have at all times urged that this case be expedited to a court resolution. The university sent a letter to the City Council and me last month with an update on their plans—including modest changes such as a reduction in their new parking lot and improved landscaping—but made no offer to negotiate.” 

The statement, however, issues a caveat that the city was one of four entities engaged in legal action over the university’s proposed stadium projects and “even if the city were to reach an acceptable resolution, the lawsuit would likely continue.” 

UC Berkeley officials have emphasized the importance of a new gym for its 13 athletic teams to replace the seismically unsafe Memorial Stadium, but the city contends that the proposed site is unsafe since it located on the Hayward Fault. 

The Berkeley City Council is scheduled to meet in closed session with its lawyers on Tuesday to discuss the litigation. Bates has requested that the university provide information about a settlement agreement to the city’s attorneys so that the council is able to consider it.