Flash: First Person

By George
Friday September 14, 2007

Here's a footnote to the Save the Oaks demonstration, sent in on Friday evening by a veteran of the Free Speech Movement, using a pseudonym for reasons which will be obvious. 


Three hours ago, I joined some other veterans of UC Berkeley's Free Speech Movement in a show of support for Berkeley students who are fighting UC's plans to tear down a wonderful stand of towering oak to build a $150 million sports facility on an active faultline.  


Half a dozen students spoke and then the microphone was passed to one of the first of the tree-sitters, a lithe young lady names Jessie, who was asked to say a few words. Jessie tried to speak but words wouldn't come. Instead, she stood upright, clenching the microphone before her lips as her face began to tremble. She held the microphone -- and the audience -- in her grip for several emotional minutes before whispering quietly, "These trees saved me," and stepping down.  


FSM leader/author/teacher Michael Rossman recalled how the students of the 1960s faced the same unresponsive corporate UC administration tactics. He pointed out the importance of the oaks not only as an ecological keystone species but as an important link in the social ecology of the city -- a grove dedicated to the memory of the fallen soldiers from WWI that became a place where students have gathered for generations to enjoy a riff, a tipple, and the serenity of nature close-at-hand. The grove became an important place for friends to gather and socialize and for individuals to settle for quiet contemplation. Rossman recalled how he ventured to the groves to read and study.  


Rossman mentioned another infamous UC Berkeley fence โ€” the one that was erected around Peoples Park. And, making sure to note that he was in no way suggesting any form of direct action, Rossman recollected how one day buttons and fliers started to appear around town with a mysterious message. Nothing more than the words "Peoples Park", a date and a time. On that date and at that time, 3,000 people spontaneously walked to the park, surrounded the site and pulled the steel fence down with their bare hands. No one was hurt, the park was liberated and it remains an open space today.  


At the end of the speech-making, 20-plus students โ€” young men and women all wearing orange t-shirts reading "Free Speech" and "Free Trees" โ€” announced that they were going to "exercise" their rights to free expression. "Are you ready to exercise?" the dynamic young spokeswoman announced and, to the surprise of the onlookers, the students suddenly turned, leaped over metal police barricades, sprinted to the hurricane fence and climbed over to join the "imprisoned" tree-dwellers.  


It was a joyous act of civil disobedience that reminded us FSM vets of the afternoon we walked into Sproul Hall with Joan Baez, faced arrest and brought the university to a standstill. 


Somewhat swept away by the students' spontaneous and joyous act of defiance, found myself also climbing over the barricade and jogging toward the fence. I figured it would be fitting for a representative from the FSM Generation to support the students in full-measure. So I clambered over the fence and joined them.  


In the process, however, I punched two holes in my left hand as I swung over the sharp metal spikes on atop the fence. After a minute inside, helping the students clean up the site, I notice that my hand (and my pants) were covered in blood where the fence had ripped my palm open. I had to beat a retreat. In the process of climbing back over the fence, I managed to punch another hole in my hand. Zachary Running Wolf patched me up at the scene.  


As I climbed out (with the assistance of some members of the tree-sit support team) a reporter asked my name. I pointed out that, since I had technically just broken the law, I'd prefer not to give my name. He allowed me to use an alias and I chose "George." What I failed to reveal was that I was not just some aging geezer with a bloodied hand, but I was an FSM vet, a former draft resister, a troop train protester, a Port Chicago vigiler and a tax rebel. And there was one last thing I should have told that reporter: Dang, but if felt good to break the law again!