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Reader Report: Grandmothers Break Oak Grove Siege

By Matthew Taylor, Special to the Planet
Tuesday November 27, 2007

Oak grove tree-sitters had cause for gratitude on Thanksgiving when over 80 Berkeley community members and students, led by the “Berkeley Grandmothers for the Oaks,” defied UC police orders, risked arrest, and successfully delivered bulging bags of food and jugs of water to the arboreal protestors. 

“This is truly the power of the people. We used our group spirit and group strength to do what none of us could have done alone,” said Karen Pickett of the Bay Area Coalition for the Headwaters. “They’ve been arresting people one by one, so this was just perfect that we could come together as this group with grandmothers in the very center of the circle and send sustenance up to the tree-sitters,” added Pickett. 

The communal act of civil disobedience followed an intense week of arrests at the grove. UC police arrested at least eight people in the preceding three days for allegedly providing various forms of support to the tree-sitters, such as delivering food and water or audibly warning tree-sitters of the presence of police. On Wednesday alone, UC police arrested five people including three students, one of whom spent the holiday in Santa Rita Jail. All five were held on $10,000 bail. 

As I arrived at the oak grove at 11 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, I saw elderly women and other community members on the sidewalk pathway in front of the fenced-in grove lugging delectable acorn pies, stuffing, canned food, and hefty five-gallon water jugs. Officer Baird read Alameda County Superior Court Judge Richard Keller’s order to the crowd and threatened to arrest them if they sent supplies into the trees. 

Lesley Emmington said she wanted to bring an offering to the tree-sitters even if it meant risking arrest. 

“If you came here at nighttime, this is like a Guantanamo situation. There are strobe lights [pointed at the tree-sitters] ... the young people are being harassed. What’s the problem with me coming and bringing food?” said Emmington. 

After milling about for a few minutes, unsure of how to proceed in the face of police threats, several community members began to spontaneously sing and play the fiddle. The crowd gathered into a circle, hugging each other tightly, and sang Civil Rights Movement-era activist songs modified to fit their cause. 

“Ain’t gonna let no Regents turn us around, turn us around … Gonna save the oak grove trees,” they sang in an ever-strengthening voice, building the confidence of all assembled. 

A few feet from where I stood, environmental advocate Redwood Mary turned to face one of the UC policemen, Officer Moody, and reminded him that in the city of Berkeley, it’s illegal to cut down any of the targeted trees in the grove. She said UC was ignoring the will of Berkeley voters. 

“We’re going to jail because we’re standing for our own laws … We’re not doing civil disobedience, we’re here to enforce the law,” said Redwood Mary. 

Mary then added in a soft, kindly voice, “I’m asking the police, will you allow me to give a pie? What would happen to me if I give food to another human being who’s hungry on Thanksgiving?” 

Officer Moody kept his gaze averted and replied, “You heard the judge’s order.” 

Tree-sitters then dropped a rope into the human circle, and several people attached a bag of food. With at least eight pairs of hands touching the bag, the message was clear: “If you’re going to arrest one of us, you’ll have to arrest all of us.” 

“This food and this water are weapons of dissent,” said Redwood Mary. “This is an act of terrorism,” joked Matthew Dodt of Copwatch. “Providing pie is not a criminal act,” called out Pickett. 

The officers did nothing as tree-sitter Shem pulled the first bag up into the trees, accompanied by cheers from the crowd. After that, it was a free-for-all, as people sent up the rest of the food and water. 

Soon enough, the police officers at the scene visibly relaxed and the tension dissipated. By the end of the gathering, police and community members exchanged wishes of “Happy Thanksgiving.” 

The tree-sitters had another message to remind everyone of the significance of the day. 

“Thanksgiving is an imperialist holiday to celebrate the conquest of America. But Thanksgiving is also a day for sharing food and getting together with friends, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re turning Thanksgiving into a day of resistance to power, and I feel great,” proclaimed tree-sitter Millipede. 

The community members had come at the behest of tree-sitters, who posted flyers across town imploring supporters to “respect Native sovereignty, protect this Native American burial ground, and resist the starvation of protestors.” 

Many people offered gratitude to the police for not interfering. When questioned, the police offered no explanation for their decision not to follow through on their previous threats. 

“Even though there were laws that were violated, we decided to just observe,” said Moody. Security guards videotaped the proceedings. 

“By picking and choosing who they’re going to enforce the judge’s order against, UCPD is committing selective enforcement, which is illegal,” Jake Gelender of Copwatch later told me. 

Asked if she was afraid of being arrested, Redwood Mary responded, “Yes, I was. But sometimes you have to walk through your fear to do the right thing…. I trusted that the Creator would protect us and that we would be successful since we acted in nonviolence and from a place of love and spontaneity.” 

When told that officers might yet arrest her and others at a later date, Redwood Mary said, “That may happen, because the police have been arresting people from the streets when they’re not near the grove. This is how the University is wasting our taxpayer money. This fence cost over $80,000! This double fence with barbed wire is a human rights violation.” 

Following the success of the Thanksgiving food delivery, UC Police introduced a new threat. On Friday night, a UC police officer told me that he would arrest anyone who had a conversation with the tree-sitters, no matter what the topic. The officer disagreed with Copwatch representative Matthew Dodt’s argument that speaking with the tree-sitters was constitutionally protected free speech. The officer stated that speaking to tree-sitters is, according to UC’s lawyers, a violation of Judge Keller’s order. While the order forbids specific actions such as “placing objects” in the trees and “climbing” in the trees, it says nothing about “speaking” to the tree-sitters, nor does it imply that such conversations are forbidden. 

A birthday party to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the tree-sit will be held at the oak grove Sunday, Dec. 2 from noon to 6 p.m. The Berkeley Grandmothers for the Oaks have announced plans to send more food and water to the tree-sitters on Sunday at 2 p.m. They’ve asked community members to bring lots of non-perishable food, mostly vegan, and water jugs with lids and handles. 


Matthew Taylor is a UC Berkeley Peace and Conflict Studies student and a founding member of the Free Speech Free Trees Student Coalition.