Berkeley protesters and their supporters gathered Sunday to celebrate the end of the first year of what they hailed as “America’s longest-running urban tree-sit.”
The mood was festive, if at times surreal: UC Berkeley police had two officers videotaping the proceedings, while tree-sit supporters photographed the officers as they were in turn photographed by the media.
Most of the tree-sitters wore masks, as did many of their supporters—a response to the university’s recent arrests of arboreal activists and members of their earthbound supply crew.
UC Berkeley students have been swept up in the arrests, including one committee chair from the Associated Students of the University of California, said Matthew Taylor of the Free Speech-Free Trees Student Coalition,
“We have renamed this site Guantanamo Berkeley,” said Zachary Running Wolf, the Native American activist who sparked the tree-sit a year ago on the morning of Big Game day when he ascended a redwood in the heart of the Coastal Live Oak grove along Memorial Stadium’s western wall.
Sunday’s mood was generally upbeat as tree-sitters, students, activists and members of the broader community gathered along the sidewalk on Gayley Road.
Among those in attendance were two members of the recently expired Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee—Juliet Lamont and Steve Weissman—and neighborhood activists Mike Kelly, Sharon Hudson and Gail Garcia.
One colorfully clad contingent aimed their protests at BP, the British oil giant, and the half-billion-dollar pact it recently completed to sponsor biofuel research at the Berkeley campus.
At one point, a reporter counted about 200 people gathered along the wide stretch of sidewalk, with numbers fluctuating throughout the afternoon.
Karen Pickett of the Bay Area Coalition for the Headwaters, one of the earliest and most outspoken supporters of the protest, said community support for the tree-sitters has increased with time.
The ongoing action at the grove challenges the tree-clearing operation planned if the university wins a pending court decision and builds a $125 million, four-level-high tech gym and office complex where the trees now stand.
The legal challenge now before Alameda County Superior Court Judge Barbara J. Miller will determine whether or not the UC regents properly followed state law in voting to approve the gym complex and adopting an environmental impact report that cleared the way for the gym and a set of other nearby projects.
For Michael Rossman, one of the leading activists of the Free Speech Movement that rocked the Berkeley campus more than four decades ago, it was the erection of the fences that transformed the protest into a free speech issue.
“I didn’t know then that even earlier campus police had seized tables and literature” during the tree-sit, he said.
Campus police action against tables where literature for a range of causes ranging from civil rights activism to the campus Young Republicans was displayed led to the eruption of the free speech protests that changed the face of campus politics across the nation.
“This protest is an exercise in free speech,” he said, comparing the oak grove to a biological indicator species, a plant or animal which serves as a signal of the overall health of an ecosystem.
“This is a fragment of an ecology that functions,” he said, “a biological ecology and a social ecology.”
Rossman said the grove was a familiar scene to activists of his day, where members of the Free Speech Movement rested and sometimes distributed literature.
“UC needs to respect its students,” said Hillary Lehr, a recent graduate who faulted university Chancellor Robert Birgeneau for his consistent refusal to meet with students protesting the plans to chainsaw the grove.
By providing students with a well-rounded education that leads them to question, the university also has an obligation to listen and respond to the questions they raise, Lehr said.
Taylor said one student had been arrested soon after meeting with university administrators, after she reportedly left blankets and a pillow outside the fence on one of the coldest nights of the year.
“Two students spent Thanksgiving in jail,” following their arrests at the grove, he said.
Running Wolf, who has been arrested nine times at the grove, has charged that the university’s plans to build at the grove would desecrate a tribal burial ground.
Speaking to supporters Sunday, he said that the university’s approval of the BP research program—which aims to develop fuel crops to be grown in tropical climates—creates a two-continent struggle for indigenous Americans.
More than two hours after Sunday’s celebrations began, Dan Mogulof, executive director of the campus Office of Public Affairs, arrived at the grove, meeting with reporters well out of sight of the gathering below to decry what he called the “ongoing illegal and dangerous occupation” of the grove.
He said the university’s response has thus far cost nearly $370,000, including the costs of two barbed-wire-topped fences that now ring the site, salaries for campus police and private security and costs for equipment and cleanups.
While he declined to discuss the specifics of law enforcement strategies, he said the second fence was installed as part of the process of “putting pieces in places so that once this is resolved in court, we can bring this process to a peaceful and safe conclusion.”
Asked if any community groups are working with university officials to resolve the standoff in the branches, Mogulof said, “We continue to be open to dealing with any group that is maintaining an illegal and dangerous occupation.”
He said campus police have been admirably restrained throughout the year the protest has endured.