With the tree-sit protest at the UC Berkeley Memorial Oak Grove having reached its year-anniversary, the university’s tactics to thwart the protest have taken a have taken a harsh and dark turn. A double-fenced, barbed wire ghetto with blinding lights shining into the trees and street with loud generators running all night as an attempted form of mental torture to the tree-sitters is reminiscent of some state of siege. The university and its private police department’s interpretation of a recent civil injunction order constitutes a direct assault on basic American civil liberties and constitutional rights. An assault on these cherished rights and freedoms that amounts to, in my opinion, the first step into martial law.
The tree sitters occupied the arboreal heights of the Memorial Oak grove last Dec. 2 as an act of civil disobedience days before the university planned to destroy this mature, California coastal live oak urban forest to erect a student athletic training center. In January Alameda Superior Judge Barbara Miller issued an injunction against any construction on the site and the destruction of the grove pending her ruling on three law suits brought against the university, including the City of Berkeley where it is against the law to destroy any oak tree. In October UC won a civil injunction against the tree sitters on health and safety grounds. Alameda Judge Richard Keller also ruled against any citizen from “working in concert” with the tree-sit protest, specifically ordering against sending up supplies to the protesters.
While the university and police department have denied or danced around the subject, this injunction and barbed wire ghettoization are means to intimidate supporters and starve the tree-sitters out of the grove. Perhaps more ominously, the second fence that closes off the perimeter of the Memorial Grove was erected for the direct purpose screening out the eyes of the media and community in the event of more extreme, and possibly illegal, action against the protesters in the future. The UC lawyers and police department have over-broadly interpreted the injunction to also mean that anyone found talking to the tree sitters, demonstrating their feelings with picket signs or lending any kind of moral support are subject to arrest. So far the UCPD have arrested eight citizens, including four students on the Keller injunction.
The tree sitters and their broad community supporters have insisted from the very beginning that this protest is an exercise of free speech rights. The very act of occupying these oak trees is a means to communicate the value of this beloved grove to the student body, alumni, and community. The Memorial Oak grove protesters believe that they are on the side of life, the life of this beautiful oak grove, and the lives of the student athletes that the UC Berkeley planners, administration and Regents would cavalierly put in a two-story underground facility, mere feet from the most powerful fault in California, the Hayward, that runs directly under the already cracked and fractured Memorial stadium adjacent to the grove. Both the stadium and the proposed training center site are on land fill, a recognized liquifaction zone in the event the Hayward fault rips. To make matters worse, the US Geological Society has identified that the culvert channeling Strawberry Creek that runs under the stadium and grove is broken. At the same time two other more seismically responsible sites for the gym on campus exist but the administration has refused to take them into consideration.
The university has been warned by its own seismic committee and outside study groups and structural engineering consultants several times in the last four decades to make seismic upgrades to the stadium. Incredibly, in 1982 the university built 20,000 square feet of office space within the west wall of the stadium with no seismic upgrades to the structure. In 1991 a seismic study recommended a 4.4 to 5 million dollar upgrade to achieve at least “a limited goal of life-safety and forestalling collapse during a major seismic event,” according to the records of the current lawsuit against the university. Seismic upgrading was planned for 1998 but “was hijacked by the campus’s spirit of rivalry with its Pac-10 adversaries,” according to these documents. In 2005 previous seismic safety planning was put aside in favor the the “high performance” athletic training facility extending outside the stadium walls and into the adjacent Memorial Oak Grove, bringing about the current lawsuits, opprobrium for many quarters of the community, alumni and student body, and the current tree-sit protest. The 125 million dollar “phase-one” training facility project in fact once again puts off the stadium’s seismic upgrades. Funds for the upgrades are dependent on some proposed fancy financial footwork once the $125 million is actually secured, according to the university. As for the seismic upgrades to the stadium becoming reality, according to court documents. “...the university’s track record on that score is not encouraging.”
If this sad and irresponsible history on the part of UC Berkeley administrators and the Regents past and present doesn’t constitute knowledgeable, willful and reckless endangerment of human life, it is hard to image what would.
How could UC Berkeley so tragically lose its moral compass? This whole misguided episode by the university administration speaks to a state of desperation where common sense, decency and respect for life has been subsumed under an economic state of emergency where soaring tuition rates have done little to alleviate the ill-effects of the tax-payers ‘revolt’ of 1977, billions of state dollars sucked into Texas energy and trading companies in the gamed 2000 energy crisis that Bush ands company allowed to happen, and stingy governors on the entire UC system. UC Berkeley is acting like a drowning man, threatening not only to pull under its student athletes at this proposed center, the unique environmental quality of this campus and surrounding community, but now the very rights and liberties that a public university should teach its students to better understand, advance and protect as future leaders in our society.
In addition, the probability from archeological evidence that both the Memorial Stadium and Grove rest upon an Ohlone tribe burial ground raises a serious moral and social dimension to this controversy that the university continues to ignore.
These protesters are engaging in civil disobedience in face of the arrogance and intransigence of the university, civil disobedience based on the high moral principles of life, human and environmental. Of course civil disobedience is a tried and true American tradition, from Henry David Thoreau who refused to pay his taxes as a protest against the War between the United States and Mexico to Martin Luther King, Jr. who used non-violent civil disobedience to over throw Jim Crowe in the south and win civil rights for African Americans. If the Keller injunction against any citizen giving any physical or moral support to protesters applied to The Civil Rights Movement at the time, Reverend Martin King, Coretta Scott King, founding member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, professor and current NAACP Chair Julian Bond, former Atlanta Mayor and ambassador Andrew Young, rabbi Abraham J. Heschel who marched arm-in-arm with his fellow clergyman, and so many other brave souls would have been Kellered, arrested and imprisoned. If Keller existed there would probably be no Voting Rights Act of 1964. If Keller had been applied to the Free Speech Movement activists on the Berkeley campus, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, whose activities UC Berkeley deemed illegal during the struggle, all those thousands of students supporting and aiding student leader Mario Savio would have been intimidated and potentially jailed and fined. If Keller was existed, the Free Speech Movement, now the pride of UC Berkeley with a campus cafe celebrating it, could have very well been crushed.
Isn’t the Keller civil injunction an instrument of oppression as applied by the UCPD, an instrument repugnant to the American spirit and basic values, a dangerous precedent of the crushing of our basic constitutional rights to free speech and assembly? Isn’t this an imposed state of emergency masquerading as a civil injunction? This is particularly chilling in light of the Bush administration assault on our rights and freedoms and its use of fear-mongering and denial. It seems that UC Berkeley is not immune from mimicking the tone and tactics set by Washington and Sacramento politicians. When tinsel-town cowboy Reagan governor, he dispatched national guard helicopters to spray tear-gas on the large, student anti-war protests during the Vietnam war (his assault on state education and the UC system is perhaps a greater and more long lasting crime) . Now with two silent coups d’etat by Bush/Cheney/Rove by stealing two elections by massive and blatant vote suppression and ‘faith-based’ republican owned voting systems and a supine press, UC has mounted a campaign against fundamental constitutional rights while using double-speak to deny it, double-speak so well honed in the most morally deficient side of corporate America and Madison Avenue, adopted and used with great skill and advantage by the current White House resident’s political apparatus. In fact, if misdirection and mendacity were a crime, this current UC Berkeley administration and its spokesman would be doing hard time, it seems to me.
We see the abuse of basic human rights and liberties in foreign countries such as Pakistan on television and we console ourselves that it cannot happen here. I say that it is happening here, in Berkeley, at the Memorial Oak Grove protest.
Thomas Jefferson said that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Let us be vigilant that our basic civil liberty and freedoms not be usurped by any power no matter how unaccountable, no matter how high and mighty high and mighty this power might think it is. Let us be vigilant and strong in the face of this clear and present threat to our rights, freedoms, and who we are as Americans, unless one day we see martial law declared on some place on television only to realize, too late, that that place is the United States of America.
Let’s hope that UC learns to play a new game, one where all sides, the university, the grove, the student athletes, seismic safety, the protesters, and the surrounding community all emerge winners.
David Weinstein is a UC Berkeley alumnus with an undergraduate degree in French literature. He is a screenwriter with Big Trouble In Little China as a credit. David graduated with honors from CIIS with a masters degree in counseling psychology and is currently a MFT intern. He is an environmental, political and peace activist. David is very grateful to the many wonderful teachers and professors who have enriched his mind, spirit and life. Some of his favorite and cherished teachers are now trees.