Public Comment

Commentary: Human Needs More Important Than Laws

By Jessica Schley
Tuesday March 11, 2008

Last Thursday I gave water to a young man sitting in a tree on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. I was arrested for it. It took only a moment to make the decision to throw him water, and I was told by another student that I would likely be arrested, but I acted because I doubted the existence of a law in which a person could legally be denied water, a basic human need. I was cited for PC 148a(1), which is obstructing or disobeying the orders of a police officer. 

I didn’t do it because I knew him, or think his cause is just. He calls himself “Fresh,” and he is protesting not in the oak grove at the top of campus, but in a lone oak near the heart of the university: Sproul Plaza. Fresh is advocating for, among other things, the democratization of the UC Regents, and transparency in the $500 million Beyond Petroleum (formerly British Petroleum)/UC Berkeley contract. 

The whole point of being arrested is that it is supposed to be humiliating; but when you know what principles you stand for, and you know what you are getting yourself into, the process is not shameful; it is enlightening. The moment the handcuffs went on behind my back, I knew I was about to learn some things about the world that I had never previously fathomed. 

There was a big crowd gathered when I was arrested, and many students were upset. I held up a peace sign with my cuffed hands while I was being led to the cop car, to show that I believe in non-violence, even when it comes to breaking the law for something I stand for. People began to chant. The squad-car would not start; the battery was dead! “That’s karma!” some students said. “That’s the fleet for you,” an officer swore under his breath. The crowd began to jeer and taunt. The police brought in another car, and finally drove me away. 

I talked with the officer on the way to the jail. He asked me why I “had to go getting myself tangled up in a situation with all these troublemakers.” I was silent. “You don’t know, do you?” “Sir, I know exactly why I did it.” 

It turns out that cop actually sympathizes with the protester in the tree: “The world is going in the wrong direction, and you can’t get change fast enough through the bureaucratic way. Sometimes you got to break the law to get people’s attention. Non-violent protesters have an important role to play in society.” And cops have also; they have got to do their part by arresting you when you cross the legal line. 

The iron hand of the law was light on me. I’d never been in trouble before, and I am a student, so they let me go before the night was out, with a citation and a court date. I filled a special role in a grand play, on Thursday. Just the way my handcuffed arms behind my back fit into the hard black plastic molding of the squad car seat, my actions fit into the molding of the events that unfolded. 

Many objective observers have come before me, and many others will come after, and my story is not special or unique. I did not do anything particularly criminal; in fact, the police act of denying water to a person is questionably legal, so my choice was to comply with human rights, and not with the alleged order of the officers. Since last Thursday, I’ve been staying close to this new tree sit, gathering information and opinions from passersby. Many are confused about the message, since the police have disallowed anyone from posting banners or chalking the ground. But most who stop by to talk are supportive. They want to see change here too. 

There is finally a sense of activism-oriented community building once again on this campus, fostering a way to combat the complacency our student body has fallen prey to. Last Tuesday night there was a candlelight vigil and meditation, at which 160 students stood in solidarity around the metal police barricade which now surrounds the tree that Fresh occupies. There is community support for Fresh, as well as student support. Last Sunday, the famous Oak Grove “Grandmothers” paid a visit, and sent a care-package up for him. This new tree sit has been a wonderful conduit through which to connect younger generations with those activists who have come before; a powerful bond which has gone missing in most university activism in recent times. There is a sense of historical continuity now being formed. 

Fresh’s cause was not mine, before Thursday of last week. But for a fleeting moment, our purposes, our basic human needs—his for water and mine for human decency—coincided. Since then, I’ve been trying to remain objective, though I’ve certainly realized that there’s a lot more to the issues he is raising awareness for than I ever thought; and basic human needs go right to the heart of it all. 


Jessica Schley is a student at UC Berkeley.