Tensions escalated outside UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium Sunday, following a confrontation between Berkeley City Councilmember Dona Spring and campus Assistant Police Chief Mitch Celaya.
Spring, confined to a wheelchair by severe rheumatoid arthritis, demanded access to the city-owned sidewalk on the west side of Piedmont Avenue.
University police have blocked off the sidewalk, which they have declared an ongoing crime scene, after supporters of the 18-month-old tree-sit in the adjacent grove used to it re-supply the protesters in the branches above.
“I want access to the sidewalk,” said the councilmember. “You don’t have the right to keep me off the sidewalk.”
“It’s a matter of public safety,” said Celaya.
“You’re endangering my safety,” Spring replied.
Moments later, Celaya backed away and the crowd of protesters surged forward.
What happened next wasn’t visible to a reporter, but someone apparently cut the nylon handcuffs holding two portable police barrier segments together, triggering a tug of war between protesters hoping to force their way in to re-supply the tree-sitters and Celaya and his officers.
It was Celaya himself who stepped into the breech, struggling to bring the two now widely separated barriers together, aided by other officers, while protesters struggled to pull them apart.
In the midst of the fray, police arrested Matthew Taylor, who joined the ranks of prominent supporters arrested in recent days for their attempts to send food to the nine remaining tree-sitters.
He was followed to the pokey a little more than an hour later by Terry Compost, another activist prominent in her support of the arboreal activists.
Police earlier had arrested Ayr, perhaps the most visible of the supporters, and at least five other supporters have been arrested in recent days.
Following the confrontation at the barriers, protesters managed to block the northbound lane of Piedmont Avenue, forcing hapless motorists caught in mid-protest to back out of the scene.
Just how badly the tree-sitters needed food remained in dispute, as did the condition of their health.
Dr. Larry Bedard, a former president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, and forensic psychologist Dr. Edward Hyman spoke to tree-sitters by walkie-talkie, with Bedard running through a list of symptoms.
Afterward, both said they were concerned for the health and safety of the tree-sitters.
“Personally, I think what is going on is cruel and inhumane treatment,” said Bedard, who serves on the staffs of St. Mary’s Hospital in San Francisco and San Mateo General Hospital and is a partner in his own medical group.
But a few minutes later, university spokesperson Dan Mogulof said that tree-sitters had told police that they were well-supplied with food and water and in good health.
While Mogulof said there was no immediate plan to send supplies to the tree-sitters, a subsequent conversation between Berkeley City Councilmember Laurie Capitelli and university officials ended with food and water sent skyward.
The officers didn’t fulfill another request, for ganja—also known as marijuana.
While Capitelli has been critical of the protesters, Spring is a strong supporter, and has been working to enlist support of council colleagues and City Manager Phil Kamlarz.
The council will take up the issue during a closed session at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, she said.
Spring said she was also concerned that the university had extended their barriers to the city-owned median strip on Piedmont Avenue.
“The university has been acting illegally,” she said, “and I applaud these people (the tree-sitters and their allies) for their continued civil disobedience. We want to stop this corporate giant from crushing our community and poisoning the air we breathe”
Meanwhile, Mogulof had introduced a new talking point into his discussion of the grove, which he repeatedly labeled “a 1923 landscaping project” during a short press briefing.
Tree-sit supporters have portrayed the grove as both a memorial to fallen soldiers from World War I and a Native American burial ground.
While he spoke to print reporters seated at the foot of an isolated oak between Maxwell Family Field and the Kleeberger Parking Lot, Mogulof insisted on moving to a new spot before the TV cameras rolled.
“I don’t want to leave the impression I’m speaking from the grove,” he said.
Tree-sit supporters, conversely, held their own press briefing at the trunk of a tree, albeit across Piedmont Avenue on the lawn of the Haas School of Business.
Mogulof said that nothing in last week’s court decision by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Barbara J. Miller would block the university’s decision to build at the site of the grove.
The university plans to build a four-story high tech gym and office complex along the stadium’s western wall, and the lawsuit—filed by Spring, the city, a neighborhood group and environmentalists—challenged the university’s approval process for the project.
Mogulof said the university would file papers with the court that answered issues raised by the judge in last Wednesday’s decision, and that it was hoped that construction would begin soon afterwards.
To see a berkeleycitizen.org video of Carol Strickman, the attorney for the tree-sitters speaking at a press conference, click here.