Tensions escalated outside UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium Sunday, following a confrontation between Berkeley City Council-member Dona Spring and campus Assistant Police Chief Mitch Celaya.
Spring, who uses a wheelchair because she has severe rheumatoid arthritis, demanded access to the city-owned sidewalk on the west side of Piedmont Avenue, where university police have blocked off the sidewalk.
To police, the sidewalk is now an ongoing crime scene, so declared 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 breached two sections of the police barrier, triggering a tug of war between protesters—who hoped to force their way in with food, water and other supplies for the tree-sitters—and Celaya and his officers.
It was Celaya himself who led the counter-charge, struggling to bring the two now widely separated barriers together with the help of other officers while protesters struggled to pull them apart.
In the midst of the fray, police arrested Matthew Taylor inside the barricade, where he 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.
Meanwhile, lawyers for both sides in the ongoing struggle over the university’s building plans for the Memorial Stadium area were rushing to prepare rival documents for Alameda County Superior Court Judge Barbara J. Miller, who will issue her conclusive order after reviewing both submissions.
Lawyers challenging the adoption of building and financing plans by the UC Board of Regents were up first, submitting their documents Tuesday, with the university’s response due by Friday.
Just how badly the tree-sitters needed food remains in dispute, as does 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 Sunday afternoon.
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, he denied one media account—a headline—which charged the university with trying to starve the protesters out. The newspaper subsequently withdrew the headline.
By Sunday, there were nine protesters left, by now confined by the action of the university’s contract arborists to a single tree which is crowned by a hefty beam topped by the small wooden box where tree-sitter Dumpster Muffin has repeatedly confronted the civilian workers who have slashed the lines that once enabled the arboreal activists to flit from tree-to-tree.
Both Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and City Councilmember Laurie Capitelli have urged the university to provide food and water to the tree-sitters, but neither has offered support of their protest. Capitelli’s council colleague Dona Spring has been a strong supporter of the tree-sit, and has led a thus-far-unsuccessful effort to enlist the backing of the council and City Manager Phil Kamlarz.
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 was stressing his own talking point while discussing the grove, which he repeatedly labeled “a 1923 landscaping project” during Sunday’s 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.
Also on hand to speak at the press conference held during Sunday’s rally were former Mayor Shirley Dean, Free Speech Movement veteran Neal Blumenfeld, two Native American activists, two medical experts and Oakland attorney Carol Strickman, who is representing the tree-sitters.
Asked to describe the difference between the Free Speech Movement (FSM) activism of the early 1960s and the new millennium’s protest at the grove, Blumenfeld said “the major difference is in the movement,” which had a broad base of support in four decades ago.
“The university’s behavior,” he said, “is exactly the same.”
In addition to their larger numbers, said Blumenfeld, a psychiatrist, FSM members carried out extensive research on university funding and the revenues of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which he called “the huge industrial park on the hill.”
Dean said she had come to address three points. First, the fact that Judge’s Miller’s restraining order barring university construction activites at the grove remains in place; second, the charge that the university’s behavior was “absolutely unacceptable” when they denied supporters the opportunity to furnish the tree-sitters with new supplies and, finally, to urge both sides to reach a compromise in which both sides gave up something to reach a livable accommodation.
Among those watching the day’s events was Barbara Gilbert, who said that it wasn’t the fate of three trees that worried her as much as “the university’s takeover of our Southside” and the “$25 million to $30 million a year demands it makes on city services.”