Treesitters, University Win Split Court Ruling

By Richard Brenneman
Monday June 30, 2008 - 04:19:00 PM

A judge ordered the University of California not to endanger the lives of Berkeley’s treesitters Monday but refused to order the university to give them food and water. 

Though attorneys for the treesitters asked Alameda County Superior Court Judge Richard Keller to order supplies sent up to the remaining protesters at the Memorial Stadium grove, the judge said they could get food and water simply by obeying his restraining order and coming down from the trees. 

While his restraining order against the tree-sitters and their allies remains in force, Keller said, “The university shall take such precautions as are reasonably needed to prevent endangering the lives or safety of others.” 

But, the jurist said, he wasn’t ordering food and water because “that is something totally and completely within” the control of the treesitters. 

Keller’s ruling came after attorneys William Simpich and Carol Strickman presented declarations from several treesitters and a video which they said showed that a treesitter’s life had been endangered after university arborists cut his support line. 

Michael Goldstein, the lawyer representing the UC Board of Regents, said the treesitter-who appeared to be hanging on by one hand-was actually supported by another rope, and said campus police reported that the protester said he was also carrying a bottle of urine. 

But campus officials “don’t need to take aggressive conduct when they can take less aggressive conduct,” the judge said, adding, “I will become more aggressively involved if the university takes any action that endangers” the lives of the protesters. 

But he rejected Simpich’s argument that denial of food and water, which the lawyer said could cause effects that could lead to lack of judgment that could endanger the treesitters, was something that should be included in his order. 

On the list of incontrovertible facts he cited: the university’s right to control its own property was foremost, followed by the refusal of the treesitters to obey orders he had issued previously calling on them to vacate the trees. 

Judge Keller said another uncontested fact is that the lives of tree-sitters had been endangered when they moved to challenge the university’s removal of their gear, including lines used to move from tree to tree above the ground. 

Simpich had argued that denial of food and water was tantamount to torture and compared to the treesitters to prisoners. But Judge Keller said the analogy was false because treesitters weren’t prisoners and were free to come down any time they wanted. 

But he said that as a result of viewing the video, “I am not trying to invite the university to go up there and cut the ropes people may be hanging onto.” 

Keller’s ruling came a day after UC Berkeley Campus Police Capt. Guillermo Beckford agreed to receive four bags of food for the treesitters Monday morning. 

Gianna Ranuzzi, a treesit supporter who led the negotiation with the campus police Sunday, said Monday morning before the hearing in Hayward court that the food had been delivered earlier in the day to officers, but she didn’t know if it had been delivered to the treesitters. 

Gabrielle Silverman (“my treesitter name is millipede”) sat in court for Monday morning’s hearing. She was the first treesitter forcibly extracted from the branches last Tuesday. 

“I’m very disappointed in the judge,” she said.  

Asked what she planned to do next, the treesitter answered, “What do we do now? We keep giving them hell.” 

Silverman said she was threatened by the arborists the university hired to restrict the movements of the protesters, whose numbers have dwindled in the last week. 

“She was extracted right after the university said they wouldn’t be taking anyone down from the trees,” Simpich said. “It was done in a violent way, ramming her and then cutting her line so that she fell onto their platform.” 

Goldstein declined to comment after the hearing. 

“We’ll keep fighting the fight,” Simpich said, not ruling out a possible appeal of Monday’s decision, a move foreshadowed by his request for a partial transcript of the day’s courtroom action. 

Lawyers for both sides agreed to prepare a formal written order setting forth Judge Keller’s decision by the end of the day.