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UC, Tree-Sitter Clashes Continue in Court, Grove

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday July 03, 2008 - 09:47:00 AM
Attorney William Simpich listens as colleague Carol Strickman responds to a comment by Judge Richard Keller during Monday’s hearing on their request for an order to protect tree-sitters and for the university to provide them with food and water.
By Richard Brenneman
Attorney William Simpich listens as colleague Carol Strickman responds to a comment by Judge Richard Keller during Monday’s hearing on their request for an order to protect tree-sitters and for the university to provide them with food and water.

It’s been a week of tense confrontations between UC Berkeley and the tree-sitters occupying the grove where the university wants to build its showcase high-tech gym. 

The head-to-head sessions took place both at the grove and in two Hayward courtrooms, with some of the same faces appearing in all three venues. 

Meanwhile, three treesitters opted to end their vigils Wednesday. The activists who call themselves Olive and Dumpster Muffin, joined by a third, unnamed male, came down from the tree. 

Ayr, a key figure in organizing ground support for the protesters, said Dumspter Muffin came down to seek medical attention, while the other two had personal reasons for descending from the branches. 

“They also said they realized that because of their actions there would be more food for those who remain,” Ayr said. Asked how many still occupy the branches, Ayr replied, “Three to five.” 

The first face-off happened on June 26 during a sometimes heated parlay between the branch-borne activists and the university’s two top cops, Chief Victoria L. Harrison and Assistant Chief Mitch Celaya. 

Accompanied by an officer with a video camera, the two talked with protesters from their perch in a cherry-picker platform as Dan Mogulof, the university’s executive director of public affairs, took notes in the shade of a tree below. 

At least 16 uniformed officers were on hand during the talk, which began with the tree-sitters reluctant to take anything from the officers. 

One of the tree-sitters accused the chief (presumably not Mogulof) of giving the go-ahead to hired arborists to cut a support line while the protester was suspended in mid-air. “Are you trying to kill us?” he called out. 

But the talks continued, with supporters on the ground calling out support and taunting police. 

After the campus brass descended, Harrison and Celaya huddled briefly with Mogulof, and minutes later the two officers, accompanied by a third officer toting a flat of shrink-wrapped water bottles, took up station beneath the tree in which the seven remaining tree-sitters had gathered. 

Two of activists had already descended from the branches Thursday evening after another talk with police, submitting to arrest as soon as their feet hit the ground. 

Doug Buckwald of Save the Oaks at the Stadium said the two had to attend to personal needs and hadn’t given up on the protest itself. 

The decision by the tree-sitters to accept water from campus police disappointed some of their supporters on the ground, in part because a decision hadn’t been reached collectively. “They’re trying to divide us,” said one. 

While Mogulof hadn’t flatly rejected providing water to the tree-sitters, he had repeatedly said that if they wanted food and water they were welcome to come down. 

City Councilmember Dona Spring, the tree sit’s most vocal supporter in city government, had been calling for a resupply of the protesters, a call which had been joined by some of her council colleagues. 

The water sent up was provided by the university, said one campus official who declined to be identified by name. 


Tree court 

The next set-to came in the courtroom of Alameda County Superior Court Judge Richard Keller, where two lawyers representing the tree-sitters sought a new court order protecting the protesters. 

Bill Simpich and Carol Strickman, opposed by UC staff attorney Michael Goldstein, met with the judge for a closed-door session in his chambers. 

Following the session, Judge Keller told reporters, “They may want to talk to you about an agreement that’s been reached between the university and the tree-sitters.” 

But UC attorney Goldstein said he didn’t want to comment on anything that had been said in Keller’s chambers. 

“There were a lot of developments today,” said Simpich. “The purpose today was to get a court order that the university not act to extract anyone from the trees, and we did get an understanding at the highest level from the university that will not extract anyone. However the attorney from the university said he has no knowledge of the agreement.” 

The other understanding, Simpich said, was that the university will provide food and water. 

“The tide’s already turned,” he said, “and we are finally getting somewhere we can protect the tree-sitters, and all parties, including the university and the community, can step back and build trust.” 

The water delivery came a day before the university was to file its legal response to last week’s decision by an Alameda County Superior Court Judge Barbara J. Miller in a lawsuit that protesters hoped would block construction of a gym at the site of the grove just west of Memorial Stadium. 

Later this month Judge Miller is scheduled to issue an order formalizing her decision, which challenged the approval process followed by the UC Board of Regents in approving the gym. 


Grove again 

The focus shifted back to the grove Sunday, where tree sit supporters had organized another rally and yet another effort to send supplies up to the trees. 

While the crowd was smaller than the confrontation that had momentarily breached the police perimeter the week before, this time one of the tree-sitters emerged atop a utility pole with a line ready to throw down to the crowd below which had supplies waiting on the lawn of the Anthropology Building just across Piedmont Avenue from the grove. 

But after a meeting between UCPD Capt. Guillermo Beckford and supporters who included Gianna Ranuzzi, attorney Strickman, Matthew Taylor and L.A. Wood, police agreed to accept four bags of food the next morning. 

Despite the pleas of supporters, Beckford said the supplies would be limited to packaged goods, with no fresh fruits and vegetables allowed. 

The food was delivered later in the day, Mogulof said. 

“That’s a flat-out lie,” Ayr said Wednesday. Though police allowed some medical supplies to go up—hydrogen peroxide and wipes—the only food item to reach the tree-sitters was a single chocolate bar, he said. 


Back to court 

The lawyers returned to Judge Keller’s Hayward courtroom Monday morning, and by the time the session had ended, the judge had ordered the University of California not to endanger the lives of Berkeley’s tree-sitters Monday but refused to order the university to give them food and water, saying they could get those simply by obeying his restraining order and coming down from the trees. 

The one concession won by the tree-sitters was Keller’s order that “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 tree-sitters. 

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

Goldstein countered that 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 tree-sitters, was something that should be included in his order. 

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

Judge Keller said another uncontested fact was 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 tree-sitters to prisoners. But Judge Keller said the analogy was false because tree-sitters 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.” 

Gabrielle Silverman (“my tree-sitter 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 tree-sitter 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. 


Another venue 

It was a different set of lawyers who appeared in Judge Miller’s Hayward courtroom Tuesday morning, the same four stalwarts who had conducted last year’s lengthy battle over the legality of the UC Board of Regents’ approval of the Southeast Campus Integrated Projects (SCIP).