Public Comment

Tree Sitters Disgraced the Progressive Movement

By H. Scott Prosterman
Thursday July 03, 2008 - 10:07:00 AM

The protesters occupying a grove of trees on the UC campus represent a total disgrace to the liberal and progressive movement. Biting people and dumping feces on them is not what Ghandi advocated. Martin Luther King, Jr. is rolling over in his grave.  

Julia Butterfly Hill became a role-model for activists with her brave occupation of a corporate timber farm. She endured great hardship and accomplished something important. The Save The Oaks occupiers tried to equate building an athletic-education facility with the same level of corporate brutality that Weyerhauser has wrecked on the environment. Not even close. They misstated the history of the trees in that grove in their pleadings and public statements. They refuse to acknowledge the environmental mitigating factors of this project, or the valid education agenda. They are egoistic Butterfly wannabees, who have managed to hyperbolize a cause out of nothing!  

There are valid arguments for questioning this development project, not the least of which is seismic concerns. But the Save The Oaks movement has been characterized by a common affliction of the progressive community: that organized sports are bad. Please! Let’s recognize the need for “balance” in people’s lives, and the right for student-athletes to be given an advantage to excel. Berkeley is full of bright people; yet many of them have a limited scope of knowledge. They are condescending and dismissive of anything that does not interest them, including includes college football.  

I happen to enjoy football, as well as basketball, track, swimming and gymnastics. In Berkeley, I like being able to see occasional world-class performances for simply showing up and rooting for the home team. Football and basketball revenue pays for track, swimming and gymnastics, among others. Cross-country and tennis scholarships come from football revenue. You can’t argue with the good that comes from allowing a young person to EARN his/her education by doing something they love. Football revenue makes women’s crew, field hockey and soccer scholarships possible! Sadly, there are people in Berkeley who find this to be objectionable. To them, the physical aspect of education and collegiate competition are bourgeois excesses.  

There is a perverse dilemma in many progressive communities: advocating good health and “moderate” exercise, but discouraging competitive activities. Indeed the YMCA’s and JCC’s have done their children a great dis-service by de-emphasizing competition in their youth sports programs. (“We don’t Johnny to feel bad about himself, so we won’t set him up to lose,” . . . or excel if he happens to have a gift.) Children who have exceptional capabilities in sports are being punished by over-protective parents whose children who don’t have the same blessings. So, collective punishment is another downside of this snooty elitism.  

The tree-sitters debacle encapsulates many problems with the progressive movement that are amplified by the dynamics of Berkeley politics. It all reflects on the ultimate downside of liberalism; protecting the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Berkeley has earned a global reputation for progressive leadership; yet under Mayor Tom Bates, our local government has dispensed with the most basic element of representative government: being responsive to constituents’ communications. 

Mayor Bates, City Manager Kamlarz and the entire City Council have amply demonstrated that being responsive to constituents’ calls and e-mails is a quaint custom of the past. Throughout its history, Berkeley has been a positive leader in the progressive movement: curb cuts for wheelchairs, residential recycling, an innovative police department (at least more thoughtful than most), no-smoking bans and other progressive legislation. Promoting bicycle safety has been part of the script for every Berkeley politician since the Free Speech Movement. Yet, Bates and his City Council have ignored many, many communications about actually improving bicycle safety. They talk green, but their actions are brown.  

The conservative movement has done great damage to this country—it is incalculable and tragic. In many ways the Democratic Party has been shamefully acquiescent to the Bush Jr. agenda, including capitulating to warrant less eavesdropping last week. In many ways, the Democrats have been running scared of the Right since Reagan, and never recovered. As a result, progressive legislation now only comes from the local level, and hopefully works its way up the government food chain. As such, Berkeley needs to set a better example.  

Ms. Dumpster Muffin is a curious case. She placed herself at great risk in an unstable structure 100 feet above the ground. News accounts say that she began moving and swinging wildly when the rescuers approached. So, what if she had fallen and died, God forbid. She would have been a martyr to what? Stupidity. What if a rescuer/arborist had fallen and died? Who would have been charged with what? This occupation has been superfluous and destructive. The Berkeley police and UC Berkeley have expended great resources to protect the tree-sitters ... from themselves.  

So what would King and Ghandi have advised the tree-sitters? Having given considerable study to both, I might project that they would advise: 

“Hold true to your goals; be forceful in stating your ideals, but do not ever lose your dignity. That means no biting rescuers or dumping shit on them. Resist for as long as it is safe and you are making a positive statement. When the authorities come to arrest you or ask you to leave, engage in passive resistance. Allow yourself to be taken with dignity, or vacate the occupation when you can see that losing a particular battle is inevitable. Remember that a lost battle can become a source of strength for the overall goal. Maintain your dignity.” 


H. Scott Prosterman is a Berkeley