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Tree-Sitters Recall Battle Over Grove

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday September 18, 2008 - 09:18:00 AM
Mando, one of the last four tree-sitters to come down last week, talks to reporters during a Wednesday morning press conference.
By Richard Brenneman
Mando, one of the last four tree-sitters to come down last week, talks to reporters during a Wednesday morning press conference.

Berkeley tree-sitters and their supporters returned Wednesday morning to the site of their 648-day vigil to reflect on their ultimately doomed battle to save the grove. 

On hand were three of the final four occupants of the grove, along with the first of the tree-sitters and one of their most high-profile members, as well as a small crowd of print and television reporters and camera operators. 

Behind them, draped on the walls of Memorial Stadium, banners declared the university’s agenda: Building, as in “Building Dreams,” “Building Spirit,” “Building Leaders” and “Building the Future.” 

The air was redolent with the heady scent of sap emanating from the mounds of wood chips that had once been 41 coastal live oaks, a redwood and an assortment of other trees hacked down to make way for the Student Athlete High Performance Center—a four-level high-tech gym and office complex that will occupy the site along the stadium’s western wall. 

The struggle ended Aug. 9 when a contract crew hired by the university surrounded their final redoubt with a scaffold that rose throughout the morning and early afternoon to reach the protesters’ platform high in the last tree designated to fall, the same redwood that Zachary Running Wolf has ascended 21 months earlier to begin the arboreal occupation. 

“We didn’t really expect a staircase all the way up the tree,” said Nesto (Ernesto Trevino), one of the last four tree-sitters, as he recalled the final hours when sections of prefabricated staircase rose with the scaffolding ever closer to their perch. 

“Higher education finally comes through,” quipped Huck (Raul Colocho), the last tree-sitter to surrender. “Those guys were pretty awesome,” he said of the crews who built what was, in effect, a siege tower. Also awesome, he said, is Huckleberry Finn, from whom he took his tree-sitter name. 

Nesto, who was born in Mexico and grew up in Las Vegas, went up into the redwood in May. At 18, the youngest of the final four, he had been visiting in the Bay Area and learned of the tree-sit when he came to the East Bay to visit a friend. 

Mando (Aremando Resendez), who is 20, said he had joined the tree-sit because he consider the action a part of the struggle for the rights of indigenous peoples, but when he saw the scaffolding rise, “I knew it was time to leave. Originally from California, he had been “traveling up and down California, and eventually found this place.” 

All four of the last tree-sitters spent the weekend in jail, where one, Shem, remained as of Wednesday morning in lieu of $15,000 in bail. Also known as Fresh, he was saddled with $22,000 in outstanding warrants at the time of his surrender. 

Ayr (Erik Eisenberg), who coordinated support for the tree-sitters from the ground, said that “while it’s obviously disappointing that the trees are gone, we’ve inspired people across the globe,” including the hundreds who climbed into the trees at some point during the protest. 

Running Wolf, who describes himself as a “Native American leader, an elder and now a mayoral candidate,” repeated a charge also made by the tree-sitters and some tribal members that the building site is also the location of an Ohlone burial ground.  

While the university contests the evidence cited by tree-sit supporters, spokesperson Dan Mogulof has said the first action planned before construction is an archaeological survey. 

Running Wolf said the Ohlones are asking the university to hire another consultant than the one currently under contract, who, he said, is not regarded by many tribe members as a suitable pick for the survey. 

“We continue to fight” the university on different issues, he said, with animal rights leading his list. 

Dumpster Muffin (Amanda Tierney), who became one of the most high-profile members of the tree-sit, was teary-eyed as she read a prepared joint statement on behalf of all the tree-sitters, and then recalled with fondness the days “I lived up there with my friends.” 

Also on hand was Buck, a supporter who was arrested for misdemeanor battery on a police officer on the final day of the arrest. He had opened the session holding a striking black and white photo of the grove as it had been before the fences went up and the chainsaws fired up. 

While the tree-sitters faulted the university for sending up contract arborists who attempted to dislodge them during their protest, their harshest words were directed at Vice Chancellor Nathan Brostrom, who they said had reneged on a promise to form a committee composed of university and city officials as well as community members to vet future land-use planning decisions by the school. 

Brostrom and Mogulof have denied that any such promises were made. 

For the time being, the tree-sitters are sharing a community house in Albany as they prepare for their battles with the criminal justice system and plan their next efforts to challenge, in the words of their joint statement, an “economic system (that) is poisoning everything we need to survive.” 

“Today,” they said, “the answer is, ‘Keep loving, keep fighting.’ ”