Public Comment

What the University Must Do Now
To Stop the People's Park Tree-Sit
From Busting U.C.'s Budget

By Ted Friedman
Tuesday January 25, 2011 - 04:20:00 PM

When the last tree-sit protester descended from his oak at the U.C. Memorial Stadium oak grove in 2008 after the longest urban tree-sit in America, the university had spent nearly a half million dollars for security, extra policing, and incidentals.  

And those were fat economic times. 

But in the wake of $637.1 million dollars worth of U.C. budget cuts, and an additional proposed 500 million cut for 2011, cancelled sports programs, cancelled classes, and massive layoffs, the university can ill afford unnecessary bills. 

Yet Oak Grove 2, a low-key tree-sit presently accelerating in People's Park, could be the straw that breaks the camel's purse. 

While presently a small action (by design, says its organizer), there are signs of expansion. Supporting funds, which fell off in the worst of winter, have resumed. More support people have come forward. Wider leafletting has begun. 

False spring or not, spring-like weather may heat the passions of protesters. 

After breaking the 10 P.M. park curfew for four months --if sleeping atop a 40-foot cedar can be counted--the protesters last week demanded an end to the park curfew. That's not all they're demanding. 

Re-naming the park Muwekma (western people's) Park and calling for recognition of the Ohlone Indian tribe's "rightful" claim to ownership of the park, Zachary Running 

Wolf Brown, 47, founder of the Oak Grove protest is progressing towards another record-setting protest. Oak Grove 1 lasted more than two years. 

The strategies from Oak Grove 1 seem to be repeating in People's Park. If only someone would come forward with proof that Native American remains lie beneath the park, the Oak Grove comparison would be complete. 

Oak Grove 2, began as a protest against George Beier's district 7 city council campaign calls to change People's Park. If Beier's rhetoric seemed to echo the "findings" of a 2008 university commissioned planning study, it might be because he was on the university committee that commissioned it. 

Less than a week before the city council elections, Midnight Matt, 53, a veteran of Oak Grove 1, went up a cedar tree to protest Beier's proposals. 

Beier lost, but the protest grows. Nor has the university changed the park, as protestors feared. 

A university people's park spokesman has ignored this reporters' repeated questions on the university's plans for the park except to repeat the mantra of its planning study: "we want the park to be a clean and welcoming place." 

Tree sitting is unwelcome. But other than to bust one sitter on an outstanding court warrant when he descended his tree while under surveillance, police are taking a hands off attitude. Running Wolf says they harass tree-sitters and rip off the sitter's property. 

Although the university liberally funded a marketing firm's planning study, it clearly cannot now afford the changes the study recommended. Funding for the park 

has been reduced, according to park workers. 

In perhaps a bitter aftermath to Beier's failed campaign, the park is neither clean nor welcoming--to use the planning study's words. All the "problems" listed in the study persist, and may have worsened. 

What can the university do as it finds itself on the verge of yet another bureaucratic blunder? Cede the park to the Ohlones--to Running Wolf? Running Wolf, an elder in the Blackfeet tribe, a graduate of Berkeley High School and former mayoral candidate, modestly declines to take possession of the park. He also declines to negotiate with the university. 

"I'll negotiate with them, when they hand over the park," he vows. 

Action on District 7 councilman's Kriss Worthington's campaign proposal to return the park to the city, the park's former overseer, to be administered by the East Bay Regional Park District is at least a long way off, if not languishing. Perhaps responsibility for the park has become a liability. 

The Berkeley-East Bay Regional Park idea is not popular with Running Wolf, who favors a governing park council composed of park activists, founders, and regular park users. 

According to the university's nine month planning study based on "interviews, workshops, and public forums," active park users--the study's term--believe the park "belongs to the people, and will resist attempts at change." 

Perhaps. But could not all sides accept some version of the following speculative proposal: 

End the 10p park curfew immediately. This avoids a costly showdown with protesters as well as insuring that park users do not sleep on nearby neighborhood walks. 

Appoint a coalition of park activists, park users, and park founders along with the university (advisory) to administer the park. There would be budget savings, and perhaps "the people" are best equipped to address problem peers in the park. A possible theme: "Respect the Park to Keep it Ours."  

As a prelude to community-based management, restore the free clothes box. Everyone wants to look their best. The university's continuing removal of clothes boxes has been a sore point with park users since 2006. This would restore goodwill. 

Install acacia trees to replace those removed. Removal of the trees spawned protests in 2008. This good-will gesture might signal an end to pointless feuding between town and gown. 

Cede plant and tree maintenance to community gardeners. Such gardeners created an oasis (complete with a magnificent palm tree) from a field of mud. Besides, every time university gardeners tend plants and trees in the park, activists complain. Ceding such maintenance to an already active core of volunteer community gardeners would end the hassles. 

Sponsor an academic conference to explore the role of Native Americans in and around campus, including People's Park, and, if warranted, install a monument (financed by private donations) to Native Americans in the park after an open competition for its design. This would redress decades of Cal native american student grievances going back to the sixties.  

These are merely my own ideas, based on my previous reports in the Planet, my reading of the university planning study, and interviewing activists and some U.C. park workers. 


Are these proposals fanciful? Not according to the university's own planning study which muses, "…the park can, however, form an identity around humanistic values, responsible citizenship, environmental stewardship, and open dialogue so that at risk populations are not excluded from the park." 


Ted Friedman lives a half block from People's Park. This is his fourth piece on the park.