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UC Removes Ropes at Oak Grove Protest, Erects Extra Barricade

By Richard Brenneman and Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday February 22, 2008
A crowd sends food and water up to the oaks tree-sitters on Wednesday, a day after UC police cut down some tree supports.
By David Wallace
A crowd sends food and water up to the oaks tree-sitters on Wednesday, a day after UC police cut down some tree supports.

The battle of attrition between UC Berkeley and the Memorial Stadium tree-sitters flared again Tuesday morning. 

The casualties were limited to one fallen arboreal crash pad and some rope lines that enabled protesters to move from one tree to another high above the ground and the noses of university cleanup crews. 

The branch-borne protest is aimed at protecting the grove, where the university plans to axe a venerable collection of coastal live oaks, a redwood, and other trees to make way for a high tech gym and office complex. 

“We’re taking the opportunity today because there are fewer numbers in the trees to take out the lines and any materials that put people at risk, and also one platform,” said Mitch Celaya, deputy chief of UC Berkeley Police.  

“We are not planning to remove any protesters today.” Performing the work in the branches was an arborist who scaled the oak where tree-sitter Karuna had been residing on a platform beneath a large plastic tarp. Armed with a pair of long-handled branch cutters, he snipped lines and the platform’s support as other tree-sitters and watchers on the sidewalk called out taunts. 

“Don’t mind me. I’m just doing my job,” called out one tree-sitter in a mockery of the bureaucratic mantra. “Shame,” called a voice from the sidewalk. 

On Wednesday campus police set up a temporary barricade in front on the two existing fences minutes before a press conference scheduled by tree supporters at the site. 

According to Kristen Pickett, a tree supporter, the press conference was meant to highlight the dangerous situation created by the university when they sent up the climber to cut the ropes that helped the tree sitters get around from one tree-top to another. 

“We want to point out the gross hypocrisy of the university spokesperson who said that the climber had been set up for safety and sanitary concerns,” she said. “The climber left the cut ropes recklessly hanging from the trees, which is life threatening.” 

Dumpster Muffin, a tree sitter, said that two of the tree sitters had almost died from the dummy ropes that had been left hanging from the trees. 

Pickett said that after the press conference was over, tree supporters tried to send up food supplies to the tree sitters. 

“That’s when the police moved in and got physical with them,” she said. “But we were able to send up food and water anyway. It was a beautiful example of people power.” 

A number of tree supporters opposed the barricade that Celaya said was dismantled Wednesday night. 

“We put it up before the press conference to deter the tree supporters from bringing in building materials,” he told the Planet. “It was in response to them advertising that were going to resupply the tree sitters with things to build platforms and other forms of lodging up there ... Our focus was not to prevent food and water from going up there.” 

Pickett said she objected to the university police building a barricade on City of Berkeley property. 

“I think it’s illegal,” she said. “It’s impeding right of passage on a public thoroughfare.” 

“Yes, the sidewalk is city property, but if we are trying to stop a criminal act we can take the necessary steps required to prevent it from happening,” Celaya said. 

“Everything that was handed up there was food,” said Asa Dodsworth, a neighborhood activist who was present at the site. “It seems pretty apparent that they were trying to starve out the tree sitters and not doing it for health and human safety.” 

Dan Mogulof, executive director of UC Berkeley’s public affairs office, said the raid was done for safety reasons, and wasn’t part of any effort to evict the tree-sitters. 

Doug Buckwald of Save the Oaks and veteran tree-sit supporter said he doubted the university’s rationale for the raid. 

“We don’t know what safety issues were being addressed by removing supplies and safety lines,” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense. And how can they justify the increased police presence at the grove when there has been an increase in violent crime near the campus?” 

On the legal front, the battle of the grove is heading toward a climax, with a March 7 hearing in a Hayward courtroom slated for the final arguments in the lawsuit filed by the City of Berkeley, Councilmember Dona Spring, the California Oak Foundation and city neighbors. 

A final decision in that case should follow within 30 days. 

That suit seeks to overturn the action by UC Regents approving the critical environmental document needed before the university can build the Student Athlete High Performance Center at the site of the grove as well as an underground parking lot and other nearby construction projects. 

The university has already won a restraining order against the tree-sitters, and has made frequent arrests of the sitters and their supporters. 

Campus crews set up barricades on the sidewalk outside the grove Wednesday, where supporters of the tree-sitters were scheduled to resupply the tree-sitters later in the day. 

“That didn’t interfere with the resupply,” said Running Wolf Thursday. “We just kind of went around it.” 

After campus police started arresting individuals as they sent up food and other necessities and took away bodily waste and other trash, tree-sit supporters responded by making the resupply efforts public events, with volunteer grandmothers doing the work. 

Campus police have proved more reluctant about arresting grandmothers from the Berkeley community than they have been about arresting the university’s own students. 

So far, the strategy has worked.