Tree Sitters’ Final Hours in Berkeley

Berkeley’s latest political battle may be coming to an end: the UC has won a series of decisions in cases brought by local activist groups seeking to prevent the destruction of grove of trees right next to the law school. UC wants to build a sports facility there for our athletes.

The battle over this grove of trees has created a real circus on campus. At one point, perhaps two dozen people were living in the trees. Some came down voluntarily, and when the UC started plucking them from the trees, one protester known as Dumpster Muffin climbed to the highest tree and shook the platform. She was fearless! That platform is 9 or 10 stories high.

Despite these individuals sacrifices and the underlying cause, I’ve found myself cheering the UC on this issue. Why? It all started when I visited the grove, and found a huge sign hanging from the trees that read “end global capitalism.” Ah. Okay. So, is this about the environment, or it is some larger, hugely naive proxy battle against all development? As this event has unfolded over the past almost two years, it appears to be to be the latter.

Their PR machine quickly started spinning. A tree sitter fell from a tree, and as if it were scripted in advance, they promptly blamed it on the UC! Any action that UC takes to remove the protesters results in invocations of the term “hate crime.” I visited the tree grove a few weeks ago and people were shouting “Guantanamo Berkeley.” There are videos of the police trying to stop food supplies to the tree sitters, and protesters are yelling “fuck you” to the officers’ faces. It’s all a little unreasonable.

Berkeley is different than most campuses, in that we leave large areas of the property unmanicured. We have very limited space at here, and if you look at a map, it becomes clear that the only place we can expand campus is along our eastern border, most of which is covered in trees. In light of the protest, UC has promised to plant three trees (one mature and two saplings) for each of the 45 removed. After that concession was made, I thought it would be reasonable to end the protest. UC is under incredible political pressure to serve more students in more ways, and we need to expand. Planting new trees is an excellent compromise.

But the protest continues, at the cost of $40,000 a day of taxpayers’ money. A huge amount of police resources are diverted to keeping new sitters out of the trees. Earlier this year, the UC’s chief of police wrote an email to Berkeley students (many of whom oppose “hippies in trees”) about the conflict. It’s a thoughtful letter, and I wish all police chiefs were capable of writing such a thing. I was particularly swayed by this passage:

At this point we are all waiting for the court’s ruling on the lawsuits filed against the plans to build a new Student Athlete High Performance Center, a decision that is now expected no later than June. Until then the trees, by court order, cannot be touched. It’s also worth mentioning that if, at the end of the legal process, we are not cleared to begin construction, the University will have to live with the final ruling. Meanwhile, the tree-sitters vow to abide by only those court decisions they agree with.

These people will not compromise. While they invoke “rule of law” when it suits them, they themselves have lost all their lawsuits. This is exactly the type of “mob rule” that critics of democracy warns us of. It’s the same mentality that drives attacks on UC scientists. Once removed from the trees, I wonder what they’ll do next.