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.


  1. mayhempix

    Disclaimer: I was born in Berkeley and my Dad and brother were both students (I ended up at UCI).

    While I ultimately agree you I still have some mixed emotions on this one. If they were removing the trees for new classrooms, a lecture hall or anything related to academic education and preparing students for the real world, I would have no problem with their removal. But in this case it’s for a sports facility. I’m not anti-sports, however at a time when UC student fees keep rising and the chances of getting in keep decreasing, the image of a sports facility does not seem to fit with the spirit “to serve more students in more ways…” Sports are great entertainment and I applaud those who excel in them, however few students nor society as a whole will attain lasting benefits in the bigger picture.

  2. D. C. Sessions

    You misunderstand the whole point. By this clever ruse they are discrediting the use of terms like “hate crime” so that the public no longer responds to actual hate crimes and thus the Evil Hate Crime Conspiracy that supports them can continue its nefarious schemes without public response.

  3. I’m with PalMD on this one. You must obey the laws, not just the ones that favor your position at the time. Recently a protester at the RNC (I live nearby Saint Paul) was complaining that the police were “assaulting” the protesters who were only there “to break windows as a form of nonviolent protest, not to hurt anybody.” Huh?

    One wonders how much more money the university could dedicate to students if it weren’t constantly involved in ridiculous lawsuits all the time. Don’t the protestors realize the effects of their actions, or is their moral superiority blinding them?

  4. Uhh, I meant Chris, not PalMD. D’oh!

  5. @mayhempix, my partner and I were walking up Bancroft last night, and she was remarking how wasteful the baseball stadium was! It does take up a huge amount of prime space… Maybe we should knock it down and put the athletic center there.

    @Brad, it is a high compliment to be confused with PalMD.

  6. It’s time for them to come down from the trees to join the rest of humanity. (Yes, that is an evolution jab)

    @mayhempix, I understand what you mean. I never understood how college sports came to so dominate the economic landscape of universities. My own university has recently decided to create a football team from a previously student organized one.

    I go to a public school, and the effect this is going to have on fees is not negligible, although it is deferred since the team will have to raise initial money themselves. When these sports, which are televised and popular among non-students, bring money into the university rather than taking it out I’ll be content to cheer them on.

    However, this is something the students should have blocked through their student government or analogous body. Antics like this make it very hard to be taken seriously when discussing real environmental concerns.

  7. I am a strong environmentalist with a masters degree in environmental management and am living in Berkeley. I support environmental causes nearly as strong as anyone can while maintaining a grip on reality, so I have sympathy for the passion and emotions of the tree-sitters.

    I just wish, from their elevated vantage point, these tree-sitters, who assert their continued efforts demonstrate an unwavering social consciousness, would be able to observe the growing homeless population camped out in People’s Park or the daily struggles going on in Oakland. Confronted with the thought that the daily social cost of continuing to fight a lost battle in the name of a grove of trees, several people/families could be lifted out of poverty for a full year. They might then change their tune.

    One wonders how it would play out if the city began a negotiation by offering to make a donation of half a million dollars (~two weeks cost) to some social justice/environmental cause if the protesters vacated their posts. Would the students/citizens vilify them for taking money out of the hands of the needy?

  8. D. C. Sessions

    I just wish, from their elevated vantage point, these tree-sitters, who assert their continued efforts demonstrate an unwavering social consciousness, would be able to observe the growing homeless population camped out in People’s Park or the daily struggles going on in Oakland. Confronted with the thought that the daily social cost of continuing to fight a lost battle in the name of a grove of trees, several people/families could be lifted out of poverty for a full year. They might then change their tune.

    Don’t go there.

    Do you have even the faintest notion of the social programs that could be financed by selling off national parks and forests for development etc? That’s just one example.

    Even if you can see a difference between your proposal and “paying the protesters for silence,” the general public certainly won’t — especially if it’s sold to them by someone with an agenda. After that, it’s slippery-slope time.

    If it’s wrong, say so. Say it loud, say it proud — but you won’t win all the battles. In that regard, they’re really no different from the anti-abortion [1] recalcitrants or the anti-automation labor activists or … In fact, in any remotely free society you’re guaranteed to lose a few. Well, it’s an imperfect universe. Deal.

    The childishness here is not in their efforts to make their point but in their unwillingness to move on once their message has been heard. The current program is past the point of diminishing returns and there have to be better uses for their time. If they’re genuinely concerned for the environment, they might consider the fact that California has stripped the water (and consequently the vegetation) from large parts of California and much of the West to support a lush irrigated landscape in Southern California. Starting to curb subsidized waste of water there is a fight that might even be winnable.

    Hmmm — maybe that’s the problem. Maybe “winnable” isn’t a Good Thing.

    [1] No, it’s not “pro-life.” It’s also “anti-anti-abortion,” not “pro-choice.” Sue me.

  9. @John,

    Am I reading this totally wrong, or was the People’s Park compromise a mistake that the University learned from? In that the protest established the area as a free speech zone (instead of student dorms), and now it’s just a large, outdoor homeless encampment.


  10. Remove the police and let chips (or people) fall where they may. It is high time that we stop wasting resources on protecting people from their own idiocy, particularly when they bring it on themselves after being fully informed of the risks.

  11. mayhempix

    @Chris H
    You might be on to something. If they replaced the baseball stadium with the sports facility and announced something like a new Department of Environmental Epidemiology on the proposed site instead, it would make a strong statement and take the wind out of sympathetic supporters of the tree sitters.

    Great blog by the way, it’s one of my RSS subscriptions. I lurk most of the time and greatly enjoy PalMD. But it is also nice to see you and your brother weighing in again at times.

  12. Chris asked “Once removed from the trees, I wonder what they’ll do next.”

    Many will probably adopt another cause, such as the endangered corduroy. Their rallying cry “Save the wale.”

  13. Actually, I think you are missing a key point here Mayhempix. Too many of these people are less interested in saving trees than they are fighting the “global conspiracy to ruin the environment!”, or some similar idiocy, and they see globalization as the “central” thing causing it. There is often a reason for this too. A lot of them are “funded” indirectly, in recent decades, by businesses that can’t compete globally, so find themselves, for entirely selfish reasons, apposed to anyone that can. They have been *caught* promoting false information, injecting radicals from their own companies into the mix to spread it, and rally people against globalization, etc. Actual environmentalists have started to get seriously annoyed at these people, who are clueless, shilling for companies, even if they don’t *think* they are doing so, and babbling about how the world will be a worse off place by making people around the world business partners, instead of resource rivals. And here is the irony… If you take a real good look at “stable” international relations, the ones least likely to start wars with each other are the ones who are economically dependent on each other. Frankly, I think that is one of the only reasons Saudi Arabia has never been in the cross hairs, despite their own support for some very backwards internal terror groups, and possible indirect support for others. We, right now, depend on them for most of our oil, so someone like Bush or McCain, or who ever else might be running things, ***has to*** play nice with them, or risk the nations already shaky prosperity. Unfortunately, this is all one sided, since there isn’t a damn thing they want from us, other than money, and it kind of scares me a little to think what the pro-war Republicans might do if we ever succeeding in drilling in Alaska, or otherwise reducing/removing out dependence on people we can’t really trust.

    Ages ago, some president played nice to China, and now China is sliding by jerks and starts towards more openness, more freedom, and a society at least “closer” to ours than they ever where since the communist government took over there. It didn’t happen because they found they couldn’t function otherwise. It happened because they figured out that trade was more prosperous than paranoia, and that you can’t trade without some sort of innovation and freedom to do so in their own borders. But, they trade **everything**. In the ME is different. Their leaders ideologically don’t want anything we have, the export nothing but oil and intolerance, and instead of looking for some clever, and **cautious**, way to change that trend, **we** opt to play simplistic politics, buy oil and ship them Christian fundamentalists trying to convert people to a religion they don’t want, the only thing useful to them in that scenario is the money, and we don’t have the slightest clue or control over what they do with it, but we know its not planting fig trees to sell to the west, or opening chains of McMohammed Middle Eastern fast food restaurants.

    Ironically, the people who claim environmental protection while whining about globalization are not helping to make the world better (controlling and limiting what global entities can “do” would, but they don’t want global entities at all), but are just pushing us towards a position in which external trade is reduced, the interdependence between nations collapses, and no one has any reason to not just get pissed off at each other and “take” what they want, or destroy the things some lunatic tells them are evil, in more wars, instead of trading for it and thus either getting it, or learning that its just product, which they can buy or ignore, instead of demonizing.

    Yeah. I have 0 sympathy for any group that ***ever*** tacks some “We are members of the anti-globalization conspiracy group.” No coma, semi-colon, etc. needed to clarify the sentence, since, sadly, sometimes being anti-globalization conspiracists *is* accurate. lol

  14. ivy privy

    Ah, so that’s where the ‘Save the Weeds Coalition’ (SWC) went after bothering Cornell in 2005. Cornell wanted to build a parking lot on land it owned, which was filled with low quality, non-native trees of no ecological or economic worth. Local politicians do what they do best, by pandering to sentiment with statements about “sacred” places. I was very disappointed with a few friends who sympathized with the SWC on the grounds that “it was good to see young people enthusiastic about something.” What lame-ass reasoning. Enthusiasm is not inherently good if it is directed for an unworthy cause.

  15. ivy privy

    and in a few instances tree-sitters pelted police, arborists and private security guards with feces and urine.

    Here’s an idea: charge them with bio-terrorism.

  16. mayhempix

    @Kagehi “Actually, I think you are missing a key point here Mayhempix. Too many of these people are less interested in saving trees than they are fighting the “global conspiracy to ruin the environment!”…”

    Actually I think you missed my key point. I wrote “… take the wind out of sympathetic supporters of the tree sitters…”, not the tree sitters themselves. From a political point of view, that helps to neutralize those in the community who are not happy that it is a sports arena going in and helps to marginalize the sitters, who in my opinion should be ignored by the authorities while the issue winds through the courts and bureaucracies.

    I agree about conspiracy groups however it does no good to aggressively attack and arrest them as some advocate. That only poors fuel on the emotional fire and keeps them pumped up. Better to ignore while clearing the political brush until they tire from lack of attention and most move on. Usually only one or two true believers will remain and by that time the press and community are no longer interested.

  17. @mayhempix, what’s interesting re: environmental sciences, is that there have been pretty large protests against taking the $500M we’ve been given by BP to create an alternative fuels center! It’s a lot of money, being distributed all over campus, in order to do research on something that could really help the environment. The standard argument against this research gift is that it corrupts UC’s independence by corporate interests. However, it is *clearly against* the rules to allow an outside funder to control research independence or publication of results. In fact, I am not allowed to even take a grant where the grantor can exercise a veto over publishing results/research.

  18. Rogue Epidemiologist

    I propose they deport the dirty hippies to West Oakland. Preferably around 3am. We should’ve paved People’s Park(ing Lot) when we had the chance. Go Bears!

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