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A branch office for Berkeley protesters

Activists take to the trees, fighting university plans to demolish a grove to make way for a sports training facility.

November 07, 2007|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — If the University of California is the home of campus protest, finding the correct address is simple. Just follow the messages written in brightly colored chalk on the sidewalk of Piedmont Avenue alongside Memorial Stadium.

All Life Is Sacred

Value Life Not Capital

Trees = Oxygen

Love Your Mother.

When USC fans show up for Saturday's football game against Cal, there will be plenty of reading material, and it's there at their feet.

Welcome to Protest Central, where the roots grow deep in the campus soil. Protest is a well-known concept here, nurtured by the Free Speech Movement of Mario Savio in 1964, the People's Park protest of 1969 and the crackdowns by UC system President Clark Kerr.

The latest version of what happens when protest and free speech collide with a major university is brought to you by the tree-sitters of Berkeley. They are such people as a barefooted protester calling himself Shem, who spends his days on a platform high in an old oak tree to protect it, so that the University of California won't cut it down, or any of the other 41 trees nearby.

As many as 10 others camp out in the trees, trying to save them from being axed to make way for a $125-million athletic training center that the school plans to build. The proposed facility would adjoin the football stadium, and its construction is a flash point not just for the protesters, but also for Cal's popular football coach, Jeff Tedford, who could opt out of his contract if a new facility is not built.

Shem can't remember how long he's been out on a limb, but he said it doesn't matter. "It's tree time," he said.

Chances are, tree time is about up.

Joe McDonald of Berkeley, the lead singer in the 1960s band Country Joe and the Fish, is a backer of the "Save the Oaks" campaign. But he doesn't think it's going to end well for the tree-sitters.

"I think they're gonna pull 'em right out of the trees and slam 'em in jail, cut down the trees and build a sports facility," McDonald said. "Money talks, and so does sports."

The university's stance is that the tone of the protests has changed and that at least some of the tree-sitting contingent wants conflict.

"This is no longer some quirky, Berkeley protest," school spokesman Dan Mogulof said. "We plan on exploring every option to settle this peacefully. There are some seriously misguided kids up there."

The university has offered to plant two saplings and one mature tree for every tree removed.

"There are some real old-growth forests that need protection," Mogulof said. "This isn't one of them. This is a 1923 landscaping project. What's happened is bordering on the absurd."

Naturally, the tree-sitters don't feel the same.

It's been 341 days since they decided to climb a tree, wrap themselves in what they said were their 1st Amendment rights, and plant themselves in direct opposition to the university's plans for a state-of-the art training facility along the southwest side of the 84-year-old stadium.

Zachary Running Wolf of Berkeley is a Native American community leader who aids and supports the protesters. He said the new building wouldn't only eliminate the old trees, it would also be erected on a Native American burial ground.

"How would you like it if they dug into the final resting place of your ancestors?" he asked.

But the university remains unmoved by the rationale of the protesters. In August, an 8-foot-high chain-link fence was erected around the perimeter of the grove to create a buffer zone between the tree-sitters and football fans.

The tree-sitters have had problems receiving supplies, but Shem says whatever inconveniences he's gone through are worth it.

"It's the best thing I've ever done. It's the first time I've followed my heart without conflict," Shem said. "We are the truth and nonviolent. This is a spiritual conflict."

It's also a legal conflict. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Barbara Miller may rule as early as the end of the month on a lawsuit filed by the city of Berkeley, the tree supporters and neighbors who want the training facility stopped.

The university expects a ruling in its favor, which would clear the way for construction and lead to the removal of the tree-sitters. Mogulof said the university always had the ability to evict the tree-sitters because they are in violation of campus policy.

"The people in the trees aren't protecting the trees, it's the judge's [pending] order that's affecting the construction project," he said.

Mogulof said he saw butane gas stoves in the trees recently but hadn't noticed any this week. Running Wolf scoffed.

"They're worried about a fire hazard damaging the trees when their intent is to destroy the entire grove? It's ludicrous," he said.

In the meantime, the protest continues. A ground crew is on duty around the clock to make sure the tree-sitters' needs are met. Ropes to the perches in the trees raise supplies, and the platforms are covered by tarps for protection from the elements.

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