Berkeley Tree-Sit Finally Ends
Berkeley, September 9, 2008
The ongoing "tree-sit" protest to stop construction of an athletic training center on the U.C. Berkeley campus finally came to a conclusion on September 9, 2008, when the last tree-sitters came down from the one remaining tree. The scene attracted a huge crowd of sympathizers, detractors, onlookers and media.
A recent legal ruling had cleared the way for the university to begin construction after a seemingly interminable series of delays which lasted over a year and a half. Within hours of the ruling, campus work crews felled all but two of the disputed trees which had occupied the work site -- one that was to be transplanted elsewhere, and the other (a redwood) which housed the last four tree-sitters. A few days later, on September 9, after negotiations failed to convince them to come down of their own accord, the police had no choice but to bring them down whether they liked it or not. The stage was set for the final act.
Here's the last tree, which arborists had stripped of its lower branches, isolating the tree-sitters in their makeshift treehouse near the top. Everyone was wondering how in the world the police were planning to extricate them. The answer: They rapidly built a scaffolding tower that stretched nearly 100 feet in the air, completely surrounding the tree.
It's nearly impossible to show the entire setting of the protest in a single photograph, because of the awkward placement of the trees, the hillside, the stadium and the crowds. This is the best I could do: The building on the left is the edge of Memorial Stadium, where the Cal football team plays. Next to it are a crane and a cherry picker, which carried the police negotiators. Then, after an unrelated tree in the middle, the stripped remaining redwood is visible, with some tree-sitters still perched in its branches. In the foreground are a few of the many media vans swarming around the site. And in the sky, barely visible, is a police (or media) helicopter.
From the front, much of the scene is obscured by street-level trees (that aren't in the construction area). You can see the swarm of people on the ground under the trees, and the insanely tall crane above.
By the time I showed up shortly after noon, the crowd was bigger than I'd ever seen at the site. All in all, I'd say there were at least 1,000 people there.
After just a few hours of construction, the scaffolding reached nearly to the top of the tree. The four tree-sitters must have realized the end of the road was near. One of them caved in first, and was led down the scaffolding staircase while the other three watched from above.
After another one gave up, the last two decided they weren't going to go down without a fight. They climbed up the last few feet of the tree to their rickety perch at the very very top.
U.C. Berkeley Police Chief Victoria Harrison swung over in her dangling negotiation platform. I couldn't hear the conversation, but I imagine it started with, "Are you guys nuts? Get offa there!"
Famed former tree-sitter Dumpster Muffin danced on the street below in the crowd. Protestshooter has more pictures of Dumpster (as well as clearer pictures of Chief Harrison) in his report on the day's events.
Another entirely separate crowd was clustered across the street. Any area with a view of the tree-top was crammed with people.
Clown is sad! Sad about trees!
Chief Harrison simply wouldn't give up. I seriously doubt "swinging a hundred feet off the ground in a little cage while arguing with lunatics at the top of a spindly tree" was on the job description when she accepted the position as campus police chief.
Miraculously, despite the fact that the protesters had declared they'd never give up voluntarily, the second-to-last one realized the jig was up, and started climbing down.
When he reached the scaffolding platform, he raised his hands above his head and surrendered to police, while his compatriot, now all alone, raised his arm in a V-for-Victory sign.
The penultimate sitter was arrested and led away. Three down, one to go!
Sometimes, when all hope is lost, the only thing left to do is dance.
Many in the crowd were students who had just arrived for the Fall semester. Some took souvenir photos. "Look at us -- at our very first Berkeley protest!"
One of the purported reasons for the protest is that the trees were growing on "native burial grouds," as this sign spelled it. Problem is, there is absolutely no evidence that this is actually true. The claim is based on a report from when the stadium was built in which the surveyors found a couple skeletons. But there was no indication that they were Native American, or ancient, or that they were part of a "burial ground."
No matter. Based on the slimmest rumor, the protest had become a magnet for all sorts of radical Native American grievances, such as the Leonard Peltier case.
"Stealing native bones" was among many atrocities attributed to the university.
Finally, at long last, the one remaining protester threw in the towel. He climbed halfway down, paused, and roused the crowd one parting time. As a hilarious side note, the construction company which had built the scaffolding in record time must have seen how many people were taking photos of the scene, so two workmen quickly attached a sign to the poles to take advantage of the free publicity. Some guerrilla capitalism amidst the anarchy!
Perhaps realizing that this would be the most memorable moment of his entire life, and not wanting it to end, he stayed perched on a broken branch for a while, glorying in his role as the last tree-sitter of all.
He then clambered down the last few feet, and...
...the protest was over! Twenty-one months, completely wasted, for no reason, with nothing accomplished. What a glorious time it was!
Down at base camp -- perhaps it's time to get a new sign.
The police kept everyone at bay, lest anybody try some last-second shenanigans.
What will all the crazies do, now that the full-time protest is over?
Is there any circumstance in which that quote is not appropriate for adapting?
Meanwhile, here's something that no one else has reported on: On the opposite side of campus, the university is building a completely unrelated structure, and the work crews there have cut down twice as many trees as were cut down at the stadium project -- but nobody cared! Or even noticed!
More coverage of the day's events, with lots of nice photos and additional details, can be found at:
San Francisco Chronicle
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