Oak Grove Tree-Sit Anniversary Protest

Birthday party celebrating the one-year anniversary of the Memorial Oak Grove occupation

Berkeley, December 2, 2007

In 2006, the University of California announced plans to build an athletic training center next to Memorial Stadium on the U.C. Berkeley campus. But the construction of the new building would entail the removal of several trees currently occupying the proposed site. A cry to "Save the trees!" spread throughout the local activist community, and a small protest movement quickly arose to stop the training center. Although everything the university does elicits some kind of protest, this one, as trivial as it might have first appeared, soon became a cause célèbre.

On December 2, 2006, several protesters climbed into the trees to "occupy" them as a way to prevent their destruction (even though there was and remains no imminent plan to cut them down, since the construction is being challenged in court). And since that day, these "tree-sitters" (as they have come to be called) have remained in the trees, becoming celebrities in the process.

And so on December 2, 2007, an anniversay celebration was announced to mark the first birthday of the tree-sit.

This being Berkeley, the ridiculousness quotient was immediately apparent.

The police had built a fence around the small grove of trees, after a judge ruled the tree-sit illegal and gave the university permission to remove the protesters at any time. But instead of bodily removing them, and thereby causing a big fracas, the police tried a different tactic: fence off the grove, and force the tree-sitters to leave of their own volition, since the court ruling also forbids anyone from providing food or assistance to the illegal occupiers. So the party was forced to take place on the adjacent sidewalk, while the tree-sitters had to watch from the branches above.

Their sign said "Oak Grove Cop Zoo," which was quite appropriate, since from a distance they did almost seem to be curious arboreal animals peeking hesitantly at the humans down below.

As happens at almost every protest these days, a furry showed up. A very sinister furry.

Some semi-furries were also there, wearing what I can only presume were bear masks (a reference to the U.C. Berkeley team name, the "Golden Bears").

They did cheerleader routines for the passing cars.

Above it all, the masked tree-sitters looked down on the festivities from behind the barbed wire, unable to attend their own party.

Police officers with video cameras guarded the entrance to the grove. Behind them you can see one of the many treehouses the sitters have constructed in the oaks' branches. And in the background, the exterior wall of Memorial Stadium is visible.

The oaks are not "old growth trees" as you might imagine, but rather were planted in 1923 by university gardeners as part of the stadium landscaping. Among these comparatively young trees are a couple of older pre-existing oaks -- but the construction plans call for these to be saved. Furthermore, the plan also calls for two new additional oak trees to be planted nearby for every existing oak tree that is cut down. But this concession has failed to mollify the protesters, who, frankly, are just looking for something to protest. All of this is a moot point anyway, since the construction project has been challenged in a lawsuit and its viability will be decided in the court system.

The Earth might not be "dieing," but our ability to spell is.

The latest meme to come out of the protest is that the fence around the trees has turned the grove into "Guantanamo Berkeley." Because, you know, anything with a fence around it is like Guantanamo!

Berkeley is always a delicious source of unintentional irony. The energy company BP recently entered into a partnership with the University of California to fund research on alternative fuels. But BP (formerly British Petroleum) -- being an oil company -- is inherently evil, you see, so protesters unveiled this banner attacking the partnership -- right next to the sooty, grimy exhaust pipe of the protest bus.

(And no, BP has nothing to do with the athletic training facility; this is just the usual attempt to "universalize" the protest.)

There were many TV news crews and other journalists in the crowd. But sometimes the distinction between "journalist" and "activist" was a little blurry. When organizers announced that reporters could interview various protesters who had been previously arrested, the woman seen here writing notes was one of several who scampered over to the journalists' area to conduct the interviews. But later...

...she took a slice of birthday cake, and called up to one of the tree-sitters, who climbed down low enough for her to hand it up to him, in an intentional violation of the court order against feeding the protesters. (Notice the policeman in the background running over to film the scene.)

So -- was she a journalist, or an activist? Is there even a difference between the two anymore?

But that bit of civil disobedience was just a warm-up to the party's main event, which was a mass flaunting of the court order by handing up baskets of food to the tree-sitters. The protest organizers unveiled a massive banner that said "Native Burial Ground" (a ridiculous claim based on reports that the original stadium construction crew in 1923 found some human bones in the area, but there was never any evidence that they were Native American, nor ancient, nor that they were part of a "burial ground"; they just as easily could have been the remains of a modern murder victim or accident victim). The words on the banner were actually irrelevant since its sole actual purpose was to block the police from videotaping the ritualistic food donation.

The police tried to lift their cameras over the banner, and a "visibility arms race" ensued with the protesters raising the banner higher and higher to block the police cameras, and then placing their placards in the way when they couldn't raise the banner any further. Some people took dollar bills out of their pockets and displayed the reverse sides of them to the police; I'm still unsure what the purpose of this gesture was. What is it about the reverse side of a dollar bill that would be of interest to the police?

Finally the glorious moment of civil disobedience arrived: food was placed into the basket...

...and lifted upward by the tree-sitters. Huzzah!

Far up in the branches above, the other arboreal occupiers eagerly anticipated their birthday meal.

After a year in the trees, they've become incredibly adept at airborne living.

Up, up the basket went to one of the treehouses. And the process was repeated several times, to great acclaim from the ground crew -- even when the occasional bottle of water or bag of food would plummet down after slipping through the tree-sitters' fingers, nearly missing the celebrants below.

A fashion trendsetter. Look for it in next year's catalogs -- "tree chic."

The ground-based peons below simply didn't have the style sense to cover their faces with as much pizzazz.

Though they did have the "baleful glare" honed to an art form.

What started as a plan to build a place for football players to exercise before a game has -- as everything in Berkeley always does -- taken on a Marxist mien.

Sinister birthday furry says, "Goodbye!"

Also see: Nude Protest and Photo Shoot at Memorial Oak Grove: Berkeley, March 17, 2007.

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