At Berkeley, Protests Over Plan to Cut Down Trees

In many ways and for many months, the protest outside Memorial Stadium at the University of California has been business, and Berkeley, as usual.

On one side are the protesting tree lovers who have been living Tarzan-like since December in a stand of coastal oaks and other trees. On the other is the university, which wants to cut down the trees to build a $125 million athletic center, part of a larger plan to upgrade its aging, seismically challenged football stadium.

The two sides disagreed. They bickered. Lawyers were called. Then came The Fence.

Before dawn on Aug. 29, building crews and the university police erected a 10-foot-high fence around the grove, effectively cutting off the tree dwellers from their supplies. The university called the fence a safety measure, meant to protect protesters from football fans descending on the stadium for the season opener.

Instead, the fence has united many of the city’s fractious constituencies and unleashed years of frustration with the university that made the city famous (or was it the other way around?).

“I am appalled,” said Michael Kelly, who leads a group opposing the stadium plan. “I cannot believe that the institution that gave birth to the Free Speech Movement has done this.”

[The university ratcheted up pressure when it sought a temporary restraining order, arguing that the tree community contained several health and safety threats, including propane tanks and plywood structures. On Sept. 12, Judge Richard O. Keller of Alameda County Superior Court denied the order but scheduled another hearing for Oct. 1.]

The stadium showdown has energized many in Berkeley’s graying anti-establishment set who cherish the city’s activist past, including the famous 1969 battle over nearby People’s Park. In that case, university and state authorities sent the police and the National Guard to clear the university-owned park and build a fence, a move that led to violent clashes in which one person was killed and dozens were injured. The land remains a park today.

“A lot of people who have been here a long time have seen this as a potential rerun of that problem,” Mayor Tom Bates said. “The abruptness of it, in the middle of the night, and the mobilization of the police.”

In retrospect, they didn’t need the police,” Bates said, “but I’m just glad it didn’t escalate.”

The city has sued the university, arguing that the athletic center should be built away from the stadium. The stadium sits over the Hayward fault, which scientists say is overdue for a large earthquake. The university says it has thoroughly considered safety issues, and that the athletic center needs to be near the stadium to allow athletes easy access to classrooms and training facilities near the playing fields. Arguments in the lawsuit will be heard Sept. 19 and 20.

On Sept. 11, the City Council rejected a settlement offer from the university, to the joy of its assembled opponents, including a group of football fans who say the stadium plan will rob them of a free view of the action from a nearby hillside.

[Shirley Dean, a former mayor who says she knows well the animation with which various opinions can bounce around her hometown, said she was impressed by the turnout. “Many of these people I knew from previous times, many people — I’m not going to name names — that I would have preferred not to be in the same room with, and we were all of the same side,” Dean said. “It was absolutely amazing.”]

Shortly after the fence appeared, dozens of protesters formed a human chain around the chain-link fence and began tossing supplies over the top. Soon after, the editorial board at The Daily Californian, the independent student newspaper, called the fence a public relations disaster and suggested that it might “encourage martyrdom.”

Zachary Running Wolf, an American Indian activist who has been living in the grove for nearly 300 days, agreed. “I think they blew it with the fence,” Running Wolf said. “They showed their desperation. In the city of Berkeley, on a public campus, a starve-out program? A Guantanamo Berkeley? It’s ridiculous.”

University officials say the fence was meant only as protection from rowdy football fans. “If we’d wanted to drive them out, it would have made much more sense to do in February in the cold and the wet and when nobody was around,” said Nathan Brostrom, vice chancellor for administration, adding that recent incidents and blog postings had raised safety concerns.

Brostrom said the protesters’ freedom of speech had not been curtailed. “They’ve had a forum for nine months,” he said. “They’d have every opportunity for free speech if they would come down, and they’d even have a fence to protect them.”

American Thinker, a conservative blog run by a Berkeley management consultant, has suggested that the anti-stadium forces simply do not like football.

“To the consternation of local leftists, Berkeley, the campus and the community alike, is in the grip of pigskin fever,” a recent post said. “Instead of smelly hippies and fulminating Marxists, images of celebrating frat boys, cute and sexy cheerleaders and heroic athletes dominate media mentions of Berkeley.”

Indeed, after years of mediocrity, the Bears are enjoying winning seasons and are ranked in the Top 10 in the nation under Coach Jeff Tedford, who was promised new facilities as part of a recent contract.

But Bates, who played in the Bears’ last Rose Bowl appearance, in 1959, rejected the idea that the anti-stadium forces had anything against football, though he said he was not popular with fans. “I don’t think any of my old teammates are speaking to me,” he said.

Both sides say early tensions over the fence seem to have eased, and the protesters now have access to food and water. Perhaps a dozen people still live in the trees, complete with sturdy hammocks, wooden platforms and bongo drums.

The highest platform belongs to Running Wolf. A regular presence at the city’s many marches and protests, he says he, too, is impressed by the stadium opposition.

“This is remarkably unified,” he said. “You’ve got the affluent people living in the hills, who normally wouldn’t mix with the food-not-bombs people or the anarchists or the Native Americans or the environmentalists. It’s pretty wild.”