Losing the Trees, Finding Community: The last stage of an urban tree-sit

People keep coming up to me, telling me how sorry they are that we “lost the tree sit in the end”. And I understand where they’re coming from, but clearly there’s more to say about our almost two year long occupation of the Berkeley Oak Grove than that.

Squatting and grass roots organizing are, by their nature, heartbreaking. And the more love we put into a place, the harder it is when they take it away.

For me, the Oak Grove has always been about the trees, but also much more. To see the Grove as a temporary autonomous space where, for a period of time, people came to build strong community and live satisfying, reasonable lives together, is to see us for our accomplishments. As for the Oak Grove as a permanent occupation poised to turn back the forces of capitalism in Berkeley ¬– well, maybe sometimes we don’t get everything we want. Yes, we’ve lost the trees. But we’ve done so much. Here is a report back from the last several months:

It’s been a hell of a summer. On June 17th, 2008- the day before our much-awaited “big day in court”- UC Berkeley, backed up by Williams Tree Service (extractors out of Watsonville, CA) and A LOT of cops, attacked the tree sit in a pre-dawn raid. Everything we thought we knew about urban tree sit extractions being safer and less unpredictable than deep woods extractions because of increased visibility and media exposure went very quickly out the window, as Williams Tree Service employees (being directed from the ground by the UC Chief of Police) showed over and over again that they were willing (even eager) to risk tree sitters lives to get us out of the trees. What we experienced during the extractions was basically a very high stakes game of chicken. Extractors cut and untied traverse lines that tree sitters were attached to, rammed us with heavy equipment, cut platforms out from under people’s feet, threatened sexual violence against women tree sitters, made super-close approaches with a crane on our precarious defense structure- “the god pod”, intentionally sliced into the flesh of two tree sitters with saws on poles, and physically fought and yanked on people who were free climbing with no safety ropes at the tops of trees- as though these were reasonable ways to get people down. The tree sitters fought back, damaging equipment and defending ourselves by throwing human piss and shit on the extractors, repeatedly getting them to back down from dangerous situations because it was just getting too disgusting for them to hang in there going after us. We did not lock down. Although we honor the tactic, we decided it was best to physically resist the extractions. Catch me if you can.

For three days straight the extractors moved in with overwhelming force, and were, for the most part, unsuccessful at removing people against their will. After three days, due to tremendous pressure on all sides, the university shifted tactics away from force to a slow starvation campaign against the eleven remaining tree sitters who continued to occupy the grove. The area surrounding the tree sit became completely militarized. A ground encampment swelled on both sides of the barricades, erected by cops down Piedmont Avenue as an extra compliment to the double barbed wire fence that had surrounded our grove since November 2007. For almost two weeks no substantial amounts of food or water made it up into the trees. The tree sitters were living entirely on emergency stores. Again, due to intense pressure from all sides, the University made the reluctant concession to provide a food and water ration to the tree sitters daily.

But the food ration was really bad. It was basically a flour, sugar, vegetable shortening diet, and for almost three weeks, Lemon-Vanilla flavored Emergency Ration Bars were the only food the tree sitters (whose numbers at this point had dwindled down to 3-4) had access to. A daring action brought two more tree sitters and a ton of really good food into the trees, and facilitated the brokering of a deal between the University and the ground supporters of the tree sit. A bag of food of our packing and choosing would go up every day. Tree sitters agreed to send down waste.

It would be several weeks before the weary peace between tree people and the cops would be broken. In middle August, Williams Tree Service was back to do strategic cutting of branches known to be pathways between trees. Tree sitters and ground supporters disrupted this work, but we all knew more was set to come. Cutting began for real on Friday September 5th, and by Tuesday all the trees slated to be cut and all the tree sitters were down. The tree sitters made a deal agreeing to voluntarily turn themselves over to the police after being completely surrounded by extractors, cops, and a scaffolding structure (built that day) which reached all the way (almost) to the top of the one tree which the remaining four tree sitters were occupying after the rest of the grove had been taken. The deal was for the formation of a community review board on future land use decisions in Berkeley. As a final stab in the back, the University promptly denied that any such deal had been reached, and shows no sign of intending to honor the agreement.

It’s been months since the siege against us began and it seems like a very long time ago to think back before the attacks. What were we doing with our time, I wonder? The tree sit has been an interesting place full of interesting people from the beginning. We’ve gone through several distinct eras both in the trees and on the ground and have made many friends, including, of course, the Grandmothers for the Oaks, who are such a tremendous inspiration, our hard working lawyers, and the Panoramic Hill Association (a neighborhood group) who stuck in there with us through the end.

For me, the easy part of my coming of age was figuring out that I didn’t want to turn my life over to a boss and a landlord. The hard part has been figuring out what to do instead. I’ve dedicated the last year of my life to the Oak Grove tree sit. Living in the trees has made me a much happier, more capable person than I was before I came here, and it has birthed a vibrant and radical community that will not go away just because they cut our trees down.

We went up against the largest, richest landowner in town and in the end, the might of the state and the landlord system prevailed over the good work and good intentions of community based organizing. Despite everything, we remain and the reverberations of these connections we’ve made within ourselves and among each other will be felt for years to come.