Curtain falls on tree protest
Four tree-sitters who had hoped to save a grove of trees at UC Berkeley ended their long-running protest Tuesday and gave up their perch at the top of a 90-foot redwood after workers erected a scaffold to bring them down.
The protesters surrendered to police at the top of the seven-story scaffold, where they were handcuffed and escorted down the structure’s stairs to the applause of hundreds of onlookers, some of whom voiced support for the four men’s cause and some of whom appeared happy that the 21-month protest was finally over.
Hours later, the redwood was cut down, paving the way for construction of a $125-million athletic training facility on the site next to the campus’ Memorial Stadium.
“We are extremely pleased that this tree-sit has ended,” said Vice Chancellor Nathan Brostrom. “Today’s operation was brilliant both in the design and the execution.”
Protesters had occupied trees in the 1.5-acre grove since December 2006 in an effort to block the university’s plans to build on the site.
Over the course of the protest, hundreds of people spent time in the trees, some for days, some for months. Those involved argued that the trees, many of them 85-year-old oaks, should be preserved because the grove was one of the few natural areas on the campus.
After a state appeals court ruled Thursday that construction could go forward, the university moved quickly to cut down more than 40 trees, isolating the four remaining tree-sitters in the redwood.
On Tuesday morning, a company hired by the university began erecting the scaffold and by early afternoon it had reached the tree-sitters’ platform about 70 feet off the ground. The four men then climbed even higher on the tree as workers and campus police dismantled the platform and threw the men’s bedding and other possessions to the ground.
Meanwhile, UC Berkeley Police Chief Victoria Harrison rode up in a basket suspended from a crane to speak with the men.
Harrison said later that she had encouraged them to end their protest peacefully and walk down the scaffold, rather than endanger themselves and the police by resisting arrest at the top of the tree.
“I talked to them a lot about coming down with some dignity,” she said.
If the protesters had not surrendered, Harrison said, workers would have continued building the scaffold until police were able to seize them.
The police chief said that the four were easy to talk to and that by the end they were bantering back and forth with her. She described them as “very skilled individuals” who knew how to maneuver in the treetops.
On the ground, protest leader Eric Eisenberg, who goes by the name Ayr, announced that the protesters had reached an agreement with the university and said officials had committed themselves to finding new ways to work with the community on land use issues.
But Brostrom, who spoke to the tree-sitters by cellphone, said later that the university had made no such deal. The university is already committed to improving relations with the community, he said.
The four tree-sitters will be charged with trespassing and violating a court order. At least one may be charged with battery for allegedly assaulting a worker during an earlier tree-trimming operation.
Police identified the four as Michael Schuck, 26, who went by the name Shem; Armando Resendez, 20; Ernesto Trevino, 18; and Raul Colocho, 27, who went by Huck. None of the men are students at the university, officials said.
At least six other demonstrators outside the fenced-off grove were also arrested Tuesday.
With the occupation of the grove ended, protesters on the street said they were glad they had made their stand and raised public awareness about the university’s actions.
“We gave it a good fight,” said Ayr, who was arrested twice during protests over the last week. “It’s unfortunate that the death culture marches forward, but we’re going to keep fighting for life.”
University officials praised the patience of the campus police, saying they had been subjected to considerable abuse during the long protest, including having human waste dumped on them by some tree-sitters during earlier operations.
“I think the forbearance of the police was just remarkable,” Brostrom said. “Fortunately we are a campus that has decades of experience with protests.”
Some supporters of the athletic center had criticized the university for being too tolerant of the protesters. But Brostrom said the university’s hands were tied by the lawsuit filed by homeowners, environmentalists and the city of Berkeley.
The tree-sitters’ protest was the most visible symbol of opposition to the project, but university officials said an injunction in the case is what prevented them from cutting down the trees and starting construction. “What was holding us up was not the tree-sit,” Brostrom said. “It was the lawsuit.”
The long-running drama at the grove brought out relatively few student supporters over the months, but Tuesday’s final act drew a different crowd, including many who cheered the arrests. Some joked about the possibility of a protester falling to the ground and one man held up a sign saying, “Free Firewood.”
A student who gave his name as Nakul said the protest was misguided in focusing so much energy on 40 trees that had been part of a landscaping project, rather than on such global environmental issues as the destruction of the rain forest in the Amazon basin.
“They brought shame to the name of Berkeley, which is famous for the Free Speech Movement and protests against the Vietnam War,” the computer science student said. “It’s an outrage. The university should have been harsher and brought them down faster.”