Berkeley Sitters Barking Up the Wrong Trees

    If, after selflessly sacrificing nearly two full years of your life, hunched in a scratchy hammock and passing your excrement down in buckets, to the cause of protecting a helpless, peaceful forest from a jock-loving pack of bureaucratic tyrants — if, after all that, you still don’t have the support of the Berkeley student body — chances are, your gameplan really needs some rethinking.

    So how did a group of 10 proactive nonstudents manage to mess up what seemed like a flawless step-by-step to fit in with every tree-hugging hippie to ever walk the Northern California plains?

    Let’s start with species choice. As irreplaceable rainforests all over South America are chipped at daily to make space for lumber and cattle — or, if in-continent is your thing, as old-growth forests find themselves floored and cookie-cuttered into vast suburban tracts throughout the United States, at exponential rates — the 10-odd starring participants in UC Berkeley’s now-infamous tree-sit chose two summers ago to protect, drum roll please, a grove of common oaks planted in a landscaping project back in the 1920s, in danger of being sheared by a big-bad athletic structure set to be erected for use by the varsity sports teams later that year.

    Even if they had been heartbreakingly old or high on the endangered list above such wrenching items as cute baby tigers, the oaks — in an isolated grove surrounded by the concrete and various man-made surfaces of a college campus (that is, if we’re not still pretending the “green” is some thriving meadow in which wildlife still flits and tweets) — could not have been crucial to much aside from oxygen production and general nature feng shui. Which is why, in initial attempts at negotiation, the university promised to plant three new trees on campus for each oak that took the axe.

    But, in virtually the only reasoning the sitters ever provided besides love for Mother Earth, they threw around vague and unproven claims that the trees in fact sat atop historic American Indian grounds. The project’s Web site, www.saveoaks.com, refers to a mysterious “Grandmother Oak” stump they now wish to remove from the grove, even devote to the creation of “drums and other religious artifacts.” Even if they cannot be condemned for simply being inarticulate, if their movement wished to find any real momentum, it needed a clear-cut reason for being so stubborn — one that could perhaps engage those not in touch with the spiritual whisperings of the sacred oak grove.

    “I see your slogans chalked on the sidewalks. I see your Tibetan prayer flags. I pass through clouds of your collective body odor and exhaled marijuana smoke,” reads the now-famous November 2007 “Open letter to Berkeley Tree-Sitters” on Craigslist, which many still reference in voicing their frustration with the protest. “Having observed your actions for quite some time now, sometimes I wonder if you’ve ever considered just how much damage you’re doing to legitimate pro-environment, pro-leftist movements everywhere.” With not so much as the staunchest of environmentalists on their side — aside from, of course, the appreciated few available to lower their waste buckets — the tree-sitters indeed undermined the liberal expression of discontent by making it into a spineless, unorganized game.

    This precedent, unfortunately, may extend to the future punishment of such protests. In the end, after spending a hard-to-come-by $125 million on security and police enforcement — not to mention a wrap-around eight-foot chain-link fence erected around the protestors, at which point they drew the bold, sidewalk-chalk analogy “Guantanamo Berkeley” — university officials have dragged the tree-sitters to court, twigs still poking from their dreads-for-the-cause. A high-school career’s worth of community service and five days behind bars (and they thought the chain-link was spirit-crushing) hardly compares to the thousands of dollars the university plans to drain from the key participants, probably without a thousand dollars to speak of, in reparations. Certainly, we can agree, it could have been worse. But no matter one’s stance on the justness of these consequences, there is a standard now set for any legitimate environmental stake-out: Could a construction company sue for protester reparations, because their latest tract won’t be done in time for the fleet of U-Hauls and shiny-happy families?

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