Gill Tract occupiers disregard democratic process

Nicole Lim/Staff

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In the UC Village in Albany, I live within a stone’s throw of the Gill Tract, and for the past three weeks, I have had a front-row seat to the escalating conflict between the Occupy the Farm movement and the University of California, Berkeley. I’ve watched it unfold from two vantage points: as a member of the UC Village community and as a graduate student whose own research is intimately tied to rights and citizenship. And from my dual vantage points, I have grown increasingly worried about the coming collision between UCPD and the occupiers who have set up camp just outside my front door.

As UC Village residents for two years, my family and I have often seen researchers painstakingly planting on and caring for the Gill Tract, and we’ve relished watching deer, rabbits and wild turkeys wander through the field near our home. In fact, when the occupation started, I thought it was a university event to begin the planting season. As the week went by, I learned that this was no university event. The field had been occupied by protesters. Three weeks later, instead of well-organized plantings, diligently working students and researchers and wildlife, I see tents, thrown-together structures, protest signs and a disorganized assortment of seedlings. A few mornings ago, instead of the sound of wild geese flying to the nearby field, as they used to every morning, I heard the sound of a helicopter whirling overhead.

At their speak-outs, the occupiers have claimed that the farm had been slated to be paved over, that they came to save it. Contrary to the university’s plans, they’ve asserted, they have an interest in creating a community-directed farm that would serve as an inspiration to other communities, a research center par excellence in urban farming. As a graduate student who takes great pride in academic innovation and community involvement, I think that sounds wonderful. The creation of an urban farming center in conjunction with the university is a great idea, for the university has always been a trailblazer in terms of academic pursuits.

However, as a resident of UC Village who knew about the plans for a mixed-retail center at San Pablo Avenue and Monroe Street, I immediately knew that the protesters had taken over the wrong parcel of land. The site of the proposed mixed-retail center and senior housing complex is near the UC Village entrance along Monroe and not the Gill Tract research field. As it stands, the lots at San Pablo and Monroe — which until recently were the location of decrepit barracks built in the ’40s — are vacant, overgrown with weeds and quite often peppered with discarded fast-food wrappers, cups and other minor debris. Developing this land would be a benefit rather than a hindrance to our community, so long as it is done in a smart and ecological way. My reading of the Albany City Council minutes suggests that a variety of concerns — environmental ones foremost among them — were taken into account when planning the project.

In addition to the quagmire of taking over the wrong piece of the land, the problem is compounded by the university’s lack of immediate plans to develop the agricultural portion of the Gill Tract. Not only does the university have no plans to build on the occupied site in the foreseeable future, the vague “Recreation and Open Space” zoning in the UC Village 2004 Master Plan, to which the occupiers readily refer as evidence of malfeasance, does not exclude urban or community farming. In fact, that same Master Plan labels our own UC Village Community Garden as “Recreation and Open Space.” This is all moot, of course, because the Stage III plans that include the northern agricultural portion of the Gill Tract, as outlined in the 2004 Master Plan for UC Village, have been abandoned by the university. Pyatok Architecture’s brief on the project states that Stage III was “Cancelled in Design Development,” and 2008 discussions from the Gill Tract Design Team reveal that the future of the northern end of the Gill Tract is far from decided and strongly suggest that the university has in the past, and will in the future, consult with members of the local and academic community in planning the fate of the Gill Tract. To put it frankly, the occupiers are at the wrong place at the wrong time.

While I am in favor of the creation of an urban farm, community garden or educational center on the Gill Tract and am proud of our own UC Village Community Garden (even though I myself do not use it), I disagree strongly with the tactics taken by the Gill Tract occupiers, who have ignored due democratic process and shown an outright disregard for the researchers and students who work at the Gill research field. The occupiers have ignored years of arbitration between the university, UC Village, the city of Albany and Bay Area environmental groups. The minutes of the City Council meetings reveal just how complex the democratic process is when it takes into account the heartfelt opinions of environmentalists, students, researchers, educators, bicyclists, motorists, Little Leaguers, everyday citizens, etc. The occupiers have bypassed true community consensus-building and have taken direct, unilateral control of land that is not theirs — land that students, researchers and faculty have been using to conduct basic plant science research. Misinformed, the occupiers have mistakenly carried out actions that have had dire consequences for members of our academic community.

All that said, something positive might come of this yet. As I said before, the creation of a university-supervised, community-driven urban farm and research center is an outstanding idea so long as it can be created through democratic means rather than unilateral, undemocratic actions that alienate researchers and faculty members from their work.

Given how good this sounds, I am confused as to why, when presented with the opportunity to work with the university and the College of Natural Resources to create an urban farming center, Occupy the Farm has decided to be intractable.

From my vantage point, it appears the occupiers are more concerned with occupying than with urban farming. They are more concerned with proving a point than with effecting real benefits to our community, both academic and civic.

I implore the occupiers: On this last point, please prove me wrong.

I call upon the occupiers to vacate the lot and restore it to its previous condition so that researchers and students can resume their work. I hope that the occupiers, who claim to be fighting for a sustainable urban farm, will do the sensible thing by ending the occupation and collaborating with the university to plan and establish a truly community-directed urban farm that meets the needs of our civic, as well as our academic, community. Refusing to leave peaceably would pose a risk to the nearby Ocean View Elementary School and the families living in Albany Village, and it would represent a missed opportunity to create an exemplary urban farm by blatantly disrespecting academic freedom and flagrantly disregarding the rule of law and democratic process.

Christopher Church is a Ph.D. candidate in the history department.

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  • native daughter

    Which illuminates your analysis: PhD candidate in History from the University of California or living a stone’s throw away? If it’s History, take a closer look at the facts of the 150 year history of this land. Did you just come hopping in to town? Go home and throw your stones.


    The Gill Tract has been the focus of efforts to create an educational urban farm for an extended period of time,[8] including an effort from 1997 to 2000 that was backed by 30 community groups coordinated by Food First under the name Bay Area Coalition for Urban Agriculture (BACUA)[10][11] that aimed to establish “the world’s first university center on sustainable urban agriculture and food systems”.[12][13]
    An additional effort was made from 2002 to at least 2005 by a group
    operating under the name Urban Roots in a similar vein. The 2002 effort
    was endorsed by Alice Waters and Tom Bates.[


    Reasons for rejection

    “They’re basically saying, if you give everything up you can come to
    our super special secret meeting, where we’ll talk about what we’ll talk
    about,” said Gopal Dayeneni, an Oakland resident who is named in the
    regents’ lawsuit.
    He also offered a practical reason for boycotting the meeting.

    The regents’ suit also names 150 John Doe defendants, “which means we
    can’t go to the meeting without having what we say be used against us,”
    Dayeneni said. “So the first order of business would have to be
    dropping the lawsuit.”

    Wow! the University says… if you let all the plants die we will allow you to come speak to a coalition of our lawyers who have already brought a lawsuit against each one of you and hope to use every word you speak to increase the cash amount of the lawsuit………  sounds inviting to me… NOT


    “Created on 13 May 2012

    Occupy the Farm protesters agreed Saturday to end their three-week
    encampment on UC Berkeley property in Albany, but rebuffed an invitation
    from the university to discuss how the area can be used for both urban
    farming and for research.

    Instead, the several dozen protesters set up ladders to scale the
    fence UC had erected around the area along San Pablo Avenue known as the
    Gill Tract and said they will continue to tend the vegetables and fruit
    trees they’ve planted on 2 of the 5 disputed acres.”

    How DARE they enter and water the vegetables …… they should get prison time for saving the crops, it is a threat to the American way of life …… [end sarcasm]

    Some of the people posting here just plain scare me….. are you even human? do you believe in human rights and dignity? or do you honestly believe the rest of us are ‘less than’ and not worthy of the air we breathe?

    •  Do you really think your silliness is going to get anyone in any role of responsibility or accountability to take you seriously? You have a rather exaggerated view of your own self-importance in the greater scheme of things…

      • Tony M is a douche

        I fundamentally disagree with people like who don’t care about the well-being of the powerless and are always rooting for corporations and the bigwigs.

        Shame on you!!!

        • Stan De San Diego

           Looks like Tony’s little stalker is back.

  • I_h8_disqus

    Mr. Church’s opinion piece highlights the major weakness in the occupy movement.  Lack of focus and organization.  Occupying the Gill tract will not result in any significant long term changes, because protesters didn’t do anything that really made their point.  They made opponents of the researchers who use the land, except for the cowardly Altieri.  They demonstrated that a community farm would look like Cochella the day after the concert.  They didn’t talk to the people they were protesting so that they could get any of their demands met.  It was a disaster.

    Maybe Cal should have a protest 101 class to teach students how to work effectively towards their goals.  Occupy Cal has already been forgotten, without achieving anything, and Occupy the farm will be a distant memory by the end of the summer.

    • Stan De San Diego

       > They demonstrated that a community farm
      > would look like Cochella the day after the concert.

      Isn’t it ironic how the ones who claim to be the most concerned about the environment, are always the ones who leave the biggest mess for others to clean up?

  • Current student

    of course they disregard democratic processes.  they’re a bunch of FASCISTS.

  • Jackson

    I live nearby, on Marin Avenue. I visited the Gill tract last week,  and saw a bunch of plantings, people working, watering by hand, and cleaning, classes being held, etc. I find the police presence and the vulture news helicopters much more disturbing than a  few dozen people trying to demonstrate how an urban farm could work perfectly at that location.

  • UCAlumni

    If you haven’t visited the farm, and talked to the people staying there, you have very, very little evidence for your assumptions about them. Go visit them, go see the crops they’ve planted, talk to them to find out the truth, and to understand why anyone would be brave enough to continuing camping with no water, very few supplies, and the threat of arrest and police violence hanging over their heads.

    • Getsmart

       I’ve been to the farm and seen all the damage they’ve caused – the big waste pile with human excrement, the weird wooden structures, and all the random garbage spread over the land.  Its pretty clear that they don’t have a clue how to really farm.  They are not farmers, they are gardeners – there’s a big difference.  Plus, they are inhibiting valuable research and teaching activities by UC faculty and students.  No, I won’t call them brave, I’d call them something else…

  • Getsmart

    In light of the fact that the Occupiers have refused to negotiate with both the University and the Albany City Council, it is abundantly clear that they have no desire for an open dialogue, and seek a Police confrontation instead.  Indeed, this is part of their standard operating procedure, and is the way that they gain the most media attention.  It is truly embarrassing that the ASUC and a few feeble-minded attention hungry professors such as Miguel Altieri support these people.  Bravo to the author for eloquently disseminating the views of the Albany residents on this issue.

    • Shield

       Wait . . . is this Getsmart Mogulof????