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.