Berkeley activist Zachary RunningWolf runs 4th mayoral campaign

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Editor’s note: This is one installment in an eight-part series on this year’s candidates for Berkeley mayor. Read about the other candidates here.

Zachary RunningWolf has campaigned for Berkeley mayor from a jail cell. Twice.

A staple in Berkeley activism folklore, RunningWolf has now run for mayor four times. He is best known for leading a 21-month long tree sit back in 2006 in protest of campus construction plans to cut down an old oak grove bordering Memorial Stadium.

This campaign season, he was arrested for a 30-day stretch beginning in September on suspicion of vandalism and marijuana possession while marching in support of a prison labor strike in Oakland. During his time in jail, he began a two-week hunger strike after his hearing was postponed twice. RunningWolf saw his incarceration as a flagrant injustice.

“How can you have a level playing field or a sufficient level of exposure … sitting in jail?” said his campaign manager Thomas Hodgman, a Berkeley resident and former campus student.

Last time around in 2012, RunningWolf said his stint in jail lasted only briefly because the judge noted the arrest for a minor offense seemed to be an interference in his then-mayoral campaign.

But RunningWolf’s activism began long before his run-ins with law enforcement and city officials. His adoptive parents, who moved with him to Berkeley in 1967, were politically engaged.

“I grew up in protests, even though I was not officially a part of them,” RunningWolf said. “My dad carted me around when we were too young to march in (San Francisco). I always wore jackets with peace signs and ecological signs. I’ve always been a supporter of Green Peace.”

RunningWolf graduated from Berkeley High School, received an associate degree in political science and history at Merritt College and later went to culinary school. His parents encouraged his education, and RunningWolf said he has “walked in two worlds.”

Attending LeConte Elementary School when then-governor Ronald Reagan ordered the National Guard to Berkeley to break up People’s Park protests, RunningWolf remembers giant military helicopters flying overhead and the entire city shrouded in tear gas.

“In the city of Berkeley we don’t celebrate, we riot. We go against the machine,” RunningWolf said.

He frames problems in Berkeley and in the United States — or “United Snakes of Ameriklan” as he calls it — as symptoms of larger international issues. RunningWolf is a continual advocate against nuclear programs, and his most recent effort on the nuclear front is raising awareness for the ongoing nuclear waste spill in Fukushima, Japan.

RunningWolf’s vision for Berkeley throughout his several campaigns for mayor, where his most successful run received 4.6 percent of votes, has remained consistent. Besides reducing the influence of the university and oil interests in the city, he supports police reform, indigenous people’s rights and small business revitalization. Notably, he is driven by his commitment to preserving the environment, one rooted in his indigenous background.

Both his adoptive parents were white, and he didn’t reconnect with his biological mother, a member of the Blackfoot tribe, until 1999. Before, RunningWolf had been a chronic alcoholic. RunningWolf said his alcoholism “came through the ills of capitalism,” distraught that his job building houses required him to tear up environment.

Later, however, he secured his title as a Blackfoot elder, after he ran across the country from San Francisco to Philadelphia in 2001 in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an iconic political activist who at the time was convicted and sentenced to death.

During the 2006 tree sit, RunningWolf argued that the grove was a sacred burial ground for a local indigenous group. Cutting down old oak trees had already been outlawed by the city of Berkeley, but the university maintained that its property didn’t fall under the city’s jurisdiction.

RunningWolf continues to vigorously fight for environmental preservation. For seven years, he has led an annual four-day “stop driving” campaign. With climate change accelerating, RunningWolf said he has now made the campaign a monthly one

“I’m 53 years old but I’m as fit as an 18-year-old. (Walking instead of driving is) a win-win situation,” said RunningWolf.

Some say RunningWolf is unflinchingly aggressive, even “militant” in his methods. Marcus Zamani, another activist, says RunningWolf is singularly focused on disruption rather than productive solution-making.

Berkeley resident LA Wood noted that even though RunningWolf may not be familiar with some of the city government’s policies and particularities, it’s clear that RunningWolf unequivocally stands up for the things he believes in and for those who historically have been marginalized.

“Zachary was one I recognized who was willing to walk the walk,” Wood said. “As long as he’s breathing, he’ll probably run for the mayorship.”

Contact Suhauna Hussain at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @suhaunah.