‘Unprecedented’: Oak grove protest remains embedded in Berkeley’s history

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The city of Berkeley has a long-standing reputation of being a hub for activism, but few protests compare to the 21-month marathon of nearly a decade ago.

From Dec. 2, 2006, to Sept. 9, 2008, a group of protesters led by former Berkeley mayoral candidate Zachary RunningWolf inhabited an oak grove in protest of the university’s plans to build a new student athletic center, which would involve chopping down said grove. The protest stands as the longest urban tree sit-in in history.

“I don’t think anybody really knew what we were in store for,” said campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof. “It was kind of unprecedented.”

The protesters and the university provided differing answers as to the true history of the oak grove. The protesters claimed that the area was an ancient oak grove, as well as an Ohlone burial site.

The university, on the other hand, refuted both assertions. Regarding the first point, the university asserts that the oak grove was part of a landscaping project in 1923 done by the campus. Regarding the second point, the university said it debunked the claim that the area was an Ohlone burial site as part of its site evaluation.

Not only did the university have to handle the protesters themselves, but it also dealt with lawsuits from three separate parties: the California Oak Foundation, the city of Berkeley and the Panoramic Hill Association.

After a lengthy case with Alameda County Superior Court Judge Barbara Miller at the helm, the university ultimately earned the right to clear the trees and build the proposed training center.

The protesters may not have been able to achieve the ultimate goal of preserving the oak grove, but RunningWolf is “very proud” of what he and his fellow protesters were able to achieve.

“Now, you see with (Colin) Kaepernick and a lot of sports movement there, we’re seeing a lot of stuff that came out of the tree sit, but it was amazing because we were (an) inspiration to the modern occupy movement,” RunningWolf said.

Interestingly enough, RunningWolf believes DeSean Jackson, Cal’s star wide receiver at the time of the protests, left Cal early for the NFL because of the university’s treatment of the burial site.

“In fact, DeSean Jackson, DeSean came to us — he was the wide receiver — and he said, ‘What’s up with this?’ ” RunningWolf said. “I said, ‘It’s an Ohlone burial site; we’re really against the university desecrating our ancestors.’ I believe that prompted DeSean Jackson to leave early for the NFL.”

Jackson could not be reached for comment.

On the university side of things, Mogulof admitted that there was frustration, both in regards to how long the protest lasted and how the protesters didn’t utilize their energy to tackle real issues of deforestation.

“Think about the passion and the time and the energy that went into an effort to save a landscaping project and what that could have done in areas of the world where there really are threats to the natural environment,” Mogulof said. “It was hard not to feel a certain sense of frustration.”

The tree-sit in contained a plethora of different chapters. Here is a timeline of the events which ensued over those eventful 21 months:

Dec. 2, 2006: At about 5 a.m., RunningWolf and two other local residents climb up into the trees. The protesters bring hammocks and a small wooden platform for perches, approximately 20 to 30 feet above the ground. With the help of volunteers on the ground, protesters pull supplies up into the trees using ropes draped over the branches. The protest has begun.

“I will stay until they guarantee that the tree will be preserved or until I am forcibly removed,” RunningWolf said at the time.

That same day, Cal faces Stanford in the 109th iteration of the Big Game. The Bears best the Cardinal, 26-17, as Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett combine for 167 yards from scrimmage.

Jan. 29, 2007: Miller issues an injunction that halts construction. While the campus can pursue construction contracts, it cannot alter the site.

Feb. 20, 2007: Protesters say the proposed site for the training center is home to an Native American burial ground. They cite a UC archaeological survey from 1925 and a clip from the San Francisco Examiner that states human remains were removed from the area when California Memorial Stadium was constructed back in the early 1920s.

March 17, 2007: More than 100 people participate in a nude photo shoot in an attempt to draw more attention to the university’s plans to cut down the oak grove. The photo shoot, organized by photographer Jack Gescheidt, showcases individuals nude among the trees. The session is short as police warn of the possibility of arrest.

“If we are going to get arrested for making art … I’m willing to get arrested for this,” Gescheidt said at the time.

July 2007: Protesters are suspected of damaging a cedar and a redwood in the suspected construction of a sleeping platform. As property of the university, the individual or group responsible for vandalizing the trees could face misdemeanor charges.

RunningWolf admits a couple days later that tree-sitters did cut branches for preservation purposes. He states that under the advisement of a professional arborist, the tree-sitters pruned the trees to take care of them. RunningWolf also refutes allegations that branches were cut to build a sleeping platform.

“We don’t remove any branches to make our own comfort because that would be against our way of life,” RunningWolf said at the time.

Aug. 29, 2007: Ahead of Cal’s season opener against Tennessee, a game that attracted 72,516 fans, a chain-link fence is constructed around the oak grove in an effort to prevent altercations between fans and protesters. The fence cost the university between $10,000 and $12,000 to build.

Sept. 4, 2007: The university offers a settlement to Berkeley City Council, but that settlement is rejected in a 7-1-1 decision. Then-City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque said she “did not consider the offer to be serious.”

Sept. 12, 2007: Alameda County Superior Court Judge Richard Keller rules that the tree-sitters can remain despite the presence of propane tanks and reports of falling human excrement.

Sept. 19, 2007: Three lawsuits filed against the university go before Miller. The three parties are the California Oak Foundation, the city of Berkeley and the Panoramic Hill Association.

Oct. 1, 2007: Keller grants UC Berkeley a preliminary injunction against the protesters. This injunction, however, only names one of the half-dozen protesters: David Galloway.

Oct. 4, 2007: In a move which some observers call rare, if not unprecedented, Miller visits Memorial Stadium and the oak grove. Miller tours the stadium, locker rooms, current training facilities and proposed construction site.

Oct. 29, 2007: Keller extends the ruling on Galloway to all other protesters, but they do not leave.

Nov. 8, 2007: A second chain link fence is constructed around the oak grove.

Nov. 15, 2007: The construction of the second fence is completed with barbed wire mounted on top. The completed fence costs $80,000.

Feb. 19, 2008: An arborist contracted by the university begins removing items from trees on a day when only four to five tree-sitters are in the grove. UCPD describes it as an effort to clean up the area.

June 15, 2008: The Daily Californian releases an editorial citing how all parties are at fault.

June 17, 2008: Arborists are again brought in to remove more infrastructure. A protester is removed from the trees after allegedly biting an arborist. Protesters throw human excrement at the workers and police throughout the day.

June 18, 2008: Miller hands down her initial ruling in the lawsuit. Both sides claim the ruling supports their side. Miller writes in her ruling that, for the most part, the building of the athletic center does not violate the Alquist-Priolo Special Studies Zones Act. Some elements, however, are alterations to California Memorial Stadium — these alterations cannot exceed half the current value of the stadium.

July 20, 2008: Approximately 30 people march from the oak grove to former chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau’s campus home. They plant a 6-inch oak seedling on the chancellor’s lawn. Six are arrested for trespassing, vandalism and conspiracy.

July 22, 2008: Miller rules in favor of the university, and the injunction against construction will be lifted in a week.

Aug. 26, 2008: Miller confirms her previous ruling as final.

Sept. 5-6, 2008: The university starts cutting down trees. The majority of the grove is cut down except one tree — the one in which protesters remain.

Sept. 9, 2008: The final protesters come down. The protest is officially over.


Justice delos Santos is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @justdelossantos