By Kristin Bender and William Brand
After nearly nine months of tolerance, with a sold-out football game coming up in three days, UC Berkeley got tough today on the band of tree-sitters in a grove of live oaks in front of Memorial Stadium. A construction crew is surrounding the grove with an eight-foot fence and a police official warned that they will arrest anyone trying to enter the grove with supplies for eight to 10 activists sitting on platforms in the trees. UC Berkeley Assistant Police Chief Mitch Celaya said the fence is going up for safety reasons."We're having tens of thousands of football fans coming in and there are strong opinions on both sides of the issue of saving the trees," Celaya said. "We're putting up the fence to try to prevent any altercation either before or after the game," he said. Activists supporting the tree sitters were irate. "They've pushed us out of the grove; they've denied us access," Ayr, a ground crew member since the beginning of the sit-in on Dec. 2, said. Activists scheduled a 5 p.m. emergency meeting at the grove this afternoon to protest the university's action and to decide what to do next. "The fence is both to protect the people and the trees," Assistant Chief Celaya said. "We don't anticipate making any arrests, but people who walk past the police tape will be cited for trespassing." No arrests have been made so far, he said. The tree sitters are protesting plans by UC Berkeley to build a $150 million sports training complex in front of Memorial Stadium. The project would require that the Coast Live Oak grove be razed. So far the city of Berkeley and two groups supporting saving the trees have sued the university.
A Superior Court judge granted a temporary injunction halting the project; the three cases will be heard together at a trial beginning Sept. 19. The fence is going up in advance of Cal's opening football game with the University of Tennessee on Saturday at 5 p.m. The game is sold out: 76,000 people are expected. Usually spectators bound for the stadium stream up the hillside in random fashion. Many pass through the oak grove. Also this morning, sources said the university is working with the city of Berkeley on a settlement of the case. The city's suit was consolidated with those of two other groups, the California Oak Foundation, vying to save 42 mature oak trees at the site, and the Panoramic Hill Association, a neighborhood group concerned about traffic and other issues. A fourth group trying to save so-called Tightwad Hill, a grassy area behind Memorial Stadium where football games can watched for free, will be considered separately. The fencing began at 6 a.m. this morning. Police officers put up yellow police line tape around the grove, then kept watch while workers erected eight-foot-tall metal poles for the Cyclone fence. At mid-morning, there were a dozen UC police officers standing sentry around the perimeter of the grove. All the supporters on the ground beneath the trees have been moved out. "This is appalling; this is a very sad day," one tree supporter said. Asked if the university's action amount to a move to starve out the tree-sitters, Celaya said people can draw their own conclusions. "We're not going to allow anyone inside the fence line," he said. "It's now a restricted area." Zachary Running Wolf, a former Berkeley mayoral candidate and tree activist, called the police move "outrageous. We expected an action like this by the university. They're thumbing their nose at the court system," he said. Supporters are definitely going to try to get food and water to the tree sitters, he said. "We will not discuss the strategies, but they may not be in the confines of the law," he said.
"I'm willing to go to jail for this," Running Wolf added. A university official said there will be a police presence at the grove 24 hours a day from now on. The tree-sitters have been mostly ignored by the university in recent months. Officials also said that the fence was within the letter of the restraining order halting the sports facility project. "The judge said that she is not going to stand in the way if it was a security issue, as long as it didn't change the status of the trees," one official said. Meanwhile, a university spokesman, Dan Mogulof, said research indicates the trees are hardly ancient. "We believe the protesters in the trees are sincere, but misguided," Mogulof said. "This is not an ancient grove. All but three of these trees are here because of a 1923 university landscaping project. "In effect, the protesters in the trees value the well-being of a landscaping project over the life safety of 450 student athletes, coaches and staff members," he said. "You don't have to be a math professor to know that equation does not add up."
The cause has gained a great deal of support, nevertheless. Running Wolf estimated that 300 to 500 people have spent at least a brief time on the platforms in the trees in the oak grove.