By MICHELLE LOCKE
BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — In December 2006, protesters angry about campus expansion plans clambered into the branches of a threatened oak grove at the University of California, Berkeley. Since then, Democrats have chosen their first black presidential candidate, the housing market has taken a dive and gasoline prices have boomed. Still, the tree-sitters continue to sit. There had been signs the protest might be coming to an end as a court case challenging a planned multimillion-dollar athletic training facility inched closer to resolution.
This month administrators, who won a court order allowing them to evict the protesters at any time, cut supply lines, yanked a few protesters out of the trees and drove the rest into a single redwood. For a while, it looked like campus officials were prepared to starve protesters out. But after the remaining half-dozen or so tree sitters said they were a) not moving and b) rationing water, officials relented and offered sustenance to the protesters aloft. "This misguided effort to preserve a 1923 landscaping project certainly doesn't warrant any action that could cause harm or permanent health consequences for anybody involved," said campus spokesman Dan Mogulof. Protesters and their supporters say they are prepared to hold out.
"They're very well-trained tree climbers. They're very experienced and I have trust in them that they're going to keep themselves safe and they're going to keep defending the grove," a ground supporter who would give her name only as Citizyn said this week.
UC Berkeley officials say they need the new center to provide safe and up-to-date facilities for their athletes. Once the center is built, the second phase of the project involves upgrading Memorial Stadium — old, dilapidated and sitting right on top of the Hayward fault. Neighborhood residents, the City of Berkeley and the California Oak Foundation have sued to stop the project, saying it violates environmental and earthquake safety regulations. A judge issued an injunction blocking construction while the suits were pending and was expected to make a definitive ruling earlier this month. But that ruling turned out to be a bit mixed, with both sides reading victory into its 129 pages.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Barbara Miller found the new center is mostly legal. However, on the stadium upgrade part of the project, she said the university has to prove some planned work doesn't amount to more than 50 percent of the value of the original building, a state requirement.
On Friday, UC Berkeley filed a response saying it is eliminating the items the judge questioned. Administrators also asked the judge to modify the preliminary injunction, saying there are no longer grounds for preventing construction on the new facility.
Once the judge has issued a final ruling, it can be appealed. But construction could begin earlier if UC is successful in getting the injunction lifted. On the tree issue, campus officials note that most of the trees were planted by the university in the 1920s. They have promised to plant three trees for every one felled. But tree-sitters say that is not acceptable. Over the past 18 months, protesters had been cycling in and out, using supply lines stretched over a campus-erected barricade. But the stepped-up campus actions stopped that. In the past two weeks, the mood has swung wildly. Protesters howled, flung excrement and shook tree branches as campus-hired arborists cut supply lines and removed gear. But by late this week, campus police were conducting delicate negotiations with tree-sitters, offering to provide food and water if protesters would lower their waste on a daily basis in the interest of hygiene. Campus officials ended up giving up the water without concessions; protesters declined to yield their urine.