Officials pluck tree-sitters from their perch
By Lisa M. Krieger
San Jose Mercury News
BERKELEY, Calif. — After almost two years perched in the sky, Berkeley’s tree-sitters came back to earth Tuesday.
The final four were handcuffed and escorted by police down steep steps of scaffolding for a safe-and-certain descent cheered by hundreds of bystanders, who anxiously gathered in fear of a conflict at the top of a 100-foot redwood.
"Thank you! Thank you!" shouted supporters, who have prayed, sang, danced, drummed and helped restock this ragtag group of radicals during their 21-month-long vigil. Many in the crowd were just relieved that what’s being called the longest urban tree-sit in history was over.
For weeks as the anticipation grew for an ending with chainsaws buzzing, TV news cameras stood at the ready and, on Tuesday, they beamed the last stand live for more than an hour. As the Bay Area watched, many were still left asking when it was over: What was this whole thing about anyway?
The expensive and dangerous campaign was orchestrated to block construction of a $124 million athletic facility. Battling the tree-sitters cost the university more than $750,000.
The protest’s final four tree-sitters — Shem, Mondo, Ernesto and Huckleberry (Raul Colocho, 27; Armando Resendez, 20; Ernesto Trevino, 18; Michael Schuck, 26) — reached a last-minute agreement with campus officials that averted a confrontation.
The tree-sitters were arrested on suspicion of lodging, violation of court order and trespassing, all misdemeanors. Police also arrested six people on the ground on charges, including battery.
None of the tree-sitters were students. They were among a group of dozens who had rotated over the months in a cat-and-mouse game with university officials.
They surrendered Tuesday when UC-Berkeley agreed to create a committee that will give community members a larger role in discussions of future development, said tree-sitter spokesman Eric Eisenberg.
Since the beginning police arrested 45-50 arrests, according to University of California-Berkeley Assistant Police Chief Mitch Celaya.
When asked the first thing he would do after descending, one of the tree-sitters told a Daily Cal reporter, by cellphone, "Probably go to jail."
For months, Piedmont Avenue, which runs in front of the trees, became home to an encampment of lawn chairs, tents, hammocks, mattresses and patchouli oil.
Dozens of activists were arrested for charges from blocking a roadway, disobeying officers, resisting arrest and trespassing.
"It’s not over. They recognize that they have not been responsive to the community’s concerns about Berkeley’s massive development," vowed Gianna Ranuzzi, a longtime Berkeley resident.
Students who had largely ignored the long drama came to watch the final standoff.
"Most students haven’t paid much attention. They think it’s entertaining," said Drew Gascom, molecular biology. "People think this is such a liberal place, but it’s all about the grades."
"I think they could have done something more productive," agreed mechanical engineering student Mark Guadagni. "But I admire the amount of dedication."
In December 2006, the protestors wrapped themselves in the First Amendment and planted themselves in opposition to the university’s plans. Additionally, three groups — the city of Berkeley, California Oak Foundation and the Panoramic Hill Association — sued the university to prevent the construction of the athletic facility.
In their small urban California forest, the activists bathed in buckets, hauled up food and supplies by rope and slept under a tarp on small platforms. They braved howling winds, wet winters and hot summer sun.
Television crews from around the nation filmed them. Native American musicians serenaded them.
Three weeks ago, a judge ruled in favor of the university.
An ultimatum from UC-Berkeley on Friday morning gave the tree-sitters 72 hours to vacate. When the deadline expired, university officials cut off delivery of food and water.
By Monday, the grove they had been trying to save was logged and mulched.
They sought refuge in the remaining tree, a lone redwood. UC built scaffolding around the redwood, then trimmed branch by branch.
So the sitters climbed higher.
By Tuesday, there was nowhere higher to climb. They demanded that $6 million be donated to environmental and Native American groups. UC rejected.
So protesters announced they would have to be forcibly removed.
Surrendering to UC-Berkeley Police Chief Victoria Harrison from his plastic crate atop the beam, Huckleberry threw his fist in the air and waved an Earth flag.
Exuberantly, the crowd waved back. "We’ll fight other development — Strawberry Canyon, People’s Park," vowed supporter Arthur Fonseca.
But within hours, the crowd had dispersed. All that was left were logs, construction equipment, and one lonely redwood.