Say what you will about UC Berkeley’s often ham-fisted and baton-armed attempts to disrupt the Occupy movement, this time they’ve pulled a really clever move.
Before sending in the boys and girls in blue to bust the Occupy the Farm folks who are camped out at the university’s Gill Tract agricultural plot, they’re sending in the lawyers first, suing 14 Occupy participants for civil and punitive damages and the university’s legal fees.
It’s a strategy that doesn’t look as bad to the camera lens, and it’s one that could cost the activists a lot more cash than he nominal sums levied for trespass convictions if they find themselves on the losing side of litigation.
Here’s the university’s press release on the litigation:
Today the University of California commenced legal action against 14 individuals alleged to have participated in the illegal occupation of the university’s Gill Tract property. This lawsuit represents an additional step that the university is taking to regain control of its property so that it can be used for agricultural research and education. At the same time, the occupiers still have the opportunity to accept a proposal that would allow for a peaceful end to the illegal encampment, resumption of research activities and the continuation of urban farming on portions of the land that will not be utilized by faculty and students.
The suit, filed in Alameda County Superior Court today, alleges that the defendants, along with other unknown individuals who are sued as “Does,” conspired to cut locks, enter the property illegally and establish an illegal encampment. It alleges that the defendants continue to trespass on the property, despite repeated warnings from the UC Police Department that their presence is illegal. The suit alleges that the defendants’ illegal occupation is preventing research and educational activities on the property and that “if defendants do not leave the property immediately, the growing season will be lost,” resulting in substantial harm to researchers, students and the university. The suit requests a court order requiring the defendants to leave the property.
The university is also seeking an award of monetary damages for costs it has or will incur as a result of the trespass and for the rental value of the land during the occupation. The university also seeks payment by the defendants of its attorney’s fees under a state law that allows it to recover fees in a lawsuit involving “trespassing on lands . . . under cultivation.”
This legal action is not the only step that the university is prepared to take to protect the rights of its researchers and students, but it is one part of our efforts to end this illegal occupation. Among other things, it is a means to ensure that the trespassers — rather than the university, students and taxpayers — will bear the substantial expenses resulting from unlawful acts.
The lawsuit itself is posted online here [PDF].
Named in the action are Occupy activists Anya Kamenskaya, Gopal Dayaneni, Devin Murphy, Stefanie Rawlings, Eric Larsen, David Grefarth, Russell Bates [Berkeley], Alexandra Cano [Berkeley], Vaden Dabney [Oakland], Erik Eisenberg [Oakland], Elizabreth Fairweather [Rancho Cucamonga], Marika Iyer, Nathan Pitts [San Ramon], Gabrielle Silverman, and Francisco Stierle [Berkeley].
UC Berkeley researcher denied opportunity to plant
Occupy the Farm hasn’t responded to the suit on their website, but they have posted other new developments, including the campus police blockade of vehicle access to the site.
In an interesting twist, the one UC Berkeley with permission to plant on the site, was told he lacked “authorization,” according to the latest bulletin:
Professor Miguel Altieri, researcher at the Gill Tract for 31 years, planned to begin planting his research plot with his students this morning. An hour before he was scheduled to begin, the UC administration barricaded the Gill Tract with concrete, metal barriers, and dozens of police who threatened farmers with “chemical agents and impact force.” In a blatant affront to academic freedom, Dr. Altieri was told he lacked the “authorization” to conduct his research. A bulldozer loomed on the edge of the farm for the majority of the morning.
Despite the blockade, Professor Altieri, with the help of the farmers, managed to plant a token portion of his research area with organic, drought resistant crops that have benefited East Bay soup kitchens for years. The majority of his planned workday, however, has been disrupted by the UC Administration’s intervention.
The Gill Tract Farmers Collective continues to believe that urban farming and academic research can coexist and benefit one another on public farmland. Yesterday evening, in order to free up as much space as possible for researchers, the farmers began relocating the temporary camp to a more southern portion of the Gill Tract which has long been vacant, not used for agricultural research. The move was completed this morning, after the scheduled planting with Professor Altieri, and offers a win-win scenario, where the farmers can maintain access to the crops and the researchers can begin their research unimpeded.
On the south side of the Gill Tract, the farmers are beginning a community research project to find solutions that can heal damaged urban land. Whereas the land already under cultivation by the farmers is Class 1 soil, the soil they are beginning to remediate has been impacted by concrete and contaminated by heavy metals and chemicals due to years of UC negligence. Corey Scher, an Albany native, is joining the farmers for the remediation process. “Look around here. There’s trash everywhere, big pieces of rusty metal, abandoned structures, open plastic barrels of liquid chemicals. The University has not taken care of this place, so it’s up to us to clean up their mess.” The farmers intend to set an example of how to remediate damaged land to make it safe for growing food, and have scheduled a community visioning meeting for 5pm on Saturday, May 12th, to flesh out long-term plans for the farm.
The police presence has unnerved parents at Ocean View elementary school across the street from the Gill Tract. Kristin Vorhies expressed concerns about sending her asthmatic daughter to school this morning due to the UCPD’s reputation for deploying chemical agents on peaceful protesters. She, “loves the idea of having a farm across the street from an elementary school.” Vorhies “called the superintendent and requested that [the superintendent] work with the UC and the City of Albany to make sure that the situation is resolved peacefully, and without chemical agents or the threat of chemical agents. I hate to imagine the potentiality,” Vorhies concluded.
Community outrage has bolstered the farmers with a steady stream of new visitors and community support. They believe this response has dissuaded the UCPD from forced evictions or arrests, and have called for a show of additional community support this evening. Asked how they plan to respond to this new development, the farmers reiterate that their plans remain unchanged. “Basically, it’s just another day,” said Ashoka Finley, an urban agriculture teacher at Richmond High School, “we’re still planting, still seeding, still watering, still weeding.”
The farmers said their encampment remains temporary, existing to maintain space for farming, education, and collaboration with the East Bay community, and to ensure open access and input into the future of these public lands. The farmer’s vision for this land, however, is anything but temporary: Farmland is for farming.