A guerrilla veggie-growing occupation of university-owned land in Albany, Calif., was busted by cops early Monday and thousands of zucchini, kale, squash, and other newly planted seedlings were plowed over. But the occupiers proved more resilient than a sprawling mint plant, returning Monday to replant the desecrated farm.
More than 100 activists had gathered at Gill Tract, near Berkeley, on Friday and over the weekend, with some staying on site until the Monday morning raid. They pulled weeds, tilled soil, and planted seedlings. Some pitched tents.
The 12-acre site was part of a large tract of land donated to the University of California in the 1920s and was long used for organic farming and research. But much of it is now abandoned land, slated for homebuilding and a new grocery store. Some of the land continues to be used for agricultural research, but much of that research relates to genetic engineering.
Long-simmering tensions between the university and neighborhood and student activists over how the land is used boiled over on Earth Day last year, when Occupy the Farm broke padlocks and began cultivating gardens. After several weeks, the police moved in, trashed the garden, and arrested nine people.
The U.C.-Berkeley police didn’t wait that long to raze the farm this time around. In addition to bulldozing the plantings early Monday morning, the cops arrested four activists and charged them with trespassing and interfering with police.
“The UC’s use of police intervention was completely unnecessary and unreasonable,” says Occupy the Farm member, Matthew McHale, “especially after we publicly declared we were leaving later today.”
“This is a pathetic waste of public resources, to arrest people who are engaged in a constructive project to demonstrate how public land can be used for the public good,” added Dan Siegel, the lawyer for the group.
Over the course of the weekend, hundreds of students, farmers, families, and interested community members participated in the revitalization of a neglected part of the historic farmland bordering San Pablo Avenue and Monroe Street. Rows of squash, kale, tomato, corn, lettuce, and even flowers replaced 5-foot high weeds, as farmers created a vibrant community space on the site of a proposed parking lot and chain grocery store.
Since Occupy the Farm first planted on the Gill tract in April 2012, the group has organized at least 10 public forums focused on the Gill Tract as an asset to community-driven participatory research. The UC Berkeley administration has consistently failed to attend, despite being invited. As one of the last large plots of fertile agricultural soil left in the East Bay, the Gill Tract holds great potential as an educational resource for community members and for UC urban agricultural research, and for providing local, sustainable, organic food.
Later Monday, about 50 people returned to replant the farm. The Oakland Tribune reported that they plan to return again this coming weekend to care for the young plants. From the article:
“We’re here to make a statement that an urban farm is a much better use of that prime soil than paving it over,” [Occupy spokesperson and U.C.-Berkeley student Lesley] Haddock said Monday.
The area in question, roughly 12 acres, is partially used by the university for agricultural research. Activists occupied part of this area for three weeks last year. Police made arrests and ended the overnight occupation of the land on May 14 last year.
But not everybody digs the illegal farming occupation. University officials and some city leaders have been quick to criticize it. And some neighbors say they are looking forward to shopping at the grocery store that’s planned for the site. It was originally going to be a Whole Foods, but the company backed out following last year’s occupation, and a Sprouts Farmers Market store is now planned. From the Oakland Tribune article:
[A] group of Albany residents opposed to the Occupy group brought a contingent of their own to the parcel along San Pablo Avenue.
“We want a grocery store here,” said Sylvia Paull, one of the anti-Occupy protesters. “We spent five years working with UC and Albany trying to get one here.”
The Occupy the Farm folks say the San Francisco East Bay’s last remnants of farming land should stay as farming land, and claim that the new grocery store would eat into the profits of existing stores in the community.