In the in Albany, I live within a stone’s throw of the , and for the past three weeks, I have had a front-row seat to the escalating conflict between the Occupy the Farm movement and the University of California, Berkeley. I’ve watched it unfold from two vantage points: as a member of the University Village community and as a graduate student whose own research is intimately tied to rights and citizenship. And from my dual vantage points, I have grown increasingly worried about the coming collision between the University of California Police Department and the occupiers who have set up camp just outside my front door.
As a University Village resident for two years, my family and I have often seen , and we’ve relished watching deer, rabbits and wander through the field near our home. In fact, when the occupation started, I thought it was a university event to begin the planting season. As the week went by, I learned that this was no university event. The field had been occupied by protestors. Three weeks later, instead of well-organized plantings, diligently working students and researchers, and wildlife, I see tents, thrown-together structures, protest signs, and a disorganized assortment of seedlings. This morning, instead of the sound of flying to the nearby field, as they used to every morning, I heard the whirling overhead.
At their speak-outs, the occupiers have claimed that , that they came to save it. Contrary to the university’s plans, they’ve asserted, they have an interest in creating a community-directed farm that would serve as an inspiration to other communities, a research center par excellence in urban farming. As a graduate student who takes great pride in academic innovation and community involvement, I think that sounds wonderful. The creation of an urban farming center in conjunction with the university is a great idea, for the university has always been a trailblazer in terms of academic pursuits.
However, as a resident of University Village who knew about the plans for a mixed-retail center at San Pablo and Monroe, I immediately knew that the protestors had taken over the wrong parcel of land. The site of the proposed mixed-retail center and senior housing complex is near the University Village entrance along Monroe, and not the Gill Tract research field. As it stands, the lots at San Pablo and Monroe—which until recently were the location of decrepit barracks built in the 1940s—are vacant, overgrown with weeds, and quite often peppered with discarded fast-food wrappers, cups and other debris. Developing this land would be a benefit rather than a hindrance to our community, so long as it is done in a smart and ecological way. My reading of the Albany City Council minutes suggests that a variety of concerns—environmental foremost among them—were taken into account when planning the project.
In addition to the quagmire of taking over the wrong piece of the land, the problem is compounded by the university’s to develop the agricultural portion of the Gill Tract. Not only does the University have no plans to build on the occupied site in the foreseeable future, the vague “Recreation and Open Space” zoning in the , to which the occupiers readily refer as evidence of malfeasance, does not exclude urban or community farming. In fact, that same Master Plan labels our own University Village Community Garden as “Recreation and Open Space.” To put it frankly, the occupiers are at the wrong place at the wrong time.
While I am in favor of the creation of an urban farm, community garden, or educational center on the Gill Tract, and am proud of our own University Village Community Garden (even though I myself do not use it), I disagree strongly with the tactics taken by the Gill Tract occupiers, who have ignored due democratic process and shown an outright disregard for the researchers and students who work at the Gill research field. The occupiers have ignored years of arbitration between the university, University Village, the city of Albany, and Bay Area environmental groups.
The minutes of the City Council meetings reveal just how complex the democratic process is when it takes into account the heartfelt opinions of environmentalists, students, educators, bicyclists, motorists, Little Leaguers, everyday citizens, etc. The occupiers have bypassed true community consensus building and have taken direct, unilateral control of land that is not theirs—land that students, researchers, and faculty have been using to conduct basic plant science research. Misinformed, the occupiers have mistakenly carried out actions that have had dire consequences for members of our academic community.
All that said, something positive might come of this yet. As I said before, the creation of a University-supervised, community-driven urban farm and research center is an outstanding idea, so long as it can be created through democratic means rather than unilateral, undemocratic actions that alienate researchers and faculty members from their work.
Given how good this sounds, I am confused as to why, to create an urban farming center, Occupy the Farm has decided to be intractable.
From my vantage point, it appears the occupiers are more concerned with occupying than with urban farming. They are more concerned with proving a point than with effecting real benefits to our community, both academic and civic.
I implore the occupiers: on this last point, please prove me wrong.
I call upon the occupiers to vacate the lot so that researchers and students can resume their work. I hope that the occupiers, who claim to be fighting for a sustainable urban farm, will do the sensible thing by ending the occupation and collaborating with the university to plan and establish a truly community-directed urban farm that meets the needs of our civic, as well as our academic, community.
Refusing to leave peaceably would pose a risk for the nearby Ocean View Elementary School and the families living in Albany Village, and it would represent a missed opportunity to create an exemplary urban farm by blatantly disrespecting academic freedom and flagrantly disregarding the rule of law and democratic process.
Christopher M. Church
PhD Candidate, UC Berkeley
Department of History
Click the "Keep me posted" button below for an update when we publish future stories on this topic. Read more on Albany Patch about the Gill Tract occupation.