By Claire Walla
Violence erupted between students and police officers beneath the shade of numerous redwoods on Science Hill yesterday, Nov. 7.
A crowd of around 300 UC Santa Cruz students and community members faced pepper spray and hard-hitting police batons that struck down from clusters of police officers who dodged punches, attempting to halt the force of the crowd that gradually collapsed around them, puncturing the police blockade they had formed around two occupied redwoods.
The aggressive clash could be seen from between the leaves of the trees above by four individuals who perched on makeshift platforms secured 50 feet above the fracas.
It was because of these tree-sitters that this altercation began.
Without food, water, or other amenities, these unidentified individuals (all thought to be students) lifted themselves at least 50 feet up into the darkness early Wednesday morning, where they proceeded to occupy two trees, which they connected with a rope.
The tree-sit was initiated to protest the University’s Long Range Development Plan (LRDP), and it drew students, faculty and community members together during the day to show their support.
But it was ultimately the violence between the cops and the crowd that made headlines.
Around 10 a.m. campus police constructed a makeshift plastic fence, blockading about a 50-foot radius of concrete below the tree-sitters’ two platforms. But after a rally in the Baytree Plaza, during which protesters amassed more support, the crowd of students and community members returned to Science Hill and began circling the plastic fence before ultimately tearing it down.
In its place, protesters confronted the plastic uniforms of around 30 campus police officers, who later called for backup. State troopers, Scotts Valley police, California Highway Patrol, Sheriff’s cars, Ranger Patrol and one fire truck were all present.
UCSC student Cecily Wild was standing against the barricade when police whipped out their bottles of pepper spray. “I kept yelling, ‘We just want to support them, we just want to bring them food and water!’” But police pushed against Wild and the crowd around her, and when she resisted, she was sprayed in the face.
“I didn’t think I’d have such a bad reaction, my body’s shaking and my eyes are hurting,” she said.
Despite her pain, Wild continued for fight for her friends in the trees.
“I was thinking, ‘Fuck this hurts, but I care more about people’s rights,’” she said. “I’m so sick of this military-style policing.”
Like Wild, first-year Alex Margolies’ face was splotchy and red from pepper spray, and he was dripping with water he had poured into his eyes to stop them from stinging.
“I was sprayed because I was resisting the system. All I wanted to do was bring a blanket and supplies [to the people in the trees], then [a police officer] ripped the blanket away and sprayed me in the face.”
In addition to the pepper spray aimed at crowds of restless bodies, eyewitnesses confirm that police officers were also physically forceful, even after protesters dispersed into discussion circles and sat on the pavement below the trees.
“One policeman shoved his baton horizontally against this person who just stood
up,” said fifth-year Alexander Villalobos. “He was probably just going to walk somewhere.” When the man fell to the ground, it prompted the crowd of protesters to their feet, shouting complaints and waving peace signs in the air with their fingers.
Some believe the protesters provoked police officers, and invited violence by way of their dress. Many in the crowd had blanketed their faces with t-shirts or towels to protect their identities, and some had goggles over their eyes to protect against pepper spray.
According to first-year Toby Kidwell, one policeman leaned over to a female protestor and said, “If you cross over the barrier, I would go for you because you covered your face.”
Police were unavailable for comment, and directed all inquiries to the Public Information Officer, or campus spokesperson Jim Burns.
Burns said that police first arrived on the scene around 3:30 a.m. Wednesday morning when about a dozen people, six of whom were not students, attempted to hoist themselves into the branches of the grove of Redwood trees directly next to the Physical Sciences building. One man was arrested in the attempt, and several others were prevented from rising higher into the foliage by police.
By the time day broke, Burns said that four people had managed to remain in the trees, out of reach of the campus officials.
The LRDP proposes to cut down 120 acres of forest for campus development and growth. And though these plans are not set in stone, they have been suggested in order to amend complications that will inevitably arise in the next few years with the campus’ expanding student population.
UCSC alumnus Don Stevens, co-founder of the Coalition to Limit University Expansion (CLUE), spoke at a rally held in Baytree Plaza earlier that day. From atop the rocky mass in the middle of the Plaza, Stevens explained to those in attendance that UCSC does not have the resources to expand as broadly as the LRDP maps out. Most importantly, university expansion will rob both the campus and the city of their water supplies, including their reserve supplies.
Jennifer Charles, spokesperson for the tree-sitters, agreed with this sentiment, and feels the university does not only disregard public feedback, it slights student input.
“This form of protest is coming about because other avenues are not working and the students cannot afford to take the university to court,” she said.
This is a long-term strategy to combat a 13-year plan: “I don’t know that the tree-sit will go on until 2020, but it’s a big part of stopping this plan in its tracks,” Charles said.
But Burns wholeheartedly feels that, despite the students’ intentions, this protest is “completely inappropriate.”
“It’s unsafe, not only for the protesters, but for the people walking below the trees,” he said. “It’s a safety hazard that interferes with operation of this campus.”
It’s not protest itself that Burns or the administration takes issues with. “We have a lot of protests on this campus and we want to honor that,” he said. “This campus has many free-speech zones, but I think it’s safe to say that 50-70 feet up in a tree is not one of them.”
Burns also takes issue with the grounds on which students are taking action. Student opinions have not been left out of the decision-making process, he said. In fact according to Burns, “The planning process for this LRDP began quite a bit before today’s students were even students, but we communicated with the students who were here at the time. “People are entitled to disagree with us for the outcome, but they should not disagree with the process that began before they were even students here.”
Whether or not students do have a say, and regardless of whether they should, the tree-sitters remain above the parking lot outside the Physical Sciences building, where the LRDP proposes building a Biomedical Sciences building.
Protesters take specific issue with the Biomedical Sciences building because they feel it represents the university’s shift from focusing on undergraduate, liberal arts education to more lucrative graduate programs in the sciences.
And although Burns is optimistic about the additional funding the planned science building will bring to the campus, he also said that it’s a common misconception that the university favors the sciences over the arts. He points to the fact that UCSC just recently opened a new Humanities building and a new Social Sciences building.
“Facilities get built because the faculty and the administration make a case for it,” he said. “A biomedical facility has been identified as a real need on this campus for a long time.”
Issues concerning the LRDP were originally slated to be discussed at a rally in Baytree Plaza, which eventually took place around 11 a.m., before any violent confrontations. Speakers — including Stevens — railed against campus development to a crowd of roughly 100 students, some of whom trickled down from the tree-sit, and some who stopped to listen on a whim.
The crowd really stirred when a community organizer, who wished to be called Rico, shouted out to the masses from behind the hold of two officers: “They’re arresting me for not showing my I.D.!”
The crowd and ensuing that amassed during this altercation only grew in scope as the day progressed. Soon hundreds of people were slithering up McLaughlin with picket signs and bullhorns.
Rico later told City on a Hill Press that he was arrested by police officers who were suspicious of him because he had several drums in his car. (Rico and other protesters later used these drums while marching to Science Hill.) Though he was taken to the campus police office, he was eventually released with a “Certificate of Detention” because police had no grounds to keep him.
Though the tree-sit is a first for our campus, many here are familiar with a similar situation at UC Berkeley, where protesters have been living in the trees for nearly a year now.
Tree-sitters in Berkeley are resisting development plans at Cal that threaten to cut down a grove of trees that sits adjacent to the Cal football stadium.
Four Berkeley students associated with the tree-sit traveled to Santa Cruz for Wednesday’s rally in support of the protestor’s cause.
Fourth-year UC Berkeley student and tree-sit supporter Luiz Batista said that in 10 months of protest, the situation in Berkeley has not grown nearly as violent as it did Wednesday in Santa Cruz.
When the police officers began unleashing the pepper spray, Batista and a few others were tangled up in a costume designed to look like a tree.
“We were just having fun, then the police came to spray us and we just ducked beneath the material,” he said.
Batista speculates that things in Santa Cruz got much more violent than they did in Berkeley because Berkeley tree-sitters set the precedent. Santa Cruz police officers “understand that this is for real,” while the police in Berkeley didn’t realize protesters would still be there 10 months later, he said.
Burns said that the university is weighing all of its options, and considering a number of courses of action for the tree-sitters, including arresting the individuals, filing criminal charges and imposing civil penalties, which would entail “trying to recover the excessive cost we have to bear to staff this event.”
It is not clear how long the protesters will remain in the trees, but Charles said that they will stay for as long as one year, if that’s what it takes.
The protestors and their supporters have no immediate plans, but according to Charles, “The long-term plan is to show opposition to the LRDP in whatever way we can, every step of the way.”