NOTE: Yesterday, we posted this lengthy look at Occupy the Farm in light of the Commons. Less than twelve hours after posting that piece, UC Police raided the Gill Tract. As this breaking news report reveals, the Farm continues — but for how long is anybody’s guess. – Jeff Conant, for GJEP
By Jeff Conant
May 9, 2012, Albany CA – When University of California Police arrived at the Occupied Gill Tract this morning at 6 a.m. and began barricading the gates, with some two dozen members of the Gill Tract Farmers Collective inside, word spread quickly that Occupy the Farm was being raided.
How did the Farmers react?
By planting tomatoes.
According to reports, after the police sealed off several escape routes from the five-acre plot of land that has been occupied, and farmed, since April 22, they announced over a bullhorn that any interference with their activities would result in the use of chemical dispersants.
On the west side of the field, parents walking their kids to Ocean View Elementary School became concerned about the police action. After one parent called the City Council, a city council member showed up and urged the police to stand down.
Ulan McKnight, an Albany parent, member of the Gill Tract Farmers Collective, and co-founder of the Albany Farm Alliance, which supports the occupation, said, “We are absolutely appalled that the UC decided to ratchet up the conflict by threatening to use chemical weapons. Everything we’ve done has been peaceful and non-confrontational. Everything we’ve said we’d do, we’ve done. We’ve taken every opportunity for dialogue. Yet they want to make this into a police action. There’s no need for that. We’re farmers, and we’re here to plant.”
And plant they did.
Professor Miguel Altieri, faculty at the College of Natural Resources which managed the site before it was transferred to the University’s Capital Projects Development arm, showed up at the site at 6:45, accompanied by several students and armed with several flats of tomatoes. At a public forum the night before, Altieri, who teaches agro-ecology and has been conducting research on the Gill Tract for many years, announced that he would go ahead and begin his research with dry-farmed tomatoes the next day. He also let the Dean of the College, J. Keith Gilles, know of his intentions to carry on his research,
“I have no conflict with these people,” Altieri told the Dean earlier in the week. “I don’t see any reason why research on the land and the occupiers can’t coexist.”
When I caught up with Professor Altieri shortly after the police raid, he said his plan had been to come to the tract with his students, and work together with the community members if they wanted to join. “After all, extension is part of our job,” Altieri said. “We’re supposed to work with the community.”
But when Altieri showed up at the tract this morning, a dozen police officers had blocked the gates, and prevented him from entering the land.
When Altieri was barred from entering the site, he appealed to the occupiers inside the fence: he described how to plant the dry-farmed tomato crop, and gave them several dozen plants, which they planted right away, under the scrutiny of the UC police force.
Altieri expects to return to monitor the tomato crop throughout the season. But the events of the week have caused him to throw up his hands about undertaking his full research plan. The change of plans, he says, is not due to the occupation, but to the contrary – because of their likely expulsion.
“I’m not going to plant my research plot this year – I can’t plant beside their corn,” he said, referring to experimental corn plots being planted by USDA-funded researchers also associated with the UC’s College of Natural Resources.
Altieri was visibly frustrated at the UC’s handling of the situation. “It could be a coincidence, but I believe the raid was timed to prevent me from planting my tomatoes,” the professor said.
“The thing about dry farmed tomatoes is, they’re adaptive,” Altieri told me. “They don’t need any tilling, and they don’t need any water. I think this drove the college crazy.”
Altieri’s position that his research can be carried out not only in the presence of the occupiers, but with their assistance, flies in the face of the UC’s stated position. A letter signed by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer argued that the occupation of the land is incompatible with the research being carried out at the tract.
“By the middle of May, college staff need to begin work on the tract in support of faculty and student research,” the letter states, quoting CNR Dean J. Keith Gilles. “This requires that full control of the property revert to the university. These complicated projects require meticulous supervision and cannot be carried out in the midst of an encampment.”
The letter, which was issued Tuesday night, also cites Professor Bob Jacobson, chair of the Academic Senate, who said “faculty research had been ‘usurped’ by the protesters’ unilateral actions,” and was in violation of academic freedom. Provost Breslauer closes the letter by saying the university has every intention to make sure research goes unimpeded, and the rule of law is maintained.
This morning’s actions show that the university means business.
Accompanying Professor Altieri at the Gill Tract was Claudia Carr, Associate Professor of International Agricultural Development in the Environmental Science, Policy and Management program within the College of Natural Resources. Like Altieri, Carr supports the Gill Tract Farmers Collective.
“I think the bottom line here is that what these people have accomplished, with precious urban land, is to raise the question of development: what type of development, toward what, and for whom? That’s what they intended to do and that’s what they’ve done. This will have a lasting influence on the community,” she said. “This will not be forgotten.”
Professor Carr’s internationally-focused work examines how development projects led by the World Bank and other International Financial Institutions often lead to displacement, environmental disruption, and human rights abuse.
I asked Altieri what he thinks the university will do with the land if it manages to dislodge the occupation.
“They’ll take it over and do what they want,” he said.
Carr agrees: “The university’s line about managing this as a multi-stakeholder site is disingenuous,” the professor said. “Once they transferred the land to Capital Projects, there’s no getting it back.”
Carr pointed out that the same thing happened several years ago with a nearby site called the Richmond Field Station. That site is the planned location of the second campus of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.
Anya Kamenskaya, one of the spokespeople for the Farmers, underlined Carr’s points. “They wouldn’t even be talking about urban agriculture if we hadn’t come here and done this,” she said.
“Now they’re playing it up as if they’re great stewards of ‘metropolitan agriculture’. They’re not. Unless there is student pressure and community pressure, they don’t do anything like this. Now they’re making this a contentious battle between researchers and occupiers – that’s not what this is about. This is about preventing this land from being sold off and developed into a high-priced national supermarket chain.”
Pointing to the plots of fava beans and the newly planted tomatoes, Kamenskaya said, “We should remember that Miguel Altieri is the only actual UC faculty working here. The others are USDA adjunct faculty.”
As I left the sight, four police officers stood by the gate watching a crew of Farmers pulling a trailer loaded with water jugs toward their field of vegetable seedling beginning to curl up in the mid-morning sun. Water at the site has been turned off for two weeks.
Before leaving, I stopped to speak with Ulan McKnight of the Albany Farm Alliance. I asked McKnight what the best possible outcome would be:
“The best result would be a sustainable farm in Albany. We want a permanent easement. If the UC can show they have the trust of the public, then they can manage it. But so far, they have failed to show that,” he said.
McKnight cited the fact that “part of the $25 million investment bought Novartis two seats on the board of the CNR research committee. (For more on that deal, see here, here, and here.) So what do they do? They vote to put genetic research on the land. In 1998 they kicked off the local organic pest management project, and decided they would do gene research. What was here before directly benefitted the people of California; now what they do here directly benefits biotechnology companies. Instead of doing things that can help people, they are doing things that benefit the one percent.”