Although UC Regents Drop Lawsuit Against Occupy the Farm Protesters, Student-Admin. Tensions Linger
Protesters celebrated the end of what they called a “frivolous” suit, which was first brought against them for converting a tract of UC-Berkeley land into a community farm and green agricultural learning center.
Prior to the May raid that ended the occupation, activists and professors had planted drought-resistant organic crops, including squash, corn and tomatoes; established a children’s area with petting goats and gardening; brought in beehives and chickens; and created a composting toilet for sanitation.
Since the 1990s, faculty and students at UC-Berkeley have lobbied the administration for the creation of sustainable urban agricultural facilities on the Gill Tract. Originally set aside for agricultural research, nine-tenths of the initial area has been developed and the final tenth — including the area occupied by protesters in April and May — has been used only periodically for plant genetic research, with some of the land slated to be sold to private developers.
The regents filed a lawsuit in May against 14 protesters they identified as “leaders” of the farm. A university spokesman told the Daily Californian earlier this month that the lawsuit intended, in part, to recoup the cost of policing and raiding the protest.
Protesters maintained the damages, which exceeded $300,000, were avoidable. “They chose to militarize the space,” Occupy the Farm Spokesperson Gopal Dayaneni said. “It was overkill and unnecessary, and it is an absurdity to say that Occupy the Farm is responsible for that.”
“What you have here is specifically saying not just, ‘Cover the cost of protests,’ but ‘We’re going to arrest you and we’re going to make you pay the costs of us arresting you,’ which is a particularly interesting and slightly odd thing to do,” City University of New York Professor Angus Johnson told Campus Progress. Johnson is a historian of student organizing, and runs the blog studentactivism.net.
Johnson said he was unaware of any precedent for this lawsuit, but that it is part of a larger pattern of increasing escalation against student protests in the UC system since the beginning of Occupy Cal protests three years ago.
“The university has defined student activists as their enemy from the fall of 2009, and has in many cases chosen that framing of an issue when other approaches were available to them,” he said. “The use of punitive tactics against student protesters feels to a lot of students as part of a larger pattern of a lack of administrative interest in preserving the public university, full-stop."
This lawsuit, the beating of students last fall, and the notorious UC Davis pepper spray incident are all evidence of the growing divide between the UC administration and student organizers as California’s public universities face austerity measures.
As students protest tuition hikes and program cuts, the privatization of the university severs the moral connection between administrators and students. Administrators see cracking down on protests as their duty; students see a university contemptuous of their concerns and unwilling to listen to their point of view. What ensues is animosity and, sometimes, violence.
“You have a situation where the university is determined to act in a physical way against student protests when the question of the legality of student protests hasn’t been resolved,” Johnson said. “That’s quite an extraordinary thing.”
For their part, Occupy the Farm protesters saw the lawsuit as a censorship measure. For students in crippling debt, the mere threat of a lawsuit is daunting. In response, they planned to file an anti-SLAPP motion on June 22, an action complaining that the lawsuit was an attempt to silence and intimidate them (SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, a technique commonly used by powerful entities to silence less-powerful detractors).
Instead, the UC Regents dropped their lawsuit—allegedly because the cost outweighed the benefit.
“We are not at all surprised that UC has walked away from what amounts to a frivolous lawsuit against a group of community activists committed to promoting sustainable urban agriculture on public lands,” Defendant Stefanie Rawlings said in a statement. “What they need to do now is take the next step and let the public tend the crops.”
Shay O'Reilly is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.
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