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East Bay | Environment & Forest Defense

A Few Words from a David Grefrath, who is currently in jail for farming
by Samara Steele / David Grefrath
Wednesday May 15th, 2013 6:56 PM
On Saturday, May 11th, over a hundred people gathered at the Gill Tract in Albany with the intention of using publicly-owned university land to grow vegetables for a 2nd year in a row. The following Monday, police raided the the farm, forcing everyone to stand on the sidewalk and watch as the cops used a tractor to shred the freshly planted vegetables. Four people were arrested on Monday, including David Grefarth, who works as baker at the Nabolom Bakery in Berkeley. David attempted to put his body between the plow and the plants, but was tackled by police and arrested. As of this posting, David is still being held at Santa Rita Correctional Facilitiy Two weeks ago, David wrote this beautiful essay reflecting on his experience of Occupy the Farm. This is the first time it has been publicly shared. ~Samara

Hearts Face the Sun: Celebrating a full year of Occupy the Farm
by David Grefrath

“Tell me what I should do
to keep the sun out of your coat,
to find a way to obey the wind
to find the pomegranate on
the other side of the revolution.”

~Nathalie Handal

On April 22nd, 2012, around 200 people gathered under the banner "Free the Land" and stood at the locked east fence of a plot of land in Albany, California named 'The Gill Tract'. Some in the crowd thought they knew what was going to happen, some were surprised that no cops had been seen yet, but what was to transpire was a shock to everyone.

Gopal Dayaneni stood on a truck and held a tomato plant in his hand. He said that he was going to go onto the land, beyond the locked gate, and that he was going to plant that tomato. The lock was cut and 200 people walked onto the last 7 acres of undeveloped farmland in the East Bay. No sirens, no cops. The activists-turned-farmers began to hand weed and pile stringy Mustard Greens that had gone to seed. Soon roto-tillers & compost would be unloaded and begin to till the Earth; soon over 10,000 plants would be brought to the field to be laid in soil to grow and by the end of the day those 200 human beings would have taken part in what has been called one of the most successful direct-actions of a generation, Occupy the Farm. Their actions were the direct result of over five months of clandestine planning, a decade and a half of public struggle over the fate of the land and several lifetimes’ worth of dreams. Late in the afternoon, Pancho Steirle climbed to the top of a redwood tree near the south fence and fastened a flag at the top of the tree. The flag has a single image on it, one of the planet Earth.

In 1929, Edward Gill sold 104 acres of farm land to the University of California Regents. Between the 1950s and the end of the 1990s, the Gill Tract was a stage for some of the most dynamic agricultural research on the planet. In a time when use of DDT was a mainstay in farming practices, the faculty at UC Berkeley used bugs to eat other bugs and were able to severely diminish the amount of poison that was applied to both food & land, a practice known as ‘Biological Control.’ After 1998 though, Novartis, a multi-national corporation, began funding research, and since that time, research onsite has almost exclusively been 'gene isolation' related research, which has almost no applicability other than Genetically Modified Organisms. The UC owns over 150 GMO patents, patents which earned about $155 million in 2011.

Between 1998 & 2012, The UC Regents had courted counter-proposals for use of the land, the two major ones being the Bay-Area Center for Urban Agriculture (BACUA), and Village Creek Farm and Garden. Both were proposals for holistic projects that would combine research and public involvement. Both proposals had significant backing from the community, local NGOs and from researchers at the UC-Berkeley Campus. But after years of vetting and support gathering, they were told that their efforts were unnecessary, and that UC Regents were going to proceed with development plans to turn the last bit of the Gill Tract farmland into to a Whole Foods and for-profit senior living center, with apartments starting at $4,000 a month.

When a woman who had been working through official channels for over a decade to save the Gill Tract found out that we were going to occupy it, she was overwhelmed with tears of joy. On that day in April though, I was just amazed that we got onto the Gill Tract, amazed that we had lasted into the afternoon without police arriving, and as the sun set to the west, with migrating geese circling overhead, we looked at a full acre which over 200 people had worked to weed and till that day; about half of which was already planted with tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, zucchini and patty-pan squash. Food Not Bombs cooked a meal for everyone and we called a general assembly underneath 'the big-top'. The organizers had a number of contingency plans. These plans ranged from 'What if the cops block the gate?' to 'What if the DA calls out mutual aid, and several hundred riot cops arrive, and rain down tear-gas, concussion grenades and rubber bullets?” In the wake of the kettling at the “Move-in Day” Occupation in Oakland in January 2012, where over 400 people were subject to arrest and police violence, these were not idle concerns. Still many knew the risks, or thought they knew them, and they were there, had signed up for the farm, had signed up to be at constant risk of arrest, risk of detainment, and for some like Pancho, risk of deportation due to lack of official citizenship. That first night, I told everyone I was still working on a plan that said, "If everything goes golden..."

On the third day, the UC response on the radio was that they were to arrive at the Gill Tract that afternoon and begin negotiations. The only negotiations that commenced was that the UC Regents turned off the water to the site. Two aspects they didn't take into consideration are that the City of Albany’s plant storage site is also at the Gill Tract, and their move to dry out the Farm was also drying out about 150 bare root trees that were due to go to residents of Richmond & Albany as part of a fruit tree planting program. Their move also turned off a fire hydrant at the West end of the site, a move which infuriated the local fire department.

The farm continued thriving after 3 water storage tanks were offered by supporters of the farm, each tank holding 255 gallons. Citizens of Albany and the East Bay volunteered to fill the tanks with water from their own homes. A move by the UC Regents designed to weaken the Farm ended up showing even greater community resiliency, as day after day, truckload after truckload of water was unloaded, and plant after plant was hand-watered by people defying the University's Police daily warnings of arrests.

In the first week, at our first community forum, Damon Lisch, who conducted research on the Gill Tract, bravely attended and said, 'if work equals ownership, then I own this land and you all are on top of my work. I can't tell you how upsetting it is for me to have you here.' During the first few days, Occupy the Farm didn't have a mandate from the organizers or those involved as to what we should do, vis a vis researchers. Damon Lisch’s research was deeply upsetting to some members of Occupy the Farm, who saw it as supporting GMO science, which in turn could be seen as a major contributor to the suicides of over 270,000 farmers in India. In India, many farmers are pushed to buy GM cotton seeds, often the only ones available in seed stores, and subsequently get tangled in a downward debt spiral, when the crops inevitably fail. This often ends in the degradation of the soil and farmer suicide. No one thing is a sole cause of this, but the presence of GM seeds has correlated with the tread. In addition, GMO plants have a history of wreaking havoc environmentally, in the form of topsoil erosion, groundwater poisoning and ocean hypoxification. Yet all that is far from the Gill Tract, where the group worked towards consensus and set aside two and a half acres of the west field for Lisch and 3 other researchers, all of whom perform genetic isolation work with corn genes. Additionally, a professor and researcher who was involved with the 1998 BACUA proposal, Miguel Altieri, had farmland for his project set aside. Altieri’s particular research has involved dry farming, a rather miraculous practice where many crops can be grown using only natural rainfall.

So the occupation continued. Each day the Police arrived and read a statement to people planting a row of chard or with a wheelbarrow of compost. Each day Food not Bombs made 3 meals. Each day we held a general assembly to discuss concerns. There were festivals held at the end of the first week and another for Beltaine. As time passed though, tensions grew between the police and protesters. We held to the motto, "Farmland is for Farming" as we practiced dismantling the dying structures around us.

The UC Regents called for a meeting to negotiate. Organizers from Occupy the Farm sent a half dozen people to attend, along with Dan Siegel, the lawyer who had battled the UC during the fight for People's Park. The regents demanded that the organizers disband the farm; the Farm organizers demanded the Regents preserve the land in perpetuity for agriculture. Two days later, the UC Regents filed a lawsuit against all persons who stated they had attended the meeting as well as 150 "John and Jane Does" for destruction of property, as well as remuneration for the ongoing policing efforts, with an estimated total cost of over a million dollars.

Still the farm persevered. Over the 3 weeks of occupation 80 rows of vegetables were planted, a permaculture Children's garden, the Ladybug Patch, was started across the street from Ocean View Elementary School, with many of the schoolchildren visiting the garden. A group of farmers who had been kicked off the land by the UC & Novartis in 1998 hosted a 'Return of the Seeds', which then restarted a seed-saving garden with the descendants of plants which had last been on the land more than a decade before.

On Monday May 14th though, early in the morning, over 80 riot police from 5 precincts were dispatched to the Gill Tract. Seven people were arrested, and the farm, in effect, went into hibernation. The UC Regents plowed under 40 rows of crops, destroying the Ladybug patch and the seed saving library. However, forty rows of crops, much of the first day’s worth of planting, survived.

Beginning in July 2012, eight harvest events were held, which yielded a total of over one ton of produce. This produce was given away at free farm stands in Albany, Richmond and West Oakland, many areas which have a profound lack of available fresh vegetables. Also in July, the Albany City Council approved the Whole Foods development plans. A group of Albany Residents formed the Albany Farm Alliance and gathered 1400 signatures in an effort to rescind the decision. The next month, in August, the million-dollar lawsuit filed by the UC Regents against the Farm Organizers was dropped. In September, the UC announced that the Northern portion of the Gill Tract was now to be managed by the College of Natural Resources for a period of 10 years, a move which put the Northern portion of the Gill Tract beyond the risk of development. Two days later, a Whole Foods Corporate Spokesperson announced that due to delays, Whole Foods was no longer seeking to build a store at the Gill Tract. Before the occupation, many of the organizers would have thought that either of these outcomes was impossible.

Sighting the Albany City Council's continued desire to have a development project on the site, Eric Larsen of the Albany Farm Alliance filed a lawsuit on behalf what is widely viewed as a highly deficient EIR, which will be heard in June 2013. As autumn descended in 2012, the radical farmers planted an autumn crop of kale, collards & chard, intercropped with nitrogen fixing fava beans. The UC administration plowed under these crops in November. Even still, many of the plants that never made it to the farm were distributed to community gardens in the Bay Area. Occupy the Farm continues to push for integration of public and private spaces for growing food and for the reconsideration of private property in an era where the commons are being continually turned into private profit. Soon we will likely more need public spaces, orchards, public food forests and communal spaces for planting.

We live in an era where autonomous zones serve as the incubation areas for the world that we all must lift our hands to create. From the endurance of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, to the ingenuity at Gaviotas in Columbia, from spontaneous community building to save the land at La ZAD in France to the beautiful, varied insistence of the Arab Spring, Idle No More, and the Tar-Sands Blockade, we must all begin to share and integrate lessons of DIY resistance and liberation.

We are also in an era of one of the most rapid extinctions of species in the history of the planet. If you are reading this, you are still among the living, and you have a duty to both the ancestors and the unborn to find your gift as a human being, and to use that gift in service of life, life which has surrounded and supported you from the first electric explosion in the womb and which will continue to surround and to support you beyond the time of your last breath. Out on the farm the geese are returning, and the rains continue to soften the soil. We breathe, and each breath fills our heart with gratitude for life. As a movement, the earth our drum, we hold dirt stained hands, turn towards the sun, and begin another season.

* * *

To learn more about Monday's police raid of Occupy the Farm: Police Raid Occupt the Farm, arrest 4, & physically abuse UC Berkeley student

To view a photo gallery of of Occupy the Farm: Photos from Occupy the Farm

§David and the others have been released!
by Samara Steele Thursday May 16th, 2013 2:17 AM
On Wednesday evening, David and the others from Occupy the Farm were released from Santa Rita prison.

They were held without charges for over 60 hours, in clear violation of Penal Code sections 825 and 849, which mandate that a person must be arraigned within 48 hours of arrest or released.

These laws exist to prevent people from being detained without charges or trial. They prevent individual cops and DAs from punishing arrestees outside of the law.

David, as well as Brooke Marino and Ian Saxon, were held without charges for over 60 hours, violating these laws.

We need the law. We need it to protect us from abuses by corrupt people within the state.

If the laws can just be suspended willy nilly, than this is no longer a democracy, but a despotism run by scare tactics and thugs.

Even if you don't agree with David's politics, you will hopefully agree that the law should not be suspended in any event.

These are our rights.

If we don't fight for them, we will lose them.

We must protest the unlawful detainment of David, Brooke, and Ian

and reclaim our civil rights before it is too late.

§David at Occupy the Farm
by Samara Steele Thursday May 16th, 2013 2:19 AM

photo by Peter Menchini.