By Jeff Conant, for Climate Connections
Alameda County, CA, June 1, 2012 – Yesterday began what will likely be years of legal proceedings between the Regents of the University of California and the Gill Tract Farmers Collective – the band of radical commoners who entered, occupied, and farmed the UC-owned Gill Tract, the last five acres of high quality arable soil in California’s East Bay, at the border of the cities of Berkeley and Albany.
Yesterday’s hearing, which took place at the Alameda County Courthouse, marked the UC’s initial effort to seek a legal injunction to prevent the Gill Tract Farmers Collective – several of whom face both civil and criminal charges – from re-entering the five acre plot of land where they established a community farm this spring.
The occupation, which began during an Earth Day parade on April 22, came to a close on May 14 when 100 riot police from eight UC campuses and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department descended on the land, evicted and arrested the occupiers, and destroyed much of the planting that had been done during the three week civil disobedience.
Every seat in the courthouse was filled, many by farm supporters wearing torn jeans and carrying signs that said, “We dig the farm.”
Speaking for the plaintiff, UC Attorney Kay Martin opened the proceedings, saying, “The injunction we’ve sought is narrowly tailored – the named parties would be prohibited from ‘entering, occupying, residing on or cultivating’ the property.” The past trespass, and any future trespass, the plaintiff’s counsel argued, “stands a high likelihood of disturbing the experiments that are occurring on this land.”
The plaintiff’s case for the injunction also orders that anyone who ‘aids and abets’ the named parties must stay away from the Gill Tract.
Citing the initial cutting of the lock, holes cut in the fence, climbing over the fence, building steps to get over the fence, and other means of entering the property, the plaintiff argued that the occupiers have shown no evidence that they intend to stay away from the land, and that injunctive relief is therefore necessary.
“The very name of their website, ‘Take Back the Gill Tract’, indicates their intention to return to the land,” Martin told the judge.
When defense lawyer Dan Siegel spoke, he made no argument as to whether or not the Farmers had or had not entered the land in question, though he did note that there was no evidence that several of the named parties had been on the land. Rather, his argument rested on the contours of the land itself, whether or not the land is ‘private’ or ‘public,’ and the charge that the UC has the means to remedy the problem without seeking injunctive relief from the Court.
“I am amused by the characterization of the property as private property,” Siegel said. “Unless something remarkable has happened in the last 48 hours, the Gill Tract is no more private property than this courthouse is. The Regents are stewards of public property, they do not own the property,” Siegel said.
The Regents’ characterization of the land was “incredibly misleading,” Siegel said. “The Gill Tract is 100 acres that were deeded to the UC as agricultural land. We need to be precise about the contours of the land which the defendants are prohibited from visiting.”
Siegel also argued the case on the grounds of freedom of speech under the First Amendment. “They are wrong on the facts, but they are also wrong on the law,” he said of the plaintiffs. “I would not argue that criminal trespass is permissible under the law, but the question here is, what is protected activity and what is not protected activity under First Amendment Rights.”
Siegel’s career tussling with the University of California over land rights and free speech goes back to the Peoples Park uprisings in Berkeley in the nineteen-sixties, where he played a key role, first as an organizer and later as a lawyer. More recently, he has demonstrated allegiance to the ideals of the Occupy movement. Siegel served as Legal Adviser to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan until November 2011, but resigned in protest after Oakland police violently dismantled the encampment at newly renamed Oscar Grant Plaza, and went after protesters with excessive force. His resignation was announced via Twitter: “No longer Mayor Quan’s legal advisor. Resigned at 2 am. Support Occupy Oakland, not the 1% and its government facilitators.”
“The main argument is this, your honor,” Siegel told the judge at yesterday’s hearing. “The law in the State of California holds that, before a trespass is brought before a criminal court, it must be shown that the harm was irreparable. What was the irremediable harm in this case? Felonious farming? Willful watering? Maybe even malicious mulching?”
After a burst of laughter from the packed courtroom, Siegel concluded his initial argument with a barbed comment addressing the UC’s handling of the case. “I know that the Regents expect that they can enter any court in the state of California and get the results that they want,” he said, “But I would argue that this demonstrates disrespect for the due process of law.”
Attorney Kay Martin, speaking for the plaintiffs, responded by arguing, “Regardless of whether the property in question is public, the regents are responsible for much property that the public does not have the right to go on.”
Since May 14, when the Gill Tract Farmers Collective was evicted from the land, Martin said, the UC has installed eight light towers, posted 20 No Trespassing signs, hired eight private security guards, and stationed between two and 25 police officers at the site at any given time.
Siegel seized on this point and countered, “The University says it has spent a lot of resources to secure the property against what I call ‘felonious farming.’ That expenditure does not change the fact that this injunction is for the misdemeanor of trespassing. The Regents have all the reasonable remedy they need – I mean, they have their own police department. What more do they need?”
At the time of this writing, the Court is still deliberating and no decision has been handed down.