By Doug Oakley
UC Berkeley police have spent $300,000 and taken more than 200 police reports while managing a group of protesters living in campus trees for 17 months, says Cal Police Chief Victoria Harrison.
About a half-dozen people have been living in the oak grove next to Memorial Stadium since December 2006 to protest the school's plan to cut down the trees and build an athletic training center.
The project has been held up in court for more than a year after the city of Berkeley, a neighborhood group and a group that wants to save the trees sued the university. A judge's decision is due before June.
Some of the $300,000 the police have spent in connection with the protest has gone toward overtime and some toward 24-hour security guards at the protest site, Harrison said.
And while many of the 200-plus police reports at the site are related to protester activities, the protesters themselves have been victims of crimes by people who disagree with them, Harrison said.
Cal's normally low-profile police chief sent an open letter to about 45,000 faculty, staff and students earlier this week explaining the department's reasons for allowing the tree-sitters to stay, running up the bills for the department.
"I understand that many of you are frustrated by an approach that seems overly tolerant, while others believe we should just let it all be," Harrison wrote. "However, I am convinced there is a middle ground where we can and will maintain that delicate balance between tolerance and law enforcement.
But Marcella Sadlowski, a fourth-year Cal student who has been working with the tree-sitters for about a year and who has been arrested twice for it, said the police department is not maintaining any kind of balance.
The police are out to "silence the voice that is going against the university's horrible policies," she said.
In the 1960s, during fights over the future of People's Park, and again in the 1990s during protests calling for more ethnic studies, the UC Berkeley police beat people, Sadlowski said.
"So they are not here to protect students, or the community," she said. "They are here to serve the administration and the regents who are war profiteers and business tycoons. So, of course, the police are not neutral."
Harrison said she wrote the letter to the campus community after several students asked about the police department's take on the situation and because the protest has gone on for so long.
In the letter, Harrison said it's not worth risking injury or worse to a police officer or protester during an arrest attempt high above the ground for a misdemeanor trespassing citation.
She called the tree-sitters "a few nonstudents who have placed themselves above the law." The protesters, she said, have broken guidelines governing where, when and how to protest on campus, and said the group is "seeking to change policy through a kind of extortion."
Of the 300 e-mails she received after sending the letter, 90 percent applaud the department for its work and views on the situation, Harrison said.
Clarion Tung, a fourth-year chemistry and philosophy student at Cal with no affiliation with the tree-sitters, said he likes the idea that the protesters are there but worries about costs.
"Personally, I think it's cool to let them stay in the trees," Tung said. "It's a little ridiculous to keep security on them 24 hours a day. For students, the issue is the monetary costs. You see all this money getting spent on security costs, and we have tuition increases."
One day soon, the university may have to evict the protesters, Harrison said.
"We are planning for a variety of contingencies based on what the judge rules," Harrison said. "If the judge says the project can go forward, they have to come down. If the judge says, 'You can't go forward with the project,' they have to come down."
Even though the protest has cost $300,000, the school still has a contingency fund for these kinds of events, Harrison said. The department's budget is about $13 million.
"It doesn't seem like that much money when you look at our budget, but it's the single largest cost we have spent on a particular protest," Harrison said.
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