Occupy Comes Down to Earth

By Andrew Dunn, CSSC Guest Blogger

A primary critique of the Occupy movement—both from without and within–has been that it doesn’t have concrete demands. In the rare cases when Occupy general assemblies have issued demands, they have been broad and far-reaching, such as “end discrimination” and “end all wars.” Perhaps because the problems we face are so vast and entrenched, deciding how to tackle them can be difficult and contentious.

Also, issuing demands on behalf of the movement as a whole would limit its scope and power, many argue. Thus, we’ve seen Occupy become a diffuse global movement rooted in a multiplicity of shared values, able to work for a host of social justice priorities. Here in the Bay Area, where I live, I’ve seen people in various communities channel the strength and passion of Occupy into actions with wildly different goals, but all aiming to create a better world for everyone. The lack of focused demands at the outset has paved the way for small cells of the movement everywhere to issue demands relevant to specific places and moments.

One example of a recent Occupy success occurred last week, when activists in San Francisco disrupted a Wells Fargo shareholder meeting, demanding that the bank end unfair business practices and become accountable to its customers. And on Earth Day, we saw the birth of something that has captivated my imagination more than any other Occupy action yet—Occupy the Farm.

Photo by Meredith Jacobson

Occupy the Farm began on April 22 in Albany, just north of Berkeley, when 200 community activists cut through a chain-link fence surrounding a vacant patch of land owned by the University of California. The 14-acre parcel—known as the Gill Tract—contains some of the best arable land in the entire Bay Area, according to spokespeople from the Farmers’ Collective, the group that planned the action. They intend to create a volunteer-run farm that will distribute fresh produce to the local community and serve as a learning center for students of all ages to gain hands-on experience growing food.

Standing in the way of Occupy the Farm’s specific demands is the UC, which plans to develop the parcel and several plots of land adjacent to it. According to an image from the UC’s University Village Master Plan, the Gill Tract would be transformed into recreational space, possibly baseball fields. Just south of the Tract, the Master Plan calls for the building of an elderly-care facility and a grocery store. The Farmers’ Collective and its now numerous volunteers (full disclosure: I have also volunteered on the farm) contend that such projects could be built anywhere, but “farmland is for farming.”

Despite the urgency marking the protesters’ project, the UC says that although the blueprints have been drawn up, they have “not taken any steps to implement the Master Plan.” They claim the future housing and retail development would improve the neighborhood, not diminish it. In the meantime, the UC plans to continue using the Tract for agricultural research, some of which the Farmers’ Collective opposes. One organizer, a man named Gopal, asserts that the corn UC researchers plant every summer is used for gene-isolation experiments, the results of which are solely applicable to biotech purposes, such as genetic engineering. The UC has not refuted this claim, only stating that the research aims to help feed a “hungry planet.”

Photo by Meredith Jacobson

I have always believed that we as a movement should be using the word Reclaim instead of Occupy—not only does Occupy connote colonialism, exploitation and war, but what we are really doing is reclaiming public land for the public good. By camping and farming on the Gill Tract, Occupy the Farm is reclaiming century-old farming land for public benefit. If their plans come to fruition, an area destined to be sold off for private consumption and exploited for the profit of corporations like Monsanto, would instead be used to train the next generation to provide organic food for their community. Should a public university even think twice about which use of the land is the right one to pursue?

Photo by Meredith Jacobson


Posted in California Student Sustainability Coalition Magazine and tagged , , , , , .


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  2. Awesome article, I can’t wait to hear who wins the fight for this land. It sounds like a dream come come true for the community.

  3. Hi Damon,

    I’m glad you commented, and it’s certainly not futile to argue with me, where facts are concerned. You and I may not get anywhere debating about whether we agree the action is “right” or “wrong,” but I am certainly open to correcting any factual errors I’ve made.

    In response to your concerns: the activists I quoted weren’t random, and they weren’t from a website–they were the organizers of the occupation, and I talked to them in person on the farm. The rest of my information I gathered from a binder at the farm site, which contained years of documents on the Gill Tract, including official UC planning documents, city council meeting minutes, community-crafted urban farm plans, and more. I also looked at UC Master Plan documents online. If you would like, I can send you the UC documents I consulted.

    I am aware of the sustainable agriculture research that is also taking place–Miguel Altieri, the researcher, has been in direct dialogue with the protesters. As for the rest of the research, it’s true that I trusted the assesments made by the organizers. I admit this is not fair to the researchers, and thank you for pointing it out. I would be happy to balance my assesment of the research by including the researchers’ perspective. Are you one of them? I would be delighted to hear your perspective and to take into account what you have to say, possibly including it as an addendum to the article.

    Thanks again and I hope to hear from you.

  4. I’m not sure why I’m bothering, since I’ve found that arguing against this particular action with people that support it is futile, but I can’t sleep, so I might as well. The land is used for research in sustainable agriculture as well as basic research into plant biology using maize as a model organism. That research is all publicly funded, and most of it is of little interest to industry. Some of it may well be, however, which wouldn’t be surprising, since one of the goals of science is to produce knowledge that will be useful. The rest is pretty typical basic research, which involves trying to understand fundamental questions concerning the nature of biological processes. This particular occupation involves disrupting that work, so that the people that would have been starting their experiments in a couple of weeks now can’t. Since maize researchers depend on their yearly cross pollenations for all of their other experiments, they are kind of screwed if the occupiers don’t leave. But who cares, right? You think we are just cogs in some great industrial machine, and if our work is disrupted for the greater good, so much the better. The only problem is that this is all based on distortions and half-truths. We are not the people you make us out to be. In this particular case, it would be so refreshing if well meaning people in your movement would speak out against wrong action even if it’s for a good cause. Please, Andrew. Take some time, do some digging (and not just finding some random activists on a sympathetic web site) and decide for yourself whether this particular action, as photogenic as it is, might have been a mistake. What is being done is wrong, and dressing it up with fancy idealism, or pretending that the ends justifies the means is just as wrong.

    • Damon–

      Just to add on to what Andrew said: As an environmental engineering student, I understand your concern about research. At a general meeting at the Gill Tract which I attended, the primary researcher on the field, Dr. Miguel Altieri, showed up to voice his concerns. The attendants at that meeting were very receptive and wanted to help ensure his research is not obstructed while also maintaining the work they are currently doing. The following Saturday, Dr. Altieri spoke at the community event on the Gill Tract, which I did not attend, but here is part of the description that was circulated:

      “From 10 AM to sundown on Saturday and Sunday, April 28th and 29th, Occupy the Farm will host a weekend of workshops, farming and family fun! Events will including a special teach-in by Dr. Miguel Altieri, who has been conducting agroecological research at the Gill Tract since 1981. The workshop will begin at 12pm on Saturday, and Dr. Altieri will field questions from the media at 1pm.”

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