Back to the Land for the Occupy Movement

Commons at the heart of the issue in occupation of agricultural land in the Bay Area

Author's note: This is an update of an article first written for Climate Connections. When the original was written and published, on May 8, the Gill Tract Farmers Collective was actively engaging local community members in reclaiming the last and best piece of arable farmland in the urban Bay Area. As of May 14, the core of that collective is in jail awaiting charges to be filed.

When hundreds of people took up the banner of "Occupy the Farm" on April 22nd and laid claim to a patch of urban farmland owned by UC Berkeley, it was not the first time this 5-acre parcel had become the flashpoint of a struggle between the University and local communities. But it was the first time anyone had done something as brash as simply taking the land without askinghree weeks later, on May 14, a force of 100 police from at least 8 UC campus police forces converged on the site, blocked traffic, carted off about ten organizers, and barricaded the 5 acre farm plot, as well as the perimeter of the 14 acre parcel of which it forms a part. Dozens of supporters arrived to watch the 7 a.m. action and to express outrage at the police. Of course, the police, in their riot shields and armed with teargas and pepper spray, are merely doing the job they were asked to do by the Chancellor of University of California - to uphold the rule of law.

In the scant three weeks that Occupy the Farm persisted as a physical occupation, it expanded the tactics, objectives, and vision of the Occupy Movement; it restored the frontlines of a local struggle to get the University of California to respond to community needs rather than corporate interests; it took an issue that is generally only spoken of in the so-called 'Third World' - that of food sovereignty and territorial rights - and dropped it into the heart of the urban San Francisco Bay Area; and, it asserted, in the flesh, a demand that many progressives have spoken of in recent years, but few have had sufficient vision, understanding or bravery to manifest: Occupy the Farm was, and is, a bold, largely unprecedented act of reclaiming the Commons in the most immediate sense - taking land out of private speculation and putting it into community use.

Occupy the Farm Takes the Land

On that sunny Sunday two weeks ago, an ad-hoc band of UC alumni, urban farming proponents, families, and veteran Occupy activists ended an Earth Day parade by arriving at the site, cutting the lock and pitching in to till and plant 3/4 of an acre of guerilla farm. On that first day and the days that followed, the action worked fantastically well. Fears of a police raid the first night went unfulfilled. Rather than sending its well-appointed riot squads to dismantle the trespass, the UC took the tack of firing up its public relations machine (and cutting off water to the site). Media, from Alternet to ABC to Forbes, picked up the story. Occupiers took the high road by engaging in direct dialogue with faculty, students, and administrators. For three weeks, the land continued to be occupied, and, more importantly, farmed.

But with the UC unwilling to accede to the terms of the sudden occupation or its community supporters, confrontation was always imminent. Soon after the land was taken, focus turned to the several UC research teams that needed to get their crops in the ground by mid-May. The occupiers made every attempt to negotiate with the researchers, but ultimately the university, and several of the researchers, were unwilling to meet the demands of the Gill Tract Farmers Collective. It was clear from the first that the authorities did not have public opinion on their side, and would need to resort to the use of force to take the plot back.

Even the mainstream media was sympathetic to the cause. On May 10, Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "They are, like all the Occupy groups, protesting the growing corporatization of American life and the steadily increasing wealth gap between the very rich and everybody else. UC Berkeley - which, for all the good it does, is nevertheless definitely on the side of the 1 percent, which is the location of the butter on this particular piece of bread - is moving carefully, but it ain't listening."

The 'particular piece of bread' in question is the bit of land called the Gill tract, and it is significant not only because it is the last and best agricultural land in the East Bay, but because the struggle over this land is tied to the struggle to keep the public university serving the public interest. Over the last decade, through investments by Novartis, BP and other corporations, the University of California has become increasingly captured by private interests, which have come to control its research agenda and its land use policy. As one faculty member, who asked to remain anonymous, told me, "The UC doesn't serve corporate interests; the UC is corporate interests."

In the university's first published response to the Occupiers, on April 27, Vice-Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer wrote, "We take issue with the protesters' approach to property rights. By their logic they should be able to seize what they want if, in their minds, they have a better idea of how to use it."

Blunt as the Vice-Chancellor's thrust was, he hit on a key point: the occupiers do believe they have a better idea of how to use the land than the UC. And, once concerns about power, money, private property, and other systemic irritations are set aside, their case is perfectly rational. In a revolutionary sense, that is.

Without doubt there are very real issues to wrestle with about what the land is currently used for, whose interests are served by it, whose interests should be served by it, and how such decisions are best arbited. In the best democratic spirit, the bold action of the Occupiers forced these questions to the foreground. In a system dominated by private property, where possession is nine-tenths of the law, these decisions are usually made simple, by Money and Power. But imagine a system where we relax the hold that the Rule of Law has over public property, we unclench the Invisible Hand of the Market that governs private property, and we revive a third option - one with a long and largely invisible tradition: the Collective Stewardship of the Commons.

Farmland is for Farming

The principle motto taken up by the Gill Tract Farmers Collective is "Farmland is for farming." The slogan echoes the visionary cry for agrarian reform that kicked off the Mexican Revolution - the first agrarian revolution of the Twentieth Century - when Emiliano Zapata set forth the basic Commons principle, "La tierra para quien la trabaja" - the land is for the people who work it.

Indeed, it is this spirit that brought the Gill Tract Occupation support from international peasant farmer movements La Via Campesina and the Movimento Sem Terra (MST) in Brazil. The act reflects what Ricado Jacobs, a South African member of La Via Campesina, told me during the UN Climate Conference in Durban last December: for farmers, food sovereignty depends on land sovereignty - and that means, taking land out of speculation, and putting it into production. Jacobs calls it "redistributive justice."

"It's not just about agrarian reform, or about taking land, but about transforming the whole food system," Jacobs said at the time. "Where are we going to practice agro-ecology if we don't take land?"

The first day of the occupation, the MST saw such importance in the Gill Tract occupation - an extremely rare occurrence in the US - that they sent a statement of support, in which they say "your land occupation is not an isolated act, but one of dozens of land occupations that are currently occurring across Brazil and the world, challenging the dominance of agribusiness in the countryside and asserting the right for peasants to own and work the land."

Of course, the Gill Tract Farmers Collective is not made up of peasants. Anya Kamenskaya, one of the Farm's spokespeople, says, "Obviously on a socio-economic scale our struggles are different than those of peasant farmers. But everyone in the world shares the problem of food access, because corporations control so much of global food production."

Historically, this piece of land - not so much a farm as an open-air research lab - has been subject to much tussle between corporate-focused research and community-focused farming. As the Occupation dug in, it has unearthed a long-term split between these divergent tendencies - a split that plays out in the current work going on there.

One set of researchers works with Professor Miguel Altieri, the man who coined the term "agro-ecology," and whose program is aimed at encouraging "more ecological, biodiverse, sustainable, and socially just forms of agriculture." Altieri works directly with peasant farmer movements in the global South, and, in keeping with the spirit of his work, has been vocally supportive of the Occupation of the land, while maintaining the position that research must continue there as well.

Indeed, when the Gill Tract Farmers Collective offered to work with the researchers, to maintain their position but also support the academic work that needed to go ahead, Altieri engaged.

"I have no conflict with these people," Altieri told Dean J. Keith Gilles of the UC's College of Natural Resources. "I don't see any reason why research on the land and the occupiers can't coexist."

Altieri's plan was to work together with the occupiers and other community members, if they wanted to join him. "After all, extension is part of our job," Altieri said. "We're supposed to work with the community."

But when Altieri showed up at the tract to plant on May 9, a dozen police officers had blocked the gates, and prevented him from entering the land.

When Altieri was barred from entering the site, he appealed to the occupiers inside the fence: he described how to plant dry-farmed tomatoes - the subject of his research - and gave them several dozen plants, which they planted under the scrutiny of the UC police force.

Altieri was visibly frustrated at the UC's handling of the situation. "It could be a coincidence, but I believe the raid was timed to prevent me from planting my tomatoes," the professor said.

"The thing about dry farmed tomatoes is, they're adaptive," Altieri told me. "They don't need any tilling, and they don't need any water. I think this drove the college crazy."

Altieri's position that his research can be carried out not only in the presence of the occupiers, but with their assistance, flew in the face of the UC's stated position. A letter signed by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer argued that the occupation of the land was incompatible with the research being carried out at the tract.

"By the middle of May, college staff need to begin work on the tract in support of faculty and student research," the letter states, quoting CNR Dean J. Keith Gilles. "This requires that full control of the property revert to the university. These complicated projects require meticulous supervision and cannot be carried out in the midst of an encampment."

Another group of researchers is involved in what they call "basic genetic isolation research concerning how all plants develop and how they regulate their genes." Despite the Gill Tract Collective's attempts to negotiate with them, and to offer them the space to continue their work, this group of researchers has demanded that the Occupiers clear off the land. As some of the land's 'legitimate' occupants, they have acted to give credence to the university's position.

Corporate Science?

The split in attitudes of the two research groups to some extent reflects larger attitudes towards property, both intellectual and material, and has led the occupiers to ask the question, if farmland is for farming, what constitutes farming, and what doesn't?

Certainly, we need basic research, and in a world facing massive species die-offs, exponential population growth, and the uncalculated effects of Global Warming, the more knowledge we have of our crops, the better. But, in an economic climate dominated by private interests - at a University whose research priorities are determined largely by who pays, whether it is the Federal government or private corporations - who is to say what research may or may not advance corporate control of food systems, to the detriment of the global Commons?

Indeed, while they have repeatedly denied that GMOs are grown on the Gill Tract itself, two of the researchers who have been most vocally opposed to the Farm occupation are deeply involved in GMO research.

One of the genetics researchers on the land, Damon Lisch, is the inventor of a US Patent with the typically abstruse title: "Genetic functions required for gene silencing in maize." The text of the patent states that "The availability of genetic stocks that prevent the establishment or maintenance of transgene silencing would be extremely useful for engineering and breeding new corn lines."

In other words, Lisch's work helps solve problems blocking the further genetic engineering of corn. Put in more ideological terms, his work plays a role in furthering the corporate control of seeds.

An article from 2004 that reviewed Novartis' role at UC Berkeley traces Lisch's job at the University - and ultimately his research on the Gill Tract - to the $25 million grant the company gave to the UC in 1997. Lisch received $950,000 over five years under the agreement. "It changed my life," he told the Sacramento Bee. But he insists that the money did nothing to compromise academic freedom.

"It was very hard for me to rationalize not accepting the money when there were so few strings," Lisch said. "They never told us what to do."

Yet, the University is actively marketing this research to biotechnology companies through the UCOP technology transfer office. Lisch's research is also cited in numerous patents related to transgenic plants being marketed by the University of California to firms including Pioneer Hi-Bred and Monsanto. It is hard to believe that such an outcome does not compromise, or even guide, the basic research.

Lisch has refused to negotiate with the occupiers, and his wife has been present at the Gill Tract daily, meditating for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. But for those who own the patents on seed and soil, in this case as in so many others, a peaceful resolution means giving in to the power of the UC - and maintaining private control over Common resources.

Another researcher on the plot, Sarah Hake, works with the USDA on precursors to biofuels. Her research helped to demonstrate that introducing a maize gene into switchgrass, one of the favored feedstocks for advanced biofuels, more than doubles the amount of starch in the plant's cell walls, making it much easier to extract polysaccharides and convert them into fermentable sugars. In other words, her work on transferring genes from corn to switchgrass - a form of genetic modification - improves the switchgrass for more efficient biofuel production.

Hake, too, has said she would prefer not to have the occupation end in violence. Hake owns Gospel Flat Farms in Bolinas, CA, and is locally known less as a plant geneticist and more as an organic farmer. But then, Hake may be among those who side with US Secretary of Agriculture and the biotech industry in arguing that genetically engineered crops and organics can coexist.

But can they? Can a Commons ethic co-exist with a predatory capitalist ethos determined to bulldoze the common good for the private profit?

These researchers may or may not be undertaking these processes on this particular plot of land; despite where their economic interests lie, they are perfectly friendly and approachable people, undeserving of the demonization that anti-corporate activists best reserve for the sociopathic tendencies of corporations themselves; and whether one sees their work as favorable or not depends on one's position on biofuels, GMO's, and intellectual property rights. But if a Commons argument is to be made for the use of the land, as it is by the Gill Tract Farmers' Collective, such research, which serves the private interest of the biotech industry rather than the greater good of the neighboring community, fails to measure up to the "Farmland is for Farming" principle.

"If It's the Right Thing to Do, We Have the Right to Do It"

The second part of the Farmland is for Farming principle is articulated by one of the Farm organizers, Gopal Dayaneni, of Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project: "If the right thing to do with farmland is farming, then we have the right to do it."

As few hours after the police raid, Dayaneni was in jail along with nine other organizers. He and the other organizers are also facing a civil suit. If you fall on the UC's side of the law, they are being tried for criminal trespass. If you fall on the Commons side, their crime is exercising their rights.

While the point has not been made visible in the press, after spending time with the occupiers, one thing becomes clear: The Gill Tract Farmers' Collective's ultimate goal was - and still is - to divest the University of the land in question. For most of us, with our minds thoroughly embedded in what Provost Breslauer calls "property rights," such a notion is literally unthinkable. But, from a Commons perspective, it becomes quite reasonable.

Again, the history of the land is key: this is the last and best arable soil in the urban East Bay, and is the last farmable 14 acres of a 104 acre land grant given to the UC in 1928. All but 14 of the original acres have been developed into urban landscape. A few years ago, the university transferred the land from the College of Natural Resources to Capital Projects, its commercial arm that specializes in "development projects." One of the key points brought to light by Occupy the Farm is that much of the property in question is slated for sale and development as soon as next year. In the Zapatista-inflected words of one organizer, "this is the Ya Basta! to the UC's selling off this land."

There have been many prior attempts by community members to work with UC faculty and administration to make good use of the land, with vocal support coming from the likes of Alice Waters, Food First, and the Black Panthers. In 2000, under the name Bay Area Coalition for Urban Agriculture (BACUA), several professors, students, community members, and nonprofit organizations proposed turning the plot into the world's first university center on sustainable urban agriculture and food systems. The proposal was ignored by the university.

In 2005 a group called "Urban Roots" advanced a proposal to create Village Creek Farm and Gardens, "a farm that would provide Bay Area students from preschool to community college and university with an educational resource par excellence." Urban Roots argued at the time that the Center for Urban Agriculture at the Gill Tract offered UC Berkeley the opportunity to join other organizations and community members in teaching students and future urban dwellers these skills and the benefits of locally produced food. This proposal, too, was rejected.

As Professor Altieri wrote in an Op-ed in the Daily Cal, "From these facts, it can be concluded that until now, the university has shown little to no interest in requests for community involvement and benefit from the exceptionally high-quality lands at the Gill Tract."

Michael Beer, a former Albany schoolteacher and one of the forces behind the Urban Roots initiative put it more bluntly: "Our problem was we tried to talk to the university. These people just came in and took the land, and now the university has to deal with them."

Professor Altieri adds that, "To many people, the actions taken by the farm advocates are consistent with the university's education and public mission as a land grant institution with a Cooperative Extension function (the latter established in the Smith-Lever Act of 1914) to promote community involvement and initiatives in agriculture. Their actions are also consistent with California public policy, as set forth in Section 815 of the Civil Code, to preserve and protect open space, particularly agricultural land that has historical significance -- such as the Gill Tract."

Professor Altieri cites the historical mission of the land grant university to preserve agricultural land, and it is important to cite such legal precedent. (An important recent report from Food & Water Watch has much to say on the topic.) But, with the Commons framework in mind, it's worth considering that it's one thing to pressure the University to develop an urban farming program with a component that engages and educates local communities, as the institution's mandate suggests; it's another entirely to judge the University incompetent to steward the land, to declare the property a conservation easement, to put it in a land trust, and to restore it the Commons. Ultimately, in conversations had on hay bales and under impromptu tarps fluttering in the Bay breeze, this is what the Gill Tract Farming Collective was - and is - proposing.

And like so many others who have challenged the power of private property in the interests of the public good, this is why, today, they are sitting in jail.

To Plant, You Have to Supplant

As Dayaneni said multiple times in the days leading up the raid and the arrests, "Occupy the Farm is an act of ongoing civil disobedience, and the action is farming." The point being, in a system that has no ground rules for governing land within a Commons framework, the old rules need to be cast aside. Civil disobedience spelled the other way around is moral obedience - standing for a higher principle. Doing it is messy, especially with so many divergent interests at stake. It takes courage, it takes commitment - and, in many cases, it requires breaking the law.

Now, at least for the moment, that feeling - and that place - is gone. When I drive by later, my daughter will be surprised to see that the land is barricaded and guarded by police in riot gear. If I have the parental guts, I may use the occasion as her first teachable moment to discuss private property and the Commons. It certainly is a poignant one.

There is no doubt that the joy of being on this little parcel of farmland during its three week run was first and foremost that of getting a breath of fresh air in an urban environment. But could it be that part of the pleasure of setting foot there was that it was against the law? That it was neither a public park nor a private farm, but a brief and utopian step outside of the rules that surround and enclose us everywhere we go? That we were not supposed to be there?

Despite the enclosure of the land, the struggle of Occupy the Farm continues. In fact, it has only just begin. Now, with the Farmers facing criminal and civil charges, and with the crops trampled, and with the UC calling the shots, the struggle will take shape as a battle for public sympathy. Certainly the genetics researchers and university administrators and the UC Police and a fair number of law-abiding neighbors will be glad to see the farm back in private hands. Sarah Hake, the researcher with the biofuel interests and the organic farm, may find herself in an uncomfortable position as she commutes from her private family farm in the country to her private research station in the city, guarded by police. Damon Lisch, the researcher with intellectual property rights to the technique that allows corn to be more efficiently modified, and whose wife prayed for a peaceful resolution, said about the occupiers, "They're not bad people - they're just good people on my land." His statement points to one of the underlying issues: where one's sympathies lie is determined, in large part, by whether or not one believes in the Commons.

Lesley Haddock, one of the Farmers, wrote in the Daily Cal last week "If this farm stays, and if farms like this one continue to spring up in urban centers around the world, we won't need to rely on the massive industrial structures that feed us genetically contaminated and nutrient-poor foods. We can create our own sustainable models and grow food the way we know it should be grown."