UC Berkeley evicts Native American protesters for illegal squatting

Officials at UC Berkeley finally lost patience with a group that has been illegally occupying university property since Sunday to protest the development of land they claim is sacred.

The group, which styles itself the Indigenous Land Action Committee, has been camping on a parcel known as the Gill Tract that it argues is sacred land belonging to the Ohlone tribe, but on which the university is planning to construct a senior center and several retail stores, The Daily Californian reports.

After briefly tolerating the demonstration, campus police issued warnings Monday night that participants would be subject to arrest for trespassing, but the ILAC refused to vacate until school officials agree to negotiate with the group over its demands.

On Wednesday morning, university spokesperson Dan Mogulof told Campus Reform that officers followed through on those warnings, evicting the group’s leader, Hank Herrera, along with everybody else who was trespassing on the lot.

“They had been warned and given all the necessary admonishments well before,” he explained. “We have a standing policy regarding all protests or similar situations that we’re only going to act when we can do so safely and effectively,” which in this case involved giving the protesters a reasonable amount of time to comply with the school’s direction.

The ILAC originally outlined its objections to the development in a letter to school administrators Sunday, saying its claims to the land are based on “the principle of aboriginal title” and asking the university to return control of it to the Ohlone people.

“Our people inhabited and lived on that land for over 10,000 years,” the letter asserts. “As the legally recognized stewards of this land, we request that the University of California acknowledge, and commit to work with, the traditional and spiritual stewards of this land—the Ohlone People—in redressing historical injustices and restoring indigenous cultures for the benefit of present and future generations.”

Specifically, the ILAC has in mind “the establishment of a public Center for Indigenous Foodways to research, restore, and recreate indigenous food practices and cultures,” which would take the place of the currently-planned retail construction.

The group contends that the development project violates SB 18, a state law requiring local governments to consult with tribes before making land use decisions that impact traditional tribal cultural places. Mogulof, however, told The Daily Californian that the law only applies when a project requires changes to a city or county’s general plan, which the Gill Tract construction did not.

The ILAC also cited the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in particular a provision stating that “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories, and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied, or otherwise used or acquired.”

Mogulof, though, told Campus Reform that he has been unable to find anyone who can recall a time that the Ohlone has ever attempted to use the land, and has failed to take advantage of multiple opportunities to provide input on the project since planning began in 2007.

“Up until very recently, over the course of three or four decades, these vacant lots have had on them old barracks from World War II,” he noted. “Nobody remembers or has seen or is aware of any sort of ceremonial activities on that property; any claims that it had a cultural significance any different from the land on which thousands of homes and businesses are located in the East Bay.”

Moreover, Mogulof added, the tribe never raised its concerns during any of the public meetings the university has held to solicit community input. “They’ve taken us to court a number of times about this issue,” he offered, but “every time the courts have dismissed their claims.”

As if anticipating the university’s defense, the ILAC protest featured a “sacred fire” and traditional tribal ceremonies. In its letter to the university, the group requests that it be allowed to conduct the ceremonies and maintain the fire “without interference” from either local or campus police, before going on to ask, without a hint of irony, that the university simultaneously “provide unimpeded access to the bathroom facility on the Gill Tract, and maintain the facility in the usual fashion.”

Their appeals went unheeded, though, as depicted in a video posted to Facebook by the group Occupy the Farm, which established a community farm on Gill Tract in 2012 in an effort to prevent the land’s development. Most of the pre-dawn action is not visible due to darkness, but Herrera can be heard addressing nearby police officers and expressing his willingness to be arrested for the cause.

“And for all you officers who are here watching and listening, you need to know that if I had a fire, I would light this fire right now, and I would hold out my hand so that you can take me wherever you’re going to take me” he declares. “But this is our land, and I’m here on this land for our people, and I’m going to sit down.”

At that point, there are quiet groans of surprise from the audience and an authoritative male voice states that “it’s time to go. If you don’t leave, we’re not going to allow anyone up close.”

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