News, music, movies & restaurants from the editors of the Silicon Valley's #1 weekly newspaper.
Serving San Jose, Palo Alto, Los Gatos, Campbell, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Fremont & nearby cities.


home | metro santa cruz index | news | santa cruz | news article

Photograph by Will Mosher
Lumberjack-B-Gone: Dennis Williams, owner of Williams Tree Service, awoke to slashed tires and tagged property on Dec. 18, the day after his company cleared debris near the tree sitters' area at UCSC.

Forest Grumps

First pepper spray, now slashed tires — the struggle over more development at UC Santa Cruz is getting ugly

By Will Mosher

Tension over planned development of UCSC's upper campus ticked up a notch in mid-December when vandals struck Williams Tree Service after the company cleared the parking lot beneath several redwood trees occupied by protesters. The vandalism was the latest development in a series of events starting Nov. 7, when activists ascended second-growth redwood trees surrounding the Science Hill Parking Lot to protest growth associated with the University's Long Range Development Plan (LRDP). That day, police tried to prevent activists on the ground from getting supplies to those in the trees by setting up a plastic fence around the parking lot. Students surrounded the fence and pulled it down; in the ensuing skirmish, police sprayed pepper spray into the crowd.

After the police left, the activists remained and set up camp. They dubbed the parking lot "the autonomous zone." They dragged pieces of wood out of the forest and blocked the lot. Then they created a semipermanent settlement by putting up lean-tos and building round forts nicknamed "Elfland huts," after an area in Upper Campus popular with generations of students. Some students made chalk mandalas. They hoisted banners, created altars, planted planters and even planted a redwood tree in a crack in the pavement.

Then they left for winter break. Early on Dec. 17, Williams Tree Service, which had been hired by the university, brought a street sweeper, a backhoe, a cherry picker and other equipment to the parking lot and began removing what the activists had left behind. Suddenly, activists began appearing again. There was confusion; some thought the service and the police were there to remove the tree sitters, especially when the service brought out a cherry picker to remove a banner close to the tree sitters' platforms. The activists surrounded the trucks but were held back by police. A video taken by the protesters and posted on shows police picking up and flipping over a protester who tried to approach a planter.

That night an unknown number of people broke into the service yard of Williams Tree Service, slashed nine tires on two chippers, stump grinders and a truck at the company's Watsonville yard and painted messages like "Stay out of UCSC" onto a water tank and some metal containers.

A week later Dennis Williams stood in front of a water tank in front of his yard surveying what vandalism he hadn't cleaned up. He said the activists who'd been at the lot while he was working on it had been dressed like "little terrorists," and that they'd dishonorably attacked his livelihood. "Destroying something that a person makes a living with is a worse sin than destroying something that no one uses," he said.

He added that one of the pieces of graffiti that read "Stay out of UCSC," had originally read "Stay out of UCSB," but the vandal had covered the "B" with a "C." This fueled his speculation that they weren't local. "I don't think they're mainly UCSC students. I think they're from Berkeley and the tree-sitting bunch up there," he said.

Because it had been raining in the night, Williams was able to wipe off most of the paint; however, the damage to the tires was more substantial. The mechanic replacing the slashed tires said they had been punctured from the sides instead of straight through the tread, which made patching them impossible. The mechanic said replacing the tires and towing the vehicles would cost $1,500. Combined with lost business, Williams estimated the dollar value of the attack at closer to $4,500. Williams filed a police report, but didn't go to the media.

Jennifer Charles, an unofficial spokeswoman for the activists, had no comment about the slashed tires, but she said that she didn't think the vandals came from the tree-sit. She did say, however, that it the cleanup felt like an unwarranted act of aggression and that it came without warning.

"We opened the parking lot ourselves and they chose to use construction equipment to reopen the parking lot," she said. "I think they just wanted to do something aggressive."

Charles and the other activists are trying to have the LRDP amended to prevent the construction of a third entrance to UCSC, the development of forested land in Upper Campus, the construction of a biomedical sciences facility on Science Hill and the addition of 4,500 students by 2020.

Charles explained that the purpose of the autonomous zone was to help answer questions from the public. She said that it was appropriate for students to leave over winter break because outreach is impossible when there's no one to reach toward.

Jim Burns, a campus spokesman, said that the university had hired Williams after receiving a large number of complaints from the staff inside the science building. The administration decided winter break was a good time to clean the site.

"There was an incident where we think one of the tree sitters came down from one of the trees and took a 5 gallon bucket full of human waste and tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to flush it down a toilet in the physical sciences building," said Burns. "It ended up creating a huge mess in one of the restrooms."

Williams said he wasn't fazed by the vandalism and would continue working for the university.

"Yeah," Williams said. "We've been working there for decades. We worked on clearing the first site back in the '60s. We've been working there almost since we've been in business."

Send a letter to the editor about this story.