Occupying the Farm Below Albany Hill

Just south of Albany Hill there’s a sizable piece of pristine farm land, grown up in wild mustard grass, surrounded by urban housing, known as the “Gill Tract” — what’s left of it anyway — the 104 acre Gill Farm, which has been carved up and developed piece by piece over the years, whittling it down to a mere 14 remaining acres. It’s the last such piece of farmland in this part of the East Bay.

Activists have been struggling for over a decade to save this land from development and turn it into a community farm. Finally, on April 22, Earth Day, a procession of 300 marched to Albany and occupied the Farm.  On their way, they marched right past my house, band playing, banners flying.

Hearing the loud music, I ran out to the sidewalk to see what was happening.  There were several people I knew.  “Come with us!” they called out.  “We’re going to occupy . . .”

“Occupy the Farm,” the banners read. “Take back the tract,” “Free the Land,” “Resistance is Fertile,” and “Compost Capitalism.”

I didn’t even have my shoes on, and I was right in the middle of a project I felt couldn’t wait.  I took a leaflet and returned to finish what I was doing.

That evening I walked over to see how the farm was going; it’s only a mile from where I live.  A chain link fence surrounded the farm, and at first I couldn’t find the entrance, nor could I see any signs of habitation.  Had riot police already evicted the Occupiers?  The sky was overcast, the night was dark and there were no lights.  I kept walking around the perimeter; the tract is unexpectedly large, a good-sized city block.  Peering through the murk, I finally saw the shapes of several tents out in the middle of the field.  Continuing on, I found my way onto the tract.

A bit further in, I was greeted by a familiar voice, telling me that a meeting was being held in a tent up ahead.  I groped my way along a lane bounded by what I first took to be bales of hay, and later learned were uprooted mustard grass stalks.  On one side, I could see the rows of cultivated field, which had been completed that afternoon, I was later told.  That’s where all the uprooted mustard stalks had come from.

The lane led to what looked to be tables stacked with food utensils, and behind them were a dozen tents.  The nearest tent was moderately large, and as I approached it, I could hear the voices of the meeting going on in the pitch darkness inside.  The bulging tent itself didn’t look large enough to hold more than 10 or 15 people at the most; actually there were 30 or 40, plus a dog which let out a woof from time to time. I joined the small overflow of people sitting outside the tent, leaning back comfortably against a wind-break of uprooted mustard stalks, protected from the cold wind.

The night was fairly quiet, deep in the farm, a fair distance from the noisy traffic on San Pablo Avenue, so, even sitting outside, there was no difficulty hearing what was being said, or participating in the meeting.  Voices in the dark, like the general assemblies of the past winter at the Oakland Plaza; I couldn’t see well enough to tell if any were persons I knew.

I took out a notebook and jotted notes which I hoped I’d be able to decipher afterwards.

“. . . land–the word is important,” a woman’s voice was saying.  “Words empower, words disempower. Land is our word.  Their word is property, it’s the word they use when they set out to privatize and pour concrete, turning farmland into shopping malls and parking lots.  Property is the word that entitles them, and if we use their word, we’re empowering them.  So it’s very important that we be careful to use our own words, words which define who we are and what we’re here for and how we view the world.  Our word is land, and when we defend it, and farm it, we call it the land.  We call it the land because we are farmers.”

From a leaflet, and also from looking on websites, I’d learned that UC Berkley administers this land, and now plans to sell off yet another slice of it, to be paved into a parking lot, a grocery supermarket, and senior housing which will rent for $4,000 to $7,000 per month — an amount that few seniors can afford.  The long term master plan is to continue developing the entire farm, a piece at a time.

The ground we were sitting on would eventually be paved over with concrete or asphalt, according to the UC plan.  The UC administrators were supposed to be the stewards of this parcel of public land, but who ever told them it was theirs to develop?  I thought of the 19th century philosopher who famously defined property as theft.

A woman who’d arrived after I had, spoke from outside the tent, identifying herself as a neighbor, a student living across the street in the UC Village.  Hearing that, people in the tent applauded.  She liked what these occupying farmers were doing, and wanted to support them in their efforts.  More cheers.

Not long after her, two more people from the immediate neighborhood arrived while I was there, also expressing support.  It was really encouraging to hear this.  Later someone told me that the neighborhood seemed to be about 70% in favor of the farm occupation.

Several things were discussed in the course of the meeting  The police had been there that afternoon, warning the farmers that they were trespassing, subject to arrest, then left.  The farmers didn’t expect a raid that evening, but the police were likely to return.  What to do then?  “We’ll ignore them.  We’ll just keep on farming.  We’re farmers.”  Discussion moved on to the Albany City Council, which would be meeting in a few days.

The next afternoon I returned to help with the farm work, and on arriving, the first thing that caught my eye was: what happened to the tents?  There were only a couple of them, instead of the dozen or more I’d seen the night before.

Unlike the other Occupys, this was not meant to be a permanent encampment, but it did require a core group to spend their nights as well as days here, protecting their work from destruction by UC management.  Housing the homeless, though important, would have to be elsewhere, because this was farmland.  This land was not for housing.  So the farmers were making it a policy to fold up their tents by 9 a.m. each day. This was a farm, and people were here to work.

Well, that’s the way it is on any farm anywhere, in any country — when you set foot on a farm, they put you to work.  And it did indeed look like these people had been working.  The cultivated area was now twice the size it had been the night before, extending farther out towards Marin Avenue.

People were busy at various tasks.  Some were tending children in a circular playpen fashioned of mustard stalks.  The kids seemed to love it, and it reminded me of how I used to enjoy playing in the hay when I was little.  Nearby were two small chicken coops on wheels; the chickens seemed to be on their own.

About forty people were working in the fields, some planting seedlings, others watering them, and a team was even making a scarecrow.  I’ve always wondered if scarecrows really work; later I saw a crow alight on the field, only to be chased away by a barking dog who dashed after it.

I joined a bunch who were pulling mustard stalks at the north edge of the cultivated area.  Actually, the mustard stalks were surprisingly easy to pull, and I spent several hours on my hands and knees, helping with that, chatting with the others.  One was Ariel, a second-year student at UC Berkeley, who was majoring in ecological history.  Others were Brian and Dante.  There was Stephanie, an older woman who’d spent much of her life here in Albany, and a young fellow recently from Massachusetts who went by the nickname of “Wildebeest.”

Every so often we’d hear the sharp Putt! Putt! Putt! of an engine starting, and someone would run a rotary tiller along the ground we’d just cleared, adding another row or two, moving the cultivated area ever closer to Marin Avenue.  We were quite close to the avenue by now.  Passing drivers honked to express support, and we waved back.

“Look!  Look!” someone yelled, and we turned to watch a deer bounding across the field, moving at full speed, then leaping over a fence into the wooded area where the UC wants to plant a supermarket.

Wild turkeys were also said to live here; I saw one the next day, but not that afternoon.  Earlier in the day a nest of field mice had been accidentally turned up and destroyed by the rotary tiller, and people were quite disturbed by the incident — a sad experience.

The project was progressing, but the UC managers were not taking it well,  The previous day they’d already sent their campus police to threaten and annoy the farmers.  Today they’d agreed to come out to the farm for a meeting at 2 p.m.  But when two o’clock came, the administrators never showed up.  Instead, they shut the irrigation water off, so water for the plants would now have to be hauled in.  This was not an insurmountable problem, but for those of us who weren’t familiar with the UC administration, a learning experience.

Fire hydrant water was also turned off.  That’s illegal, and an obvious fire hazard, but the UC seems to get away with stuff like that.

That evening the farmers invited the neighbors to a community potluck, followed by a public meeting.  We all sat in a circle, sitting or leaning back against a ring of mustard stalks for an open-air, open-mic discussion.  It began with a brief presentation by Jackie Hermes-Fletcher, an Albany teacher and activist; the rest was public comment and Q & A.  I counted 82 people at the meeting.  From what people were saying, I gathered that most were neighbors, and most supported the project.

During the days and now weeks that have followed, the Occupiers have continued with both farm work and community outreach — meetings, potlucks, forums, and numerous workshops to which the public has been invited.  There was also an Albany City Council meeting where the farmers and also neighborhood people came and spoke; reportedly the speakers were about 12 to 1 in favor of the Occupiers.

The UC countered with a PR campaign, a SLAPP suit, and various threats of arrests and criminal charges.  On the morning of Wednesday, May 9, UC police announced over a bullhorn that they might use chemical agents, presumably tear gas or pepper spray.  A raid?  I heard about it on KPFA; so three of us jumped in a car and rushed over.

The UC had blockaded one of the gates to the farm with a huge piece of concrete that had been installed using heavy equipment.  But there were only a handful of UC police, and they were not in riot gear.  The next day, Thursday, May 10, the UC locked the front gate, the one to San Pablo Avenue, allowing people to leave but not enter.  Half a dozen campus police were guarding it.  Albany city police were conspicuously absent; the city seemed to want no part in this.

The Occupiers called a rally that afternoon, held at the gate on San Pablo.  I estimated 200 people, probably a lot more, attended as people were coming and going.  The rally included people from all over, but they seemed to be mostly from the surrounding neighborhoods.  (The farm is in Albany, right on the edge of Berkeley, which is only a block away.)  We held up signs that read “WE DIG THE FARM” for passing motorists who honked and waved to us.

Peering through the fence and across the fields, we could see the farmers in the distance tending the crops.  The high point of the rally was when twenty of them marched up the lane, coming to greet us at the gate.  We pressed against the chain link gate from the outside and they from the inside, separated by this metal curtain between us, touching hands, exchanging expressions of gratitude for being there, and hearing accounts of how it was going inside the farm.

Daniel Borgström is a member of the KPFA Local Station Board Rescue Pacifica Caucus. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Kennedy years, and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes on various topics including travel, history, and struggles against corporate dominance.  He can be reached at danielfortyone@gmail.com Read other articles by Daniel, or visit Daniel's website.