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Context in Court: The Tree-Sit and the Free Speech Movement

22 November 2008 No Comment

By Angela Kilduff  — 

The lineage of the Berkeley tree-sit goes back to the Free Speech Movement (FSM) on UC Berkeley’s campus in the 1960s.

In September 2007, veteran Michael Rossman made this connection explicit. He joined tree-sit supporters in an act of civil disobedience, climbing over fences and rushing into the oak grove. Using the pseudonym “George,” he wrote about it in an editorial to the Berkeley Daily Planet.

Rossman, who passed away in May, wrote, “It was a joyous act of civil disobedience that reminded us FSM vets of the afternoon we walked into Sproul Hall with Joan Baez, faced arrest and brought the university to a standstill.”

He referred to the historic sit-in on December 3, 1964 that resulted in the arrest of nearly 800 students. It was the culmination of a series of campus protests that fall. Students objected to the administration’s denial of their right to free speech by refusing to allow them to politically organize.

The charges filed included refusal to leave a public building after hours, unlawful assembly, and obstructing an officer from doing his duties.

Municipal Judge Rupert Crittendon sentenced Mario Savio, one of the student leaders, to 120 days in jail. Rossman served 90 days.

Fines for other students ranged from $50-250. Adjusted for inflation, $250 in 1965 equates to more than $1,700 today. Many received up to two years probation.

In this context, the $3,700-$8,500 fines assessed thus far in the tree-sitter’s civil case may seem extreme, but the tree-sitters’ support on campus falls far short of its predecessor. Civil and criminal cases will continue at least through March 2009.

TO CHECK OUT MORE OF THE 510 REPORT’S COVERAGE OF THE MOST RECENT PROTEST, SEARCH FOR “TREE-SIT.”

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