On March 31st, I saw the documentary film, Occupy the Farm (directed by Todd Darling). For close to 90 minutes I was glued to the events unfolding in front of me in living color, even more colorful politics, and beautiful music. But the thing that brought out my anger and laughter were the young protagonists in this unrehearsed political drama staged on the theater of a small piece of land belonging to the University of California-Berkeley.
Like all other land grant universities in the United States, the University of California has forgotten its mission of working for the public good. Corrupt federal and state officials have been looking the other way while the University of California has been privatizing nearly everything, including its public land. In fact, the University of California is so far away from the people of California and the United States, it could easily be called the university of agribusiness. Almost single handedly, it created most of the scientific and mechanical infrastructure of giant agriculture.
In the 20th century alone, this giant agriculture put out of business 98 percent of America's black farmers and more than 60 percent of the white small family farmers. In addition to this giant undemocratic effect, large farmers are the worst offenders of the natural world. Their storms of poisons are giving cancer to countless humans and animals. In fact, almost half of global warming gases come from animal factory farms and the destruction of forests for the "production" of crops like soybeans and corn.
With this toxic footprint coming straight from its creation, and its metaphysics of the public-be-damned, the University of California-Berkeley had no problem inviting the luxury grocery store, Whole Foods Market and other business to buy its small farm.
This betrayal began to unfold in 2012 when the so-called recession had spread hunger in the impoverished neighborhoods of Albany and Oakland, not far from where the university has this choice ten plus acres of land.
But the news spread fast and dozens of students and urban young farmers "occupied the farm." The invaders arrived with small tillers, shovels, and, above all, thousands of vegetable seeds. They immediately cultivated a fraction of the land and sowed the seeds.
A university researcher growing a genetically engineered corn refused to return to his plot for fear he would clash with the occupiers. The university cut off the water to the farm and sent the police.
The police chased the student farmers and did what police do. But the struggle continued. Students trucked in water and managed even to harvest their vegetables.
The university sent its lawyers to court suing the organizers. The university threatened and talked to the occupiers.
I kept admiring the resistant student farmers while feeling contempt for the university. After all, the students were doing what the university should have been doing.
Outside (in the neighborhood of the university) there was hunger and disintegration, and inside (the university) there was icy indifference for the public good. The student farmers demanded the university act like a public institution, not like a bank.
The student farmer occupation of the farm mobilized the community and embarrassed the university, which cancelled some of its business plans for the so-called Gill Tract.
University officials were saying outrageous things. The land was their "property" and the occupiers were "trespassing." Their statements resembled those of a private farm invaded by extraterrestrials. Their bureaucratic nature and trappings made then blind to the naked truth in front of them: unemployed and hungry youth all over the empty public land.
Miguel Altieri, my friend and professor of agroecology at Berkeley, saved the day. He argued the students were right in resisting the conversion of the university's public land into luxury food stores and apartments. He volunteered to teach appropriate methods of urban farming for raising food for the neighbors of the university.
Watching this dramatic action brought me to my experience and scholarship on agrarian reform. Throughout the world, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America, landless people occupy empty land. Sometimes, the state protects these occupiers. But most of the time the state joins forces with the owners of the occupied land. The result is terror, mayhem and murder. Colombia has been fighting land wars for the last century.
So was the Berkeley land conflict a beginning to land reform struggles in America? I hope so. We simply have to shake up the land grant universities. They need to return to their mission of assisting genuine family farmers or cease to exist.
It's also a shame to ignore the injustice of disinheriting so many black and white family farmers. And it's a gigantic tragedy to ignore the stealing of the land from Native Americans. These are grave political and moral problems. Unless this country does something positive about them, America remains a conqueror. It certainly cannot claim democracy and justice as its key virtues.
See Occupy the Farm. It's more than a great documentary film. It's another way of viewing your neighborhood and the world.