I’ve been a progressive activist for ten years. I’ve watched the ebb and flow of the movement and I’ve experienced crushing disappointments as I’ve watched us lose effort upon effort. The only real win I’ve had in my work, as an activist, was Obama’s first 

presidential win. I worked on his campaign for about a year and was so grateful at the time when he won. I even went to the inauguration. In retrospect, it doesn’t feel much like a win.

      But last Saturday WE, finally, had a win. My eyes are welling as I write this, remembering my day.

      It all started over a year ago, on Earthday 2012, when hundreds of activists and farmers #Occupied and planted a farm on UC Berkeley land that was slotted to be commercially developed.

 

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Occupy-the-Farm/342929665770200

http://us7.campaign-archive2.com/?u=b00b49307d60acbe93699a5b9&id=ec171ae795

 

We held the space for about five weeks and after we were evicted, started a non #Occupying campaign to stop the development of “The Gill Tract”. I’ve said a thousand times, it was the most beautiful action I have ever been part of.  The farm was a combination of farming, children, music and community it had it all.

And we won on two counts! After about a year of work Whole Foods, who was going to build there, dropped out. But that’s not the win I’m writing about today.

         Last Saturday we received our second win. We were invited to plant a garden on the space by one of the professors at U.C. Berkeley. 

The Gill Tract 2013

   I could not pass up this opportunity to see my friends from “The Gill Tract” #Occupation.

When I arrived at about 10 a.m. Saturday morning the work was well underway. There were mounds of amazing, rich compost, wheel-barrows, gardening tools and thousands of baby plant starts. And there were, of course, dozens of my farm friends. One of the first people I found was my lovely friend Effie. I looked at her and my eyes welled.

“We did it, this is a win, Effie”, I said and we shared a long hug.

She confessed that she had had a moment of reflection and tears as well.

Effie has been on the front lines, both a year ago and now. She is an amazing activist and organizer. I met her at one of the original action-planning meetings before the first Earthday event, and #Occupation of the “Tract”. In the year and a half that I’ve known this incredible woman, she has transformed and been radicalized (in the best possible way).

I think I feel such a close connection with her because of the transformation I have been experiencing in my own life. In the, almost, 2 years since I started #Occupying San Francisco, I have turned my life upside down (in the best possible way). I have changed everything about my life so that I can be a documentary photographer of and an activist for the progressive movement. I quit my old life. Quit my life with absolutely no evidence that I was ever going to be a “success”, that WE were ever going to be a success.

I have never been so terrified.

But I am still here, attending as many actions, and meeting as many inspiring activist as I possibly can, in the hopes that someday I will actually be able to make a living being what I want to be.

I want to congratulate Effie and all of the incredibly powerful activist from #Occupy the farm. I thank you for your commitment and passion. I am so proud to have been a small part of such a lovely action.

         We give me hope.

        

         

“My journey to and through #Occupy the farm Albany, CA” May, 2012

 

And then I got a text. 

“There’s this meeting I really want you to come to, in Berkeley,” Vague text, but ok. It was Ryan…Dreddy Ryan; I love Dreddy Ryan, so of course I’ll go. 

We arrive at a fairly-large community-living house in Berkeley; there were 25, maybe 30 people there, most as clueless to our purpose as I was.  Ryan showed up about 15 minutes after me and he took me out for a little walk down the block.  Now, I’m fully intrigued…very curious indeed.  I’d known Ryan for about six months, he’s one of my #Occupy SF brothers and I’d never seen that twinkle in his eye before.  He draws me close and in a low voice tells me a plan that has been in the works for months.  We are going to #Occupy a plot of land and plant an organic farm on it.

Wow!

Good story.

This was not some just-thrown-together-#Occupy plan, this was a bonified, logistically sound, cooperative effort with 15,000 plant starts and over 200 people to take the land that belonged to UC Berkeley.  Or the people if you get down to it, or no one if you see it from my perspective.  You see the land was given to the school ages ago and was supposed to be used for Ag. Studies, however, over the years, parcel by parcel had been sold off to developers so that now only 10 % of the original land is left. That parcel was just rezoned and is slotted to become yet another Whole Foods and a ball field.

After our brief talk we all went inside for the meeting where the organizers filled us in on more details and divided us into our chosen working groups. I went to media, as usual; not as a spokesperson or journalist, but as my original role, photographer. 

Like I said, this was a great story and I knew I’d need to shoot that business.

The only information we did not get was the final location. We’d receive a phone call on Saturday giving us the location we were meeting… and that’s what happened. It’s so nice when things in #Occupy happen as expected. If you #Occupy you know what I mean. We were told to meet at the BART station in Berkeley on the Sac. St. side.

We gathered at the park on Earthday – very appropriate. There were about 15 people, a handful of plants and a sound system.  We spent about two hours gathering people and materials. We had food, speakers, there was music and dance, there were children running around everywhere; it was a mini-festival. 

At around noon we marched for the land of #Occupation. It was a colorful march of about 150 people trailed by a Code Pink truck that had writing all over it; it was a moving activist billboard.

The march lead us to the corner of San Pablo and Jackson in Albany, California. “The Gill Tract” The plot was surrounded by a combination of chain link and nylon mesh fencing and we were inside in a matter of seconds.  Snip Snip. Woo Hoo.

We cheered and had a few speeches and quickly set to work. Like I said, the plan was incredibly sound; working groups had their tasks and set to them.

Farmers cleared the mustard and weeds and we brought in two Rota tillers and shoveled a couple of tons of the most beautiful compost I’ve ever seen… months of planning.

I was blown away…and that’s an understatement…I was in love, for sure. I fell in love with #Occupying from my first day in San Francisco, but there was always the “darker side” of #Occupying.  This was the cleanest, prettiest action I have ever  been a part of It‘s, so beautiful.

We started with two or three acres of mustard field and by the end of day one we had a quarter of the plot weeded, tilled, fertilized and planted.  Pumpkin, cucumber, lettuce, tomato; you name it, we planted it. Yup, good story.

And the children, dozens of them, running free or planting, watering, climbing the mounds of discarded mustard.  I could not stop shooting, talk about Kodak moments; I could not turn around without seeing a perfect image.  I found my bliss. 

I took a shift breaking up the old soil, adding some rich, organic compost and planting some starts. It smelled so good, and working shoulder to shoulder with my fellow farmers and activists was…well, there are no words.  I’ve never felt so in the right place in my life, family, community, and purpose.

Dirty, exhausted, and joyful, we set to getting camp erected.  Many of us had brought tents, some were donated and we set up the “big top” (a giant pop-up about 20 feet tall by 15 feet wide).  I had first experienced the big top at a rally in Sue B Park in SF, the weekend after the big JHP raid. It was the night we vowed that we were not going anywhere; we may have had to change tactics, but we had work to do.  Our energy system was not green yet, we were not living in a sustainable economy, and we still spend trillions more on war and prisons than education and healthcare. Nothing had changed so our determination and resolve were sound.

After we got camp situated, we chose to have our evening meeting in the big top.  It was close quarters, to say the least. I was shoulder to shoulder with my sisters and brothers.  It had only been a day…crazy. I felt no sense of invasion in to my personal space, that’s how #Occupy has always been for me. I think it’s because we all know that we are all one, as I have known for many years, and for me, there is a comfort in the touch of my fellow #Occupiers. We didn’t know each other, we’re practically strangers, but I was not afraid of the closeness, as I would have been in “Otherland”.  We talked about the successes of the day, what we learned and what we did; we reveled in the beauty of the space and the community we were building.  Bliss, family, divine purpose.

 Turns out, fallow-field land is very bumpy.  Sleeping on the sidewalk on Market Street in SF was certainly no picnic. Very cold, very hard, and the exhaust fumes were terrible. And don’t even get me started on the #Occucough.  But fields tend to be lumpy, rocky, and really uncomfortable.  All right, so maybe I’m being a bit of a baby about it. After all, we are talking about changing the paradigm of the human species; I guess I can take a few sleepless nights.  I only #Occupy three nights a week, and I’m truly humbled by the folks who are here 24/7.  Badass activists, that’s what they are.  My friends and my family, and I could not wish for a better group of people with which to engage on this journey.

As I said before, I work during the week, Tuesday through Friday. But this week I had to work Monday. I stayed the night anyway and went to work early, dirty, tired, and gleeful. I’ll admit it here and now, I’m #Occuaddicted. I started six months ago and my addiction has grown.  The farm was so perfect, I had to come back after work and stay for a couple of hours.  The kids were definitely busy while I was gone. They had doubled the size of the planted area and started on other plots devoted to permaculture.  We had outhouses brought in, and a crew volunteered to maintain their cleanliness; thank you brave and wonderful sanitation working group. We expanded the children’s area, built a prefab “school house.”  Not only that, but we created an organized kitchen space with a crew of devoted activists. #Occukitchen crews are the hardest working group of occupiers that you will ever meet. Farming is hard, sanitation sucks, but try feeding anywhere from 50 to 200 people 3 meals a day plus snacks.  Devoted people, amazing people.  Thank you #Occukitchen staff all over the world, for all the hard work and for feeding us healthy and delicious meals.

I digress.

Reality finally struck and I left for the “week”. OK, I actually came back Thursday night too. As I said, I’m totally #Occuaddicted.  And then it was Friday! Woo Hoo…Homeward bound.

I came into the farm and was greeted warmly by my family…I had photos, amazing photos, if I do say so myself. OK, so my head can get a little big having admirers pouring over my images, but I really do love what I do.

I arrived, ate dinner, and started taking photos. It was dusk and the lighting was perfect. It was golden, warm, and absolutely lovely; the fractured backlight and the silhouettes it created, hmmm, yup, good stuff.

I noticed pretty quickly that the farm was in a buzz.  The next day was Community day.  Folks in outreach had been hitting the pavement, inviting our neighbors to the festivities. And some of the “bottom-liners”, folks who chose to take on leadership roles, were a bit frantic, like little ants, with all of the work that still had to be done.

After the tents were set up we had our farmer’s meeting.  We started the meeting by introducing ourselves and telling a little bit about our day. I informed them of the arrival of the photos and was met by cheers. (Head swells).  Next, all of the logistics and tasks for Saturday were distributed. Which, as always, was an arduous task.  That done, it was time for bed, for most of us, anyway.  There were working groups still preparing for Saturday and there was also the security detail, another group worthy of mad respect.  I’m not a night person so that job would be the last that I would take.

I woke at five a.m., it was cold and I was really sore; lumpy, I’m telling you. I ventured for coffee and got some supplies for breakfast: eggs, bacon and sausage. We needed protein and I don’t eat a lot of meat but the morning kitchen leader was pretty insistent.  Lots of labor to do and we needed our strength.

I did a bit of shooting when I got back but the light got too bright pretty quickly so I did other tasks for a while.

This was also the day of the #OSF potluck reunion at Sue B park so I, left with a few friends, for a couple of hours in the afternoon.

When we returned, the festivities were well underway; there were two major hubs for entertainment, one in the center of the farm and one in the back parking lot.  We exert a lot of energy and thought into making this a place that is fun and safe for families, so at the end of the night we had our first movie night, Fern Gully, very apropos. Movie night was held in the main area of the farm while we had a louder party in the back lot and our own entertainment; great music and a little fire art.  It was an amazing ending to an awesome day.

Sunday was going to be another community outreach day so I went to bed early, ouch, and woke early again. It always smells so good in the field, a bit of dew and the fresh morning air, and its quiet and everything is glistening, I love mornings.

I picked up a couple of tasks while most of the people were still sleeping, then shot the rest of the morning away.  During the very terrible afternoon light I found some work to do in the permaculture branch; the exertion was great while I waited for my favorite light, evening light.

We had a couple of music centers one for families and one for adult entertainment and the tents were erected, there was starting to be a flow to the activities, if you didn’t have a task and wanted one, it was easy to find, there was always work to do everywhere, all the time.

We had a hoe-down that night in a big circle that we had created with hay bails. We strung white twinkle lights up all around, and danced until ten p.m., our loud sound curfew.

And time for sleeping, for me anyhow.  We had a bit of a raid scare so we doubled the night security watch, but no raid came.

That was the hardest thing for me to acclimate to.  The utter lack of a police presence, no riot gear, no constant feeling of being overseen.

I kept waiting to be surrounded, it was very eerie.  But it is a really good story, I can see the media dilemma the authorities must have, we have children here, many of them camping and all.  It seems like a photo of a five year old in zip tie handcuffs would be a bit of a grim photo-op for the UC Berkeley Police Department.

Then it was Monday again, I hate Mondays.  It was time to pack up and prepare for not coming home for four whole days. It’s like being in a long distance relationship.  I miss us so much.

I don’t know when they’ll try to get us out of here; I do know we have every intention of holding the space.  We have been talking to and working with the researchers from the UC and they have their own spin on the action, but again, how do you forcibly remove families from an organic farm?

Time will tell.  Maybe we will be able to hold and farm this space in perpetuity, as it was meant to be. 

It is a really good story.

 

One week later the UC would send 100 police in and they would take the land back.  We are in court with the UC, as I write this.  We argued that, one; this is public land and two the UC was infringing on our first amendment rights.  It is expected to be in court for years.  The UC has filed criminal and civil charges against some of the farmers and we are fighting those charges diligently. 

And we are arranging watering and future harvesting.

 

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Kelly Johnson

Revolutionary Photography