Oakland, California is ground zero for many members of the Slingshot collective, but on March 13, Oakland felt like a distant outpost, really far away from Ni’ilin, in the West Bank, where our friend Tristan Anderson, who also lives in Oakland, was struck in the forehead and almost killed by a high-velocity tear gas grenade. Suddenly the Israel/Palestine conflict had new shades and hues, new depth and angles, wrought by personal connection and pain.
The news that Tristan had been critically injured in the West Bank fell like an emotional bomb on our community. When the news was announced on the local Pacifica radio station it detonated somewhere above us in the atmosphere and radiated outward in waves. It settled around us in a thick cloud that constricted our breathing for a time and tied our stomach in knots. For a week afterward, meeting someone you hadn’t seen since hearing the news was sufficient cause for a new round of tears.
It wasn’t just the what, but the how. News of Tristan’s injury came across the AP news wire around noon on Friday, March 13 and from there seemed to spread within minutes. The wire report said he had been injured at a protest near the Apartheid Wall. It said that Tristan had been struck in the forehead at close range, and that after he had been rushed to the hospital part of his frontal lobe had been removed in order to get out all the fragments of skull lodged in his brain. The International Solidarity Movement released a video of Tristan being put on a stretcher as tear gas canisters continued to fall all around him. His head was bloodied and lolling back and forth unconsciously. His girlfriend Gabby, a familiar voice in the chaos, could be heard in the background shouting, “Tristan! Oh God, oh God oh God….”
Tristan has hundreds, if not thousands of friends here who have shared a meal with him, or laughed in appreciation at his stories of triumphs and near-calamities at protests in Oaxaca, El Salvador or Iraq. His nose arcs to the side like a water slide, slipping off at a most improbable angle — once broken, now a healed-up testament to his penchant for daring feats. He has this way of telling stories that involves his whole, wiry frame, and a laugh that is infectious, not least of all to himself. It seems to catch him by surprise and shake his shoulders to and fro. He has lived in the Bay Area for most of his adult life, though most of us have also heard stories of his childhood in Grass Valley, California, and of his family there.
Although Tristan has been arrested at protests more than forty times, he has only twice been brought to trial and has never been convicted. He is not the sort to get angry or confrontational; he is never among the belligerent egotists yelling at the riot police. He takes it for granted that inequality, injustice, and environmental degradation are things to be exposed and eliminated — it is not in his character to shout about something so obvious. Instead he comes home with stories about the amazing collective processes he witnessed, of people realizing their own power and gathering in cramped rooms to attempt all the work of self-governance, of escaping confrontation with armed police by running from showers of rubber bullets and scuttling under barricades to escape being crushed by army vehicles.
When Tristan goes on an adventure to attend a protest near or far, he brings back stories, but he also brings back pictures. I have on my hard drive dozens of pictures Tristan uploaded from his camera to post on the internet during the early days of the tree sit on UC Berkeley Campus. Tristan took a few pictures of hand-lettered signs hanging from branches, and smiling portraits of people in the trees, but the vast majority of his photos were of mushrooms, fungus, and lichen, the grove’s least obtrusive form of life, growing green and brown in lovely fractal patterns. He never posted those pictures or spoke of them. They are just beautiful close-ups he created, spiritual and ethereal in their beauty, not the kind of thing every activist takes time to appreciate. Tristan spent a lot of time at the grove in those early days, reading and talking to people under the canopy.
I don’t think many of us knew how Tristan’s injury would affect us even as we first heard about it, and began eagerly scouring the web to find out all we could about the circumstances and conditions, only to learn the gory details, and not much more, until the story broke in local media as “Former Tree Sitter Tristan Anderson Critically Wounded,” which in the collective psyche of many around here translated to, “Dirty Hippy Downed.”
The tree sit ended last September, but a week after Tristan was shot, Debra Saunders, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote an opinion piece that said as much. She opened her opinion piece, titled “Tree Sitter not in Berkeley Anymore,” with a mocking and inaccurate characterization of the protest. “When Tristan Anderson, now 38, was living illegally in the trees at UC Berkeley to protest the administration’s ultimately successful bid to cut down the trees to build a sports training center, life was good. For 21 months, Berkeley’s tree sitters happily fouled their nests with little interference from the authorities. Their biggest fear was falling….”
She then went on to condemn “Tristan’s friends” for staging a “violent” protest after he was wounded that closed down Market Street in San Francisco when we “could have used the awful occasion of Anderson’s situation to contemplate how wonderful it is to live in a safe country.” She was referring to a protest that came together just three days after Tristan was shot, ironically on the anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie, an American killed by Israeli troops during a protest in Palestine. Hundreds turned out, for Tristan or Rachel or Palestine or all three. Eight people were arrested — ambushed on the sidewalk by dozens of cops after the protest had mostly dispersed, for what provocation we do not know. To characterize the protest as “violent” in this context seems to mean disruptive or provocative, not violent in the sense of the police treatment of the demonstrators — physically throwing people on the pavement and locking them in pain holds.
The media reaction accentuated two things. First, how truly horrible violence, especially state-sponsored violence, is. And second, how absurdly at odds mainstream culture is with protest culture — setting itself against all of us hooligans hell-bent on obstructing the movement to “get on with things.” Needless to say, here in Tristan’s circles–with Tristan still in a hospital half a world away recovering from pneumonia, infection, half a dozen operations, and an egregious head injury–we felt a range of things about the world’s indifference and lack of sympathy. Personally, I felt embattled: privileged with the kinds of knowledge only available to those willing to witness things first-hand, and traumatized by what I have seen.
It becomes wearying to point out that Tristan was not a threat to the Israeli Defense Force soldiers who shot him, something his friends know automatically because we know Tristan, know protest situations, and know Tristan in those situations. The media will have already made their pronouncements and moved on by the time the details are confirmed: that the IDF was firing on an already dispersed crowd, that the soldier could have fired up (not straight) with his launcher, and that at the time Tristan was shot he was, as usual, taking pictures.
Tristan was in the trees at the oak grove in Berkeley when the final siege began in May of 2008. For six months they had been surrounded by eight foot fences with barbed wire. Several gas generators roared all night long from the guard posts the University had created and the protesters were bathed in floodlights. Then one day, the University raised up cherry pickers full of men with knives, shears and trimmers to cut ropes and branches and to try to get the tree sitters out. A few were extracted, including Gabby, Tristan’s girlfriend. The University reported to the media that they were just trimming the trees and removing unoccupied structures they had deemed “a safety hazard.” The reporters raised no questions about the irony of trimming trees you planned to cut down. Nor did they report much about the horrific way the scene unfolded day after day, with the tree sitters yelling and scrambling from branch to branch, tree to tree as the men in the cherry pickers tried to corner them by cutting rope supports, ramming trees, yelling derogatory insults, and doing everything they could to get them out of the trees short of getting blood on their hands.
Tristan negotiated surrender and came down in early June. He was hallucinating from lack of sleep and dehydration, and had been separated from the rest of the tree sitters during the struggle so that he was hanging out solo on a branch near the road. Physically and emotionally, he was out of stamina. He needed to work the next day, and wanted to download and preserve the over 300 pictures he had taken during the siege, but he still felt enormously guilty for giving up–even though he didn’t give up. He and Gabby sat vigil by the grove day and night for months after, providing ground support and talking to the media. Tristan stayed there even though he got little sleep. He told me he was plagued for months with nightmares of the men in cherry pickers menacing them by pounding their perches and threatening to knock them down.
Out of the hundreds of people who were arrested during the two-year campaign to save the oaks, Tristan was one of the few to go to trial. The day after he surrendered, he was arrested for coming back to the oak grove. The police testified that after he came down from the trees, he had been told he was banned from campus for three days. The prosecution alleged that he had returned as an act of flagrant disobedience, to show the campus cops he had not been beaten. In fact, the arresting officer had forgotten to tell him he was banned from campus–an embarrassing mistake, had she admitted it. She did admit that she forgot to give him the paper copy, and that she planned to present him one at the Berkeley jail where he was held overnight, but that by the time she got around to it he had been released.
The prosecution’s contention that Tristan was an angry radical could not bear the weight of Tristan himself when he took the stand, or when he was shown standing in handcuffs at the time of his arrest carefully explaining, “They are saying I had a stay-away order, but they never gave me one.”
The whole embarrassing waste of public funds resulted in an acquittal for Tristan, a brief triumph in a long and grueling campaign against state power and largess.
Of course he is now once again a symbol of the abuse of state power, this time on a much larger stage, but also a symbol of how divided the world has become when people are unsympathetic towards anyone killed or injured at a protest–even if they were nonviolent, even if they were members of the press. It seems so banal and brutal to me.
We are getting regular reports on the progress of Tristan’s recovery, and among the community of friends here, I would say the mood is cautiously optimistic. The larger picture of facing down tyranny and oppression is harder to view. I think of the pain and reverberations Tristan’s injury has caused here in Oakland, and then I think of the thousands of people injured in the occupied territories, and the multiplicative reverberations those casualties must cause in an Arab population of just 3.7 million, and I can honestly see why people work so hard to dehumanize these people as terrorists. It is impossible to rationalize their oppression otherwise.