A New Orleans City Park tree-sitting protestor speaks out

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A partially killed live oak within the construction zone. - JULES BENTLEY
  • JULES BENTLEY
  • A partially killed live oak within the construction zone.
As a longtime, dues-paying Friend of City Park, it took me a while to get on board with the effort to save the wild public land that City Park CEO Bob Becker and the Bayou District Foundation nonprofit want to turn into a high-end golf course. The campaign seemed too little too late, or worse, an example of people who didn't live through the trauma of the flood but romanticized a wrecked version of the city.

The arguments against rebuilding the golf course accreted gradually— learning just how much that wild stretch meant to so many New Orleanians from all walks of life, learning how dire the economics of golf are in 2015, and learning about the sinister neoliberal elements of the "East Lake model" that the Bayou District Foundation, chaired by George H.W. Bush, seeks to emulate. When it was shown to me that, despite originally promising to only restore land that had previously been golf course, several far older cypress and live oaks and a fat slice of the Couturie Forest were being consigned to the ax, I was swayed.

The tree-sit protest ongoing in one of the now fenced-off public area's threatened cypress is, as far as I know, without local precedent. In the mid-'90s, a group of Loyola faculty and students sat at the base of a cypress tree that the University's then-president wanted to cut down. "We lasted for weeks, but then the end of the semester came," said Dr. John Clark. "We were sitting, and it was a tree, but I'm not sure that made it a tree-sit." Now, Dr. Clark is among many New Orleanians who've begun spending free time at Harrison Circle to show support for the young people in one of the threatened trees. Yesterday, after four days in the tree, one of the sitters came down. I spoke to her the evening of her descent.

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Gambit: Was this your first tree-sit?


Heart: Yeah.

Where did you first hear of this tactic? I've never seen it used in New Orleans.

I heard about people doing it in the redwoods in California, years ago; I read [tree-sitter] Julia Hill's book, Memoirs of Luna. It wasn't something I'd thought about doing, but I'd just finished teaching a class, and one of my students told me "They're cutting down the trees now." I had been aware of people upset about the golf course, but the moment I heard they were cutting down the trees, I was firm on it. That was it: I said to myself, I'm going to sit in one of those. They need to stay. It was a no-brainer.

How did you actually get from that decision to being up in the branches?

The decision felt clear, but I sat with it for a few days. I talked to my friends and people who I felt had clear minds about whether it was a stupid idea or whether it could be important. I had planned to go two days later than I did, but then I met Lloyd [the other tree sitter, who remains in the tree] through a mutual friend, and we were like, "Let's just do it." I'm not much for sitting at meetings. I just felt like going for it, to play that role of trickster— to see what I could do, how it would affect my city and the people who were trying to take the trees down.

How did you prepare?

At first it felt like a purely romantic idea, sitting in a tree and being with nature, but people were like, "Press is gonna be there, people are gonna be there and want to talk to you," and that's really not my thing, so I had to be down for that. It wasn't my purpose, but I had to go into it knowing that would be part of it.

The occupied cypress tree, with a banner reading "Wild is Free." - TWITTER/@SMALL_AFFAIR
  • TWITTER/@small_affair
  • The occupied cypress tree, with a banner reading "Wild is Free."

What were the high points and low points of your time in the tree?

There were so many high points just being in nature for such a long period of time, getting to see the sunrises and hear the coyotes and the birds. The low points were witnessing, hearing and watching the grasses being annihilated and the machinery coming in and bulldozing trees. Seeing people at their jobs who I sensed wanted to talk to us but weren't allowed to... seeing humans being subject to that fear, the fear of this process they felt locked into.

Most of the police acted sympathetic, but there was one cop who was drunk and an asshole, and he would come say ugly things to us at night. He came by the one night when it was only me, as a woman, in the tree, and he was extra brutal— he was saying stuff like, "Sweetheart, you're gonna die. You're gonna die here." In general, when the cops first interviewed us in the tree they wouldn't talk to me, only to Lloyd. I had to talk to Lloyd and be like, you have to let me talk to them, make them talk to me too.

Why do you think New Orleans hasn't had tree-sits before now?

I feel like in California or Oregon people speak for the trees, that there are movements around the trees. When I heard about the trees being cut down here, I couldn't stand the idea that nobody would go sit with the trees and be with the trees here — as if we somehow didn't have the language for that here in New Orleans, or maybe in the South generally. I feel like it's demanded of us, as New Orleans becomes more and more crowded, to appreciate our natural environment, to get in touch with it and defend it. And I felt like, if this is something I'm called to do, I should do it, rather than expecting someone else to do it.

What was your experience of community support while you were in the tree?

It was amazing, and ongoing. People coming to play music for us — Lloyd particularly loves Annie Lennox — or just to sit quietly in solidarity with us. People came every day. One old lady came every day and just sat and cried. It was wrenching, but really, we should cry — we need to cry over nature. It's all we have; it's worth it. It's our roots — the city is held together by the roots of all these trees that they're trying to kill.

I have to ask this: how long have you lived in New Orleans?

Not so long — only seven years — but I feel this is my home. Learning about the trees here has been so humbling. For me, this was an expression of love for my home: I love this place so much I'm gonna sit in a tree for it. I don't know if I'd do that in Chicago.

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One of the trees marked for destruction. - JULES BENTLEY
  • JULES BENTLEY
  • One of the trees marked for destruction.
I called City Park's Chief Development Officer, John Hopper, for comment on the tree-sitters.

Hopper: The Sheriff's Deputies have done a wonderful job talking to them and ensuring their safety, and offered if they came down by 3 p.m. yesterday no charges would be pressed. The woman came down, the gentleman didn't, and there's currently a warrant for his arrest, because he's trespassing on an active construction site.

Gambit: Is it true the plans are to cut down 17 live oaks, and move four?

I don't have the plans in front of me, I'm sorry.

But you've moved four, correct? And did they survive?

Several months ago we moved them, and two... two did not make it.

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