11/20/2014 01:39 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

Occupy the Farm': The Movie

"The whole point of this is to not talk about what we want and not demand what we want, but to make what we want real." Gopal Dayaneni, Movement Generation

Occupy the Farm opened at twenty theaters across the country last week. The documentary from Todd Darling covers the struggle for the Gill Tract, an urban agricultural research station that the University of California, Berkeley would like to sell to developers. To stop the sale 200 students, community members and a few UCB faculty invade the Gill Tract, plant 15,000 seedlings and set up a small tent village with cafeteria, child care, library and legal clinic. The University responds by first cutting off the farm's water, then by sending riot police to rout the farmers. Undeterred, the occupiers jump fences to water and harvest their crops as they pursue other political methods to keep UC Berkeley from selling off the last piece of prime agricultural land in San Francisco's East Bay. The tension, drama, pathos and irony in the film makes it worth watching.

Over a year ago, after a lengthy conversation, I agreed to an interview with Todd Darling on the condition that he not use my remarks to glorify the Gill Tract occupiers. I was convinced that the Occupy the Farm movement was emblematic of a deep crisis of governance at our public universities. I didn't want to be part of a film that simply celebrated direct action without an understanding of the larger, global forces at play that led the university to try to sell the Gill Tract and to the actions of the occupiers to save it.

(Spoiler alert: I appear in the film...)

I needn't have worried; Occupy the Farm does not disappoint. The struggle to keep the Gill Tract from being sold by the university's Capital Projects--and the community desire to keep it as a center for urban agriculture--has a long history. Occupy the Farm is the latest chapter in a decades-long effort on the part of the community, students and many professors to hold the land grant university to its 150-year mission: to develop agriculture for the public benefit. The documentary also shows that the occupation is the flashpoint for much larger issues around public assets, economic development, higher education, food systems and the nature of research at our land grant universities.

In the face of growing food insecurity and diet-related diseases in the low-income communities of San Francisco's East Bay region, urban farms, gardens and markets are on the rise. The recent decision by Berkeley's neighboring city of Oakland to allow residents to grow and sell produce from their own yards without going through a costly and bureaucratic permit process is a reflection of the changes afoot in the Bay Area's food systems. The rise of urban farming and food policy councils throughout the state belies a broader and deeper food movement than the food blogs saturating the internet let on. The breakdown of public services, the lack of viable employment opportunities and the rejection of "mass food" by the under-served neighborhoods forced to consume it are driving a growing food justice movement that is flexing its muscles.

Fifteen to twenty percent of the world's food is produced through urban farming, involving an estimated 800 million people. In the United States, urban and peri-urban farmers produce nearly 30% of our food and increasingly play an important role in the food security needs of underserved communities. These food communities have special needs including technical assistance, seed development, marketing support, processing facilities and community education. Many non-governmental organizations, health providers and local schools understand this and have been working hard to provide support.

However, our land grant universities--the ones tasked with improving our food systems--have been slow to respond to the challenge. The move on the part of UC Berkeley to sell off the Gill Tract, however, is not just bureaucratic food-dragging, it is an aggressive step in the opposite direction.

Caught between dwindling state funding and tuition-hike fatigue, the University is not only hiring out its research capacity to industry, it is selling off its assets, "cannibalizing" itself. This fits nicely with a global land rush. Following the financial crisis of 2008, billionaires, developers and financial speculators have "grabbed" over 86 million hectares of agricultural land around the world. Some $40 billion in farmland assets are zipping across the volatile hyperspace of global financial markets where fortunes are made (and lost) at the click of a mouse. As the saying goes, "Buy land, they're not making any more of it." For a public university in recessionary times, that means once the land is sold it is gone.

In the long run, the sale of the Gill Tract won't make a dent in the University's projected revenue shortfalls, yet the Regents insist on getting rid of it. Occupy the Farm gives us an insight into the mindset of the consultants and vice-chancellors at UC's Capital Projects office where careers are made by the size and number of deals struck; of the UC chancellor's office; and of faculty--for, against and squirming over the direct action tactics of Occupy the Farm. Against a backdrop of occupation, SWAT teams, tense negotiation, community debate and more direct action, the idea of public versus private goods and even of the notion of what "public" means is in dispute. The Gill Tract is just the tip of the iceberg of the transfer of one of the state of California's most valuable assets: the University of California.

The driving contradiction, of course, is the wholesale privatization of everything. The devastating impact "free markets" controlled by oligopolies are having on our resources, our institutions, our culture and our future was presaged by economic historian Karl Polanyi over 80 years ago in his hallmark work The Great Transformation:

"To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment... would result in the demolition of society... Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure... Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighborhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed."

Polanyi also held out hope. When "counter-movements" rise up against the excesses of the free market they can create the political will needed to institute reforms, rebuild the public sphere and set the economy and society on a more humanistic course. Occupy the Farm may well be an example of today's emerging counter-movement.