You could almost smell the sense of relief in the air the night of October 16: In an era of anthrax and devastation, the world had turned upside-down overnight, and nothing seemed familiar anymore. Nothing, that is, except Berkeley's politics. What could be more reassuring, what could better comfort us that some things remained the same, than a goofy statement by Berkeley City Councilmember Dona Spring? When Spring told the Daily Californian that the United States was a terrorist nation, and then claimed she was misquoted after the Wall Street Journal pounced on her remarks, the national press seized on it with all the desperation of a lost tribe in the wilderness. Thank God for a Berkeley story!
By the time the City Council arrived at the chambers to vote on whether to condemn the bombings in Afghanistan, a dozen television press vans were already idling at the curb, their coiffed anchorbunnies putting on their faces and looking up the word "Stalinist." Inside the council chambers, a group of pro-war UC Berkeley students were the first to arrive, bedecked in tacky flag paraphernalia and already arguing with a photographer from the anti-war press collective Independent Media Center. A woman walked up and down the aisle dressed head-to-foot in a black burqa and hefting a sign that read, "Without our Bill of Rights and freedom of speech, we'd be just like the women of Afghanistan." TV reporters were on the lookout for Spring, but they only knew that she was a disabled white woman, which made any handicapped woman in the room fair game. A woman with no arms or legs who used her left shoulder to steer her wheelchair into the chambers was approached by a reporter who blurted, "Hi, Councilwoman?" "No, I'm not the councilwoman," she said, "but I know -- we all look alike."
As the crowd spilled into the atrium, more pro-war students arrived with oversized flags on five-foot poles. A fire department spokeswoman told them that the poles could be used as weapons and would have to stay outside. "But they look wonderful -- I'd love to see you guys wrapped in them," she whispered. Nodding her head toward the councilmembers, she muttered, "They're full of crap." By the public comment period, the room was jumpin' with jittery jingoism and pushy pacifists, and Spring interrupted the meeting for a point of personal privilege. Practically twitching with apprehension, she repeated her claim that she had been misquoted and announced that she would amend her item to temper the inflammatory language -- we're taking out the worst parts, she said, so could everyone please stop sending me death threats? Fellow Councilmember Polly Armstrong refused to let her off the hook. "In my seven years on the council, I have never seen a meeting begun with political diatribes and changing the rules to cover up a mistake," she complained. "Send Dona to Afghanistan!" someone shouted from the crowd.
To everyone's surprise, most of the crowd actually backed Spring's motion. Despite the flag-wavers and the flood of angry denunciations from out-of-towners, it seemed that Berkeley's contrarian pacifism was still alive and kicking. But the tension of the times fairly dripped from the walls. A young South Asian man wearing a kaffiyeh strode to the podium and declared his support for Spring's item; as he turned to walk away, a man standing to the side shouted, "Don't let that guy on a plane!" The heckler was none other than Erik Beckjord, a right-wing crank who has entertained the Bay Area for years. Beckjord is the owner and proprietor of San Francisco's UFO, Bigfoot, and Loch Ness Monster Museum, and has appeared on David Letterman twice to promote his collection of Bigfoot dung. But the South Asian man didn't know him from Adam, and stopped dead in his tracks like he'd been hit with a hammer.
When the time came, the council split down party lines and passed the condemnation five votes to four, but not before shamelessly posturing for the cameras. Councilmember and mayoral hopeful Linda Maio tried to feel everyone's pain as usual, and Armstrong milked her snarky, left-baiting credentials for all she was worth: "There are times in our lives when we have to come to grips with very difficult things -- when a John Lennon song and lighted candle isn't going to solve the problem." The anti-war crowd howled with manufactured outrage, and Armstrong grinned from ear to ear.
Only Councilmember Margaret Breland came off looking dignified. While Maio and Armstrong sounded canned and rehearsed, Breland's sheer lack of polish, the stumbling inability to express herself that has induced cringes on most occasions, gave her a moral authority she never possessed before. All she had was a simple, sincere humility, and when she groped for words to express the anguish of the last month, the room grew strangely quiet. In the middle of the crowd, a fortyish white man in a leather jacket, jeans, and cowboy boots buried his face in his hands as he listened to Breland. His shoulders were rigid, his jaw clenched, the veins in his temples straining, and when she finished, he looked up and nodded his head without a word. A black German shepherd lay at his feet, his muzzle flush against the floor and his eyes glazed with a placid, drowsy patience, unburdened by the specter of anthrax and runaway jetliners.
Red, white, blue, and Green: Remember former state assemblywoman Audie Bock back when, as the only Green in the state legislature, she was the pride of the East Bay left? Now, two party switches later (from Green to Independent to Democrat) and after the losing the seat to current Assemblywoman Wilma Chan, Bock seems to have moved rightwards once again by taking potshots at 9th district Representative Barbara Lee over her solitary vote against giving the president unfettered authority to take military action in Afghanistan. "As a result of the lone vote by Congresswoman Lee, the nation has received a false impression of the 9th Congressional District -- believing we are a constituency that hates America and asserts that the savagery we suffered was our country's fault," says a letter to voters on her Web site (www.audiebock.org). "Ms. Lee cowers behind her bodyguards, knowing she has wronged both the living and the dead, America and the world. Her message is to turn your back on your heritage, your countrymen, and women and your president." The site even contains a link to something called dumpbarbaralee.com (paid for by Audie Bock for Congress), which shows Lee's face just inches from an image of the smoking twin towers. Could this have anything to do with Bock's announcement on Wednesday that she plans to take Lee on in the 2002 Democratic primary? Steve Freedkin, operator of ProgressivePortal.com, a Berkeley-based activist Web site, points out that the registration records for both of Bock's sites show they appear to be registered to Sacramento-based Republican campaign consulting firm Russo, Marsh & Rogers. Audie, we hardly know you.
Sprawl Judgment: Urban sprawl in the East Bay hills got a few kicks in the pants recently when judges in two separate cases turned down appeals by developers who challenged county urban limit laws. In Contra Costa, developers were joined by the cities of Brentwood and San Ramon in an attempt to stop the county from halting new suburbs at the current urban limit line. Meanwhile, in Alameda County, developers lead by Shea Homes sued over the voter-approved Measure D, which set an urban growth boundary closer to existing cities than a town-size housing subdivision that Shea already had planned. In both cases, though, judges threw the cases out of court. "We're very happy that the courts are allowing both the citizens and the supervisors to make planning law that makes sense," says Mike Daley, conservation director for the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club, which supported Measure D and led the defense against the developers' attack. "We all talk about smart growth, but unless we can make planning laws, how do we control all that sprawl which causes traffic and air quality?"
Signs o the Times: Spotted together in the same Berkeley intersection: two panhandlers, one wearing a New York Fire Department T-shirt, the other waving a "God Bless America" sign and a civic- center-sized version of the Stars and Stripes, still mounted on a flagpole topped with a brass eagle. Ain't that America?
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