Calling for public ownership of power, more than 75 people crowded onto the sidewalk at Center Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way in front of the PG&E payment office at noon on Thursday.
Their signs read “not with my tax $$$,” and “no pay in May;” their chants called for “people power, solar power,” and said “Governor Gray, we won’t pay,” – passing drivers honked horns and waved. Similar demonstrations took place simultaneously in Oakland and San Francisco.
Reading from a proclamation, demonstrator Susan Rodriguez sat in front of Pacific Gas and Electric company’s doorway, calling over a bullhorn: “We the people of California, declare by our right of eminent domain, all power companies based on California soil, built by human labor...to be the property of the people of California.” At the request of a PG&E employee, Rodriguez was handcuffed and arrested by two Berkeley police officers. She was taken across the street to the police station where she was cited for blocking access to the building, given a court date and released, police said.
On Thursday, Gov. Gray Davis asked the legislature to approve spending another $500 million to buy power, raising the state funds committed to power buys to $4.7 billion. Scared off by PG&E and Southern California Edison’s poor credit ratings, the power generators are refusing to sell to them, so the state is paying the electricity and natural gas suppliers directly.
Protester Kuo Yee, whose friend carried a sign saying “no bailout,” called on the governor to do just the opposite: “The only solution is that they go bankrupt so we can purchase the power,” he said.
Protester Gary Brechin, author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power/Earthly Ruin, said the power crisis educates the public and reveals the structure of the ownership of the power companies. “They’ve taken off their masks,” he said, pointing out that PG&E profits from the high use of energy. “We’re like the lambs, about to be turned into shish-kebab,’ he said.
Demonstrators said the call for public power is not pie-in-the sky. It may be possible to form a public power network through the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which currently provides water, demonstrator Tim Gordon said. Power should be public, from its generation, through its transmission “not just the transmissions lines,” he added.
The Berkeley City Council has taken a first step toward public power ownership by voting to have a study done of its feasibility.
Public ownership is just part of the solution, said protester Hal Carlstad: “We need recycled energy – sun and wind – and conservation.” Carlstad said the public is bombarded with advertisements encouraging the overuse of power. “They’re advertising to make you use it,” he said.
As the protest was winding down, demonstrator Susan Rodriguez moved up the steps and sat down in front of the doors of the PG&E office, blocking the entrance and exit of those who had come to pay their bills. Moments before the police led her away in handcuffs, Rodriguez called out: “I’m here for the poor and the elderly, the disabled and the children. I do this in the name of Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez. I refuse to submit.”