Column: The Public Eye: Mao Spelled Backwards By Zelda Bronstein

Tuesday August 16, 2005

One of my treasured mementos is a yellowing copy of the December 1971 issue of a Berkeley community newspaper called New Morning. Laid out like a tabloid, its 12 pages radiate the freewheeling exuberance of this city’s political counterculture some 30 years past. The pervasive tone is sounded by the comic book-style narrative that occupies most of the front page. “Friends,” it begins, “this is a lesson in dialectics called OM is MAO spelled backwards.”  

Veering from serious to silly and back, the contents also include a proposal for a rent control amendment to the Berkeley City Charter; “Notes from the Asparagus Underground”; a full-page salute from the prisoners at Attica; information about the Free University of Berkeley’s fiscal problems and upcoming classes (Women’s Basketball, Beginning Astrology, A Day at the Track, Mechanics, to name just a few); a critique of “the traditional diatonicism” of the Cal music department; and articles on the Free Clinic, the Rap Center (no, not that kind of rap), the low visibility of Asians in town, and the sexist division of labor in communes.  

Then there’s my favorite thing: “Loni Hancock Reports” (see story at right). The previous May, Hancock had been elected to the Berkeley City Council as part of a four-candidate slate supported by the April Coalition. She was the leading spokesperson for a youthful constituency that, as she wrote in New Morning, was “committed to basic change.” Until then, the council had been controlled by members of the local Democratic and Republican establishments. Councilmember Hancock and her comrades were political interlopers determined to challenge the status quo. Which, her New Morning account of her first six months in office makes clear, they surely did.  

Part of the piece’s fascination lies in its enduring relevance. We’re still grappling with some of the same problems that Hancock confronted in 1971: “automobile and parking lot domination of the city”; out of control “plastic, high-rent” development; and the “undemocratic, unresponsive” city manager form of government.  

In other ways, mostly having to do with lifestyle and culture, we’re living in a very different world. That, too, comes across in Hancock’s report. No longer, for example, do the Berkeley police round up young people in the summer and drive them out of town or to Juvenile Hall.  

The piece highlights another contrast between then and now: the big difference in attitude. Today, in Berkeley as in the nation at large, democracy is on the defensive, and the liberal-progressive mood is bleak. In 1971, democrats also had plenty to bemoan. The United States was still at war in Vietnam. In Berkeley, Hancock emphasizes, she and her cohorts did not have a majority on the City Council. As she does not say, often she did not even have the support of some councilmembers whom the April Coalition helped to elect. Nevertheless, her report exudes determination and confidence. It opens and closes with the same vow: “There Will Be No Turning Back.”  

Berkeley’s civic leaders often boast about this city’s cutting edge achievements in social justice, civil rights, environmentalism and other fields of endeavor. It behooves them—and the rest of us—to remember that those achievements were initiated by a bold and visionary activist citizenry that often had to overcome great odds, not the least of which was the resistance of entrenched officials and their powerful allies outside of City Hall. Loni Hancock’s 1971 bulletin serves as a reminder of that fact and, for me, as a source of renewed resolve.  

It’s also the source of an idea that, if implemented, would brighten the local popular mood: office hours for the mayor and the council. Hancock prefaces her report proper with the announcement that on Fridays between 10 and 12, she “will definitely be around with no appointments scheduled to talk to people who want to visit … Everyone is invited to stop by and rap.”  

Whenever I’m on the fifth foor of the beautifully refurbished Civic Center Building, where the mayor and the council have their offices, I notice the excessively wide hallways, and I wonder how all that empty space could be utilized. The answer is now clear: institute open office hours for everyone, and put out comfortable chairs and couches along the walls of the corridors where people can wait for a chance to rap with (and sometimes just rap) their elected representatives. While they’re waiting, they might rap with each other about the dialectics of democracy in 2005 Berkeley and beyond.  


There Will Be No Turning Back 


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the full text of Loni Hancock’s December 1971 New Morning report.  


Even though we lack a majority of council members who are committed to basic change, the first six months has [sic] still seen us make tremendous progress in setting new directions for the city and ending many of the oppressive actions initiated or condoned by the old Council.  

In the summer of 1970 young visitors to Berkeley were victims of a wholesale roundup by the police and were driven out of the city or sent to juvenile hall. The old City Council did absolutely nothing to restrain the Berkeley Police.  

This year the new Council unanimously abolished the summer round up and detention of young people. The Council then appropriated over $6,000 to assist in the creation of two summer youth hostels, including a University dormitory.  

In a similar lifestyle discrimination, the old Council had established a ban on block parties, thus preventing a form of expression and enjoyment favored by many young people in the city. In September the new Council eliminated the ban, and several block parties have since been approved.  

Hiring discrimination against young men with beards or long hair had been the official policy of the Berkeley Police Department. These discriminatory standards were abolished by the new Council and all city employees were guaranteed the right to determine their own personal appearance.  

In addition to showing concern for individual life styles, the new Council has also demonstrated a far greater degree of environmental concern than the old Council.  

The proposal by developers to build a giant shopping center on the Marina had been vigorously opposed by citizens groups as an undesirable use of land and a surrender to the automobile. All newly elected Councilmembers had campaigned against the shopping center and the Council killed the proposal. We will now be considering alternate uses for the land which hopefully can be turned into a park.  

The Council has taken other actions against automobile and parking lot domination of the city. We rejected the proposed purchase of land for the Cedar Street Overpass and blocked a supermarket parking lot expansion that would have meant demolition of a house.  

When neighborhood residents came to the Council in opposition to a 65-unit plastic, high-rent apartment building which was planned to be squeezed onto the corner of Shattuck and Delaware, the Council met its responsibilities to the community and denied the building permit.  

Perhaps no issue has generated as much publicity as the Council’s struggle over the budget. The budget that was finally passed was, from my point of view, unsatisfactory, but it was still the best budget this community has had for years.  

This year the Chamber of Commerce didn’t get its usual $23,000 gift from the city. And the super-inflated Police Department budget, previously untouchable, was reduced by nearly $400,000. In a small attempt to re-order city priorities, funds deleted by the City Manager were restored to the Health Department and to Recreation and Parks.  

The city also started making new kinds of appropriations to organizations serving the youth community. $3,000 was unanimously allocated to the Berkeley Free Clinic and $2,400 to the Runaway Center to keep it functioning. The new Council also funded a methadone maintenance program that had been rejected by the old Council.  

This year no funds were appropriated for the Berkeley Redevelopment Agency and the city cut off all aid to the West Berkeley Industrial Park project which has been bitterly opposed by residents of the Ocean View area. Thus far there have been no demolition of Ocean View homes since the new Council took office.  

While the budget proposed by the City Manager would have meant a 40 cent increase in the property tax[,] which hits hardest at people with fixed incomes[,] the final budget passed by the Council actually provided for a small property tax decrease. It was only because of pressure from new Council members that we were able to hold the tax rate.  

The new Council has recognized that Berkeley is not isolated from the nation or the world. We passed a resolution supporting a United Nations investigation of the death of George Jackson and the conditions in California prisons. Recently the Council also went on record in support of the anti-war efforts of Coral Sea sailors, offering them city assistance and sanctuary.  

In addition to the many positive actions just mentioned, no one can know how many undesirable things we have prevented just by our presence on the Council. The day is past when the City Manager or conservative council members are even willing to propose such items as the purchase of surveillance helicopters by the police.  

What we have done so far is only a beginning. Remember that we are still plagued by the City Manager form of government, although I hope that this undemocratic, unresponsive system will not be with us much longer. In the past 6 months, the Berkeley City Council has taken the first steps towards embarking on a course of justice and service to the city’s residents. There will be no turning back.