Editorial: Living On The Lotus Eaters’ Island By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday January 03, 2006

The news reports about California’s weather at the end of 2005 and its consequences in many communities around here, coupled with the downpour on Monday, the first workday of 2006 for some of us, have inevitably engendered out-of-control metaphor formation. Here in Berkeley we have no major river to overwhelm the city, which they have in Napa. We have little fresh hillside construction to create landslides as they do in Southern California. Granted, our antique storm drains and aging utility wires create a few flooded intersections and short-term power outages, but by and large Berkeley can seem like an island in the storm most of the time. As it does, by and large, in the storm now gathering on the national political scene.  

In Washington, we’ve been finding out, the national administration has been carrying on a plethora of activities which seriously undermine the foundations of our democracy, with the illegal wiretapping scandal only the latest in a series of outrages. In New York City, media capital of the universe, the ongoing embarrassments of the New York Times—the latest, how they sat on the wiretapping story for more than a year—suggest that you can’t trust any paper anymore.  

Berkeley has become the home of the political snowbirds—people who are sitting out the storms on the national scene, and who comment on what’s going on from safe perches here. Most prominent on the Web are Brad DeLong, formerly part of the Clinton administration, who’s become a combination econ professor and blogger, and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, proprietor of the million-hits-a-day Daily Kos. Bob Scheer has recently left the L.A. Times to join their ranks. In the mostly-print world, Robert Reich and Mark Danner are two of the many who now have a Berkeley base. 

It’s widely believed that Berkeley is different—that no matter what outrages are going in Rest-of-World, it can’t happen here. Overheard conversations at holiday parties document that belief system. One brief example: We attended an upbeat gathering on behalf of a Texas congressional candidate who had done a stint as a Berkeley radical in the ‘60s. One guest commented cheerily that she’d worked with him on community control of police way back when, and “now we have it in Berkeley.” Well, no. What’s actually happened is that the citizen-controlled Police Review Commission, formerly functional, has been emasculated by a court decision that allows its rulings to be superseded by the Police Department’s internal affairs process. And the position of PRC staff officer (who reports to the city manager, not to the citizens) is vacant, and has been for a long time. Berkeley doesn’t even have the kind of e-mail-facilitated community policing that has been so successful in immediately adjacent North Oakland. In 1973 progressive Berkeleyans founded the PRC, declared victory, and moved on. Yet in 2005, as we described in these pages, a visiting French woman of Arabic background, pushing her baby in a stroller, was subjected by Berkeley police to a humiliating procedure which included being forced to lie down on the ground, in broad daylight, despite the fact that she had done absolutely nothing wrong. She and her husband tried to get recourse through the PRC, but ultimately gave up in disgust and moved out of town. It can happen here, and it still does, often.  

And anyone who watches the Berkeley City Council meetings on cable TV these days (probably about 200 stout-hearted souls) is aware that we’ve shifted to Government Lite. The City Council reveals by their embarrassingly ignorant comments that they’re becoming the last to know what decisions are being made on their behalf by staff. The mayor rushes through meetings, unceremoniously shutting up Councilmember Dona Spring when she attempts to speak up about dubious proposals, and boasts that it’s all over in time to catch the 11 o’clock sports wrap-up on TV. The city’s recent grant application for planning a mega-development on the Ashby BART station, documented in previous issues and elsewhere in this one, was conceived and cooked up with the council in the dark about the whole scheme, yet they voted for it at the last meeting with only Spring abstaining. The Berkeley city attorney’s office is the source of endless stratagems designed to thwart the people’s right to know, as demonstrated in the clandestine settlement of the city’s suit against UC’s long range development plan. People who observe these things and who also know something about the high-handed tactics of the Bush regime are beginning to see ominous parallels. 

Greater Berkeleyans who live in the hills (or Over the Hill, like an increasing number of UC professors and administrators) can afford to be blissfully ignorant of how things are going here, since it affects at worst their commute time. People who live in the flats (also known as Berkeley’s Urban Sacrifice Zone) are forced to keep up with what’s planned for their neighborhoods whether they like it or not. These residents can’t afford to share the view of Berkeley as a progressive island in the storm. Once they get the idea that all might not be well in our happy little kingdom, they question other information as well. They look at the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that eminent domain can be carried out for the profit of developers, and imagine that it could be applied in South Berkeley. They look at the Washington wiretapping scandals and wonder how information could be captured from radio frequency identification devices on Berkeley’s library books by the wrong people. Farther afield, some Daily Planet readers, especially those who live near current or future casino sites, eye the Abramoff Indian casino bribery scandal now developing in Washington and wonder if its tentacles might reach down into our local scene.  

Some of us, in sum, have now become aware that Berkeley, even blissful gourmet greater Berkeley where food idolatry got its start, the island abounding in milk and honey for all of us lotus eaters, can’t be isolated from the many problems now besetting the rest of the world. Figuring out what we can do about them is our job for 2006.