Public Comment

Commentary: Where’s the Free Speech?

By Ted Preisser
Friday November 03, 2006

The Patio is my favorite pub in all the world. Great food (one of the owners is a chef and the other’s a damn good cook), great conversation from owners and (some) customers, alike, and great beer. So why is this place going out of business? 

Berkeley, a fascist enclave in Northern California, runs the place with special interests like no others. On the one hand, there are the downtown boys: city government. Think of the Old West. The guys who got to town first took control of its assets, decided which streets would get the hookers and which the opera, and paved the way for their children. The last is a reasonable aim, but the rest were signs of the oligarchy that included Wyatt Earp and that sort. The my-way-or-the-first-stage-out-of-town type prevailed. That’s Berkeley’s city government. 

The second bunch is that feckless University of California crowd that doesn’t see itself as a bureaucratic organization, but as a college. Do yourself a favor and go to their website, look at their careers page, and then talk to me, okay! I am proud of their Nobel Laureates just like you are, but come on—gardeners wanted? The Cal cops get $65,000, and there may be more cops than English Department faculty, even including 3rd year doctoral students. 

The third crowd is that old hippie bunch who bicycle their way to the recycling stand, drop off their empties, proceed to Starbucks for tea (not coffee), and then finish the morning by feeling the organic tomatoes at the “This Tomato’s Better Than You” store. In the afternoon, they smoke dope, walk dogs, and join the inevitable protest whenever anyone wants to un-people People’s Park. 

So how does all this affect the business prospects of The Patio? 

To put it simply, the city wants to improve downtown Shattuck Avenue’s business climate (the government’s downtown, too) so they don’t much care about Telegraph Avenue’s business climate, where The Patio is. The university is afraid to take the heat it will certainly take if they move to reclaim People’s Park and do something useful with the land, like make a dorm or a parking lot, both of which are needed. Did I mention that The Patio borders People’s Park? And, the ageing hippies—most of whom are property owners and as far from “free of encumbrances” as any stock broker, constantly fuss over changes to any old thing, and that includes that “Monument to Blather”, People’s Park. 

The “free speech” movement is no more entitled to worship every fireman in NYC. In fact, living firemen are infinitely more important than an idea whose early proponents have drifted into latte-filled complacency. If we had some god-damned leadership in Washington, and if we could get along without constantly having to deal with our national fascination with god (in Berkeley, it’s spirituality), then free speech would mean something more than that which comes with tenure. 

These old attitudes: resistance to change, vested interest, and denial of responsibility, are how the City of Berkeley, its University, and its denizens ruin ordinary things like The Patio. They are petty, self-absorbed people and institutions who sacrificed their very birthright (what would Berkeley be without the free speech movement) for their “fair” share of the say-so in their little smokeless world. (What’s hubris? It’s Berkeley declaring itself a “nuclear free zone.” What?! Explain this, please!) 

So they tell us, at this little restaurant-pub called The Patio, that we cannot remain open later than 8:30pm without paying nearly $2,700 in fees to the city, and even then they cannot guarantee that we would be able to remain open a single minute later because we don't know what the result of the public hearing will be. Maybe the public will object. How many publics! How many decibels of objection! What if our supporters are louder than those who object? What then? Are we defined as trouble makers? Nonsense! Any fool can see that this is complete bullshit, so why is it done? It’s broke, hoss, so let’s fix it! 

I cannot afford to gamble my scant resources by playing Russian roulette with the city government. If they cannot tell me whether it takes three grandmothers, four hobos, and seven children under twelve to carry the day, what can I expect of the public hearing process? It’s a process that is vague enough to guarantee that the city can do anything it wants. Ergo, I will win or lose my appeal based on the whim of these oligarchs. Am I making any sense here? Who do they think they are, and where’s the free speech beyond my own voice! 


Ted Preisser is a Berkeley resident.