Public Comment

Commentary: Controlling the Public

By Doug Buckwald
Friday August 03, 2007

The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) meeting sponsored by the Transportation Commission on July 24 was even worse than I imagined it would be. The meeting was facilitated by the Chair of the Transportation Commission, Sarah Syed. She treated the people in the room as if they were a group of schoolchildren—rather than concerned Berkeley citizens who had volunteered their time on a weekday evening to weigh in on an important city issue. She was unfriendly and impatient right from the very start. She snapped orders at people and threatened to throw people out of the meeting. What were members of the audience doing that was so unacceptable? Just trying to express concerns about BRT, nothing more. She just would not allow it! 

During the meeting, Ms. Syed treated speakers in the audience in a blatantly inconsistent manner. She showed absolute deference to some people (who were allowed to speak at great length without any interruption), but quickly interrupted and cut off others. People who expressed views most at odds with her views were the ones who were censored. 

In Friday’s issue of the Daily Planet (July 27), Sarah Syed is quoted as saying, “The whole workshop has been designed to allow public participation. We want to hear from the people.” George Orwell, meet your new poster child. Sure, they wanted to hear from the people—the ones who agreed with their BRT plan and wanted to discuss how to implement it, but not from anybody who had questions or criticisms of BRT. That was strictly off-limits. And the picture on the cover of the Planet illustrated another mechanism of social engineering. It all looks good: Ms. Syed is listening attentively, poised to write down the thoughts of a public citizen on her clipboard. This occurred after the meeting had been broken down into small discussion groups—a technique that a speaker at the recent ABAG conference in Berkeley had recommended as an effective way to control citizen activists. They are more manageable if you can limit the number of people who hear their thoughts, and you can control them with discussion group facilitators who have strong agendas. But Ms. Syed will undoubtedly claim that it was to make it easier for audience members to get an opportunity to speak. Don’t be fooled. It’s all about social control. The will of the people is best expressed only after it has been carefully eviscerated and then re-engineered.  

All in all, Sarah Syed did an excellent job—of demonstrating to the public the way the Transportation Commission really functions now. It is a Commission unto itself, without the need for any input from pesky Berkeley citizens. It has a vision of the true and right way that transportation will occur in this town, and everybody else’s needs and values can be ignored. This is their particular method of “consensus-building”: anybody who disagrees with them should just leave town. 

It should be noted that Sarah Syed is Mayor Tom Bates’ appointee to the Transportation Commission. That makes sense. She seems to share his contempt for public involvement in decision-making in our city. How very sad. 



Doug Buckwald is a civic activist.