Public Comment

Commentary: Normalcy is Dead in South Berkeley

By Sam Herbert
Friday August 24, 2007

There is no “normal” left in Berkeley. Lethargy, a surfeit of political correctness, and confusion of common sense have led to its demise. I spend less time than I used to in community activism. It is not that the issues that plague South Berkeley have diminished in any way. My resignation comes from recognition that there are more individuals committed to defeating “normal” than I can battle. Conditions have changed little in the 11 years I’ve lived in Berkeley. The players change on both sides of the law, but the challenges remain. The dangers posed by the out-of-control illegal drug trade are still here. Shootouts are still commonplace in Beat 12. The focus of criminal activity in and around 1610 Oregon St. bleeds out—often literally—onto satellite sites, including other houses on the 1600 block Oregon Street; McGee Street (especially the four corners and the intersection of Oregon/McGee); the 1500 block of Oregon Street, with daily drug sales at the corner of Oregon/Sacramento and the apartments on the other side of Oregon; gunfire exchanges with residents of the Rosewood Apartments, on Russell and Oregon Street habitués; and now excursions onto Stuart Street as well.  

We are expected to accept that the car stolen by a thief in San Francisco, and abandoned in our neighborhood, was coincidental. We are told that it is coincidental that another stolen car, driven by two serial robbers in Oakland, was driven to the house across the street from 1610 Oregon by mere accident. It was likewise sheer coincidence that the female robber ran straight into a nearby house and stripped naked, jumping into the bathtub to escape capture by both Oakland and Berkeley police. Right. All just our version of “normal” here in South Berkeley. 

In the interests of full disclosure, my family has suffered less than many others. Let’s see…since I moved to Berkeley, we once had a rapist scale the back fence behind our yard, running from the police. He was captured, so I’m not sure if that counts. Another time, a man racing around the block crashed his car into the side of 1700 Oregon, and took off on foot. His escape route led through our yard as well. I have had a rose bush out front yanked out of the ground. Twice, individuals associated with the Moore household (1610 Oregon St.) tried to run me down with cars. A death threat was made against me, the very evening of the day I testified against local drug dealers in court. Worst of all, my son was attacked, along with a school friend, when the two boys walked down to the corner store for ice cream. It was an attempted robbery, and they managed to get away with a minor beating, but traumatic nonetheless. It destroyed whatever small hope I harbored that my son could grow up in normalcy. 

As I write this I am out of the area, visiting my elderly father and only sibling. They live in a (relatively) safe and (relatively) quiet neighborhood, with what I consider to be normal expectations of public safety. As many will tell you—and do—bad things happen to people everywhere, so Berkeley is no exception. That is true, as far as it goes, but there the similarities stop. In my dad’s community, neighbors have reasonable expectations of acceptable social conduct from everyone, and they don’t go out of their way to make excuses or exceptions for anyone. Further, they expect their law enforcement officers to behave like police officers, not like social workers. Last but not least, they expect their city government officials, and judicial agents, to prosecute the law as written, fairly and even-handedly for all. Berkeley residents could only WISH to experience that level of normal. We in Berkeley are left, out on our own, for most operative public safety needs. 

This disparity, in my opinion, comes from diminished expectations of support from city leaders. That condition comes direct from explicit admonitions from certain individuals, like Captain William Pittman telling neighbors at a ROC meeting that police involvement would only extend for two weeks, following a series of shooting events in our Beat. Beyond that? Captain Pittman answered, “Afterwards then, you are on your own.” Great. Or when a neighbor complained to Maudelle Shirek about the frequency of violence in our district, and asked what she should do, Ms. Shirek answered, “I think you should move.” This, from our elected city councilmember. Another pernicious element in eroding public confidence in city leadership, was the chronic undercharging by the COB district attorney’s office. Crimes that would have been presented to the courts as serious felonies were dismissed outright, or charged as minor crimes only. Not only was this a very demoralizing factor, but it led to a constant revolving door of criminals shunted back onto our streets. 

Neighbors in my father’s neighborhood speak with each other first, and civilly, if they have a dispute. If that is unsuccessful in resolving the problem, they rely on law enforcement and other city officials for assistance. They don’t stab their boyfriend in the back of the head over a small domestic squabble. They don’t pour Roundup over a neighbor’s 20-year-old planting and kill it, when they don’t agree with the owner’s politics. They don’t train their pit bulls to fight, and attack anyone who comes on their property. They don’t turn a blind eye to drug dealing by minors, and sponsor violence in the neighborhood. They don’t throw a molotov cocktail at the front of a neighbor’s house, setting their fence on fire, as retaliation for the administration of a legal judgment (against drug dealers in the neighborhood). Retaliation is not an acceptable method of resolving one’s dispute. Period. 

In Berkeley, by contrast, many of the residents have given up hope. They tolerate the intolerable; they accept the unacceptable. The children are the worst casualties of this deplorable atmosphere, being forced to grow up with the constant fear of unprovoked attack. One of these youth is celebrating his 21st birthday today. He was attacked as a young teen for the unthinkable crime of electing to leave a pickup ball game in the park nearby, when some of the players got too rough for a friendly game of pickup football. He was beaten into a coma, and was fortunate to survive with no lasting injury. His younger brother was jumped and beaten twice now already, both in the commission of a robbery. He was badly injured, but has survived with only the emotional scars. Only the emotional scars…as if they were not enough. 

Excuses made for (what I consider) actionable neglect by the City of Berkeley, to keep residents safe, fall into three categories. First, and most general, is the dismissive attitude that tells us that our problems aren’t really all that bad, and that it “happens everywhere.” If that one-size-fits-all excuse fails to dissuade critics, the second-tier defense is “aim to shame.” A finger-wagging lecture is delivered telling us how we need to “make allowances, exceptions” for the poor and underprivileged. The unspoken assumption seems to be that, if we are on the sunny side of the law, then we must be endowed with an over-abundance of privilege and resources. It’s a total crock of bologna, of course; I guarantee you I am poorer than most (if not all) of the drug dealers who habituate my neighborhood. If that excuse falls flat as well, then the be all/end all argument is pulled out of the drawer. Claims of racist callousness are leveled at the victims, in an effort to cut short any and all criticism. It usually works, too, although not by its own virtue. 

And if normalcy in Berkeley is dead and gone, for all and for good, who does one blame? I hold Councilmember Max Anderson and his predecessor, Maudelle Shirek, directly responsible by virtue of their hostility and outright opposition to community concerns. The elected city representative of District 3 ought to be the person we turn to for help. Instead, they have wielded a cynical, negative influence against true remediation of community problems. During her tenure with the City Council, Maudelle Shirek was almost entirely absent. She only came to one community meeting (of the ROC group) once, and lectured us about our responsibilities to other people’s children then. That one visit, and a more visible presence during the last election, were the only times she was in our neighborhood. No, I take that back. Ms. Shirek was seen visiting with Lenora Moore, owner of the worst drug house in our neighborhood, and her long-time friend. And we wonder how that residence is still in operation, with 30 years worth of criminal activity. 

Max Anderson was elected to City Council with the full support, and full coffers, of well-connected friends. He outspent rival Laura Menard 10-to-1 in the campaign. Once elected, he made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with anyone who couldn’t be counted as an unquestioning supporter. Max Anderson has avoided open exchanges with his constituents, and has shown blatant neglect of the issues of concern to us. His voice, when forced to interact with us, has been one of a bigot and a bully. We have no representation in South Berkeley. Not in our neighborhoods. Not in Beat 12. Not in District 3. Not in our city. 

And without effective representation, there is no “normal.” 


Sam Herbert is a South Berkeley resident.