Editorial: Tell It To The Marines

By Becky O'Malley
Friday February 29, 2008

OK, I admit it, I finally cracked. What put me over the edge Thursday morning was this letter, similar in vocabulary, grammar and spelling to many we’ve gotten in the past few weeks: 


Thank you for running the letter from the Marine Captain to “CODE STINK.”I really feel sorry for you and all the decent people in Berkeley that must suffer with such poor representation as your mayor and city council. 

My family and I have visited Berkeley on a number occasions [sic], but we shall never spend another penny in Berkeley. 

I hope all Federal funds are withdrawn from your city. 

Mack B______ 

ex-military officer 

Tulsa, Oklahoma 


I just couldn’t resist answering this one, something I’ve so far managed to avoid doing most of the time: “THANKS FOR NOT COMING BACK. Too many tourists here already, crowding our streets with their ugly SUVs.” 

I know, I know, editorial page editors are supposed to forego the snappy rebuttals, and that one wasn’t even very snappy, but enough is enough. How many times do folks in places like Tulsa really come to Berkeley and spend big bucks? Not many, I’d be willing to bet a good amount. 

We’ve printed all the local letters on this topic, even extending the definition of local to Marin, which is really another country. The ones from the Tulsaites (Tulsaoides? Tulsans?) and their ilk have been posted on the web, since we think the writers are pretty unlikely to pick up a printed Planet from a box.  

The BANG-papers which now surround The City had a pool story yesterday which took the temperature of the downtown merchants and reported that they’re still a bit feverish over all the excitement. According to the story, “ ‘The downtown is like a full-time circus right now. There isn’t a day when we’re not hearing the drums and the noise (from the various groups). I think it’s off putting,’ said Susie Medak, managing director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.” 

Well maybe, but this week we finally made it over to the next-door Aurora Theater to see a lively production starring an old friend, Michael Gene Sullivan, a stalwart member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which has never been afraid of controversy. We almost didn’t get in, on a Wednesday yet. The show sold out, so we had to settle for the “obstructed view” seats that normally don’t get offered.  

No one there seemed to be off-put. There was the usual sprinkling of elderly parties with walkers, plenty of middle-aged ladies with the kind of careful coiffures produced by Walnut Creek hairdressers, and even some young people.  

I got there early to make sure we snagged the last seats, so I had time to browse in the Half-Price Books store on the corner. It was full of cheery shoppers. And the Center Street garage was well-filled, though it’s seldom been sold out even pre-protests. 

I haven’t been able to get downtown in the daytime much lately, but I have no doubt that the commotion around the Marines’ recruiting center has been difficult for the lunch businesses on the same block. That’s not a political boycott, however, it’s just a congestion management problem which needs a creative solution from city government. It seems now that what the protesters were allocated was not “a parking space,” but that the council was trying to create a “no-parking space” in front of the Marines’ office to get protesters off the sidewalk. That’s a step in the right direction, but it needs to be better supervised.  

A councilmember told me that he’d gotten an e-mail from someone, not connected with any organization, who’d been told by a police officer that he couldn’t hand out anti-recruiting flyers on the block in question—that he should take them over to the BART station. No, no, no. Definitely unclear on the concept.  

If there was ever a constitutionally protected activity, that’s it. Recent court decisions have even limited the power of private mall owners to ban leafleting on their premises, and city streets have always been OK. 

In what might have been a first, a press release yesterday from the city’s Police Information Officer included a link to a call on Indybay (an Internet independent news page, for all you old folks) for a big-time gathering of protesters in downtown Berkeley starting at noon today (Friday). PIO Sgt. Kussmiss told us that “BPD has issued a call out to our Crowd Management Team (CMT). This is a specialized team who does regular ongoing training in principles of crowd management and community safety.” Well, that will add more police overtime to the $100K bill already run up, and it might even work, but there are better options. 

What’s needed now is a city-blessed “free speech zone” open to all well-behaved comers, whatever their point of view. Tables and chairs for intelligent sit-down discussions should not only be allowed but encouraged, perhaps even supplied by the city. Bullhorns, however, (Code Pink is reported to have tried one on Wednesday) should be banned, as should any other form of amplification which would disturb the neighbors. There’s nothing in the Constitution about a right to Very Loud Speech. 

The particular dogleg of Shattuck where the Marines have already rented a space is as good a place as any for this endeavor. Transportation mavens have frequently suggested that one problem with downtown traffic flow and pedestrian safety is the confusing way Shattuck splits at that location, and that one branch should be closed. Be that as it may, taking away one or more car spaces for a free speech zone won’t do any harm.  

It could even become a tourist attraction like the Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner in London. The Tulsa-type tourists might be put off, but I bet those from the European Community, the ones with the real money these days, would love the idea. And downtown Berkeley is notably short of tourist magnets at the moment. 

As we used to say in the software industry, you can always turn a bug into a feature, and it’s the smart thing to do. Yes, yes, I’ve said this all before, but let’s just do it.