Film Shows Dona Spring’s Public and Personal Courage

By Judith Scherr
Saturday July 12, 2008 - 01:59:00 PM

In Lindsay Vurek’s film, “Courage in Life and Politics: the Dona Spring Story,” the 15-year Berkeley councilmember’s fierce advocacy for the environment, animals, the downtrodden and the disabled shines bright. 

The 70-minute documentary, to be shown Friday, 7:30 p.m. at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists, at Cedar and Bonita streets, uses photographs, archival TV footage, and interviews of dozens of the councilmember’s friends and supporters, to show how Spring developed from a child who loved hiking and fishing, rode horses and even sky dived to the adult environmentalist and peace activist, who grew into an honored city leader, even as she faced the personal struggle of grappling with painful rheumatoid arthritis that increasingly debilitates her body.  

“Dona’s courage, her vision, her integrity has always been inspiring,” says Rent Board Commissioner Pam Webster, a fellow Green Party member, speaking to the camera. 

Former Chair of the Peace and Justice Commission Steve Freedkin shared a similar view, recalling an instance, early in his stint on the commission, when he found himself embroiled in a fight over Israel-Palestine issues. He said Spring called him: “There was no agenda; there was no lobbying. It was just, ‘I’m with you,’” he said. 

Active Berkeleyans who have run for office, including Jesse Townley and Zelda Bronstein, said Spring served as a mentor during tough campaigns. 

Spring, too, points to those who inspired her. One was Michael Winter, a disabled man and leader in the disability rights movement. Winter ran for City Council in 1986. 

Although he lost, the run impressed Spring who said she had not thought, before she experienced Winter’s campaign, that a disabled person would be able to carry out the kind of grassroots campaigning necessary to win in Berkeley. 

Following Winter’s example, Spring ran and won her first term in 1992 with a slim margin and has won successive races handily. 

One of Spring’s boldest moments depicted in the film was the resolution she sponsored condemning the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan and calling on national leaders to explore other means of pursuing the 9/11 attackers. 

Her action—and the action of a slim City Council majority—drew fire from the right wing and condemnation from the Wall Street Journal. 

On Oct. 10, 2001, a Wall Street Journal article by James Taranto subtitled, “Berkeley’s Useless Idiots,” stated: “The Daily Californian reports that the Berkeley City Council is likely to approve a resolution denouncing America for defending itself against terrorism. Councilwoman Dona Spring uttered what may be the most idiotic comment we’ve heard in the past month: ‘Berkeley has always been an island of sanity in terms of the war madness that has prevailed in this country. The U.S. is now a terrorist. According to the Taliban these are terrorist attacks.’” 

In the film, Spring responds to her detractors: “Don’t there need to be voices in this country that can question whether the use of mass destruction of other countries is in our best interest?” she asks. 

The councilmember’s strident stand against “frivolous” use of animals in research also gained her notoriety, with appearances on a number of national TV shows including the Ophrah Winfrey Show.  

Animal research is redundant, Spring said during one of her TV appearances. “It’s a real gravy train.” 

The film brings the audience up to date, with Spring’s work to save the oak grove next to Memorial Stadium on the UC Berkeley campus and her dedication to saving the warm pool on the Berkeley High School campus for disabled people and seniors to use. 

Berkeley author Michael Parenti, who lauds Spring in the film as someone “who does not sell out to special interests,” will introduce the film at Friday’s Unitarian church showing.