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Long Haul’s Radical History

By Al Winslow Special to the Planet
Thursday August 28, 2008 - 09:14:00 AM

It’s an anarchist “free space.” 

An anarchist saying speaks of “building a new society on the vacant lots of the old”; in this case, a sanctuary of Berkeley’s left, Berkeley’s seekers and sometimes Berkeley’s outcasts was built on the remains of Sugar’s Den Health Spa and Massage. 

“Sugar” reputedly was open-minded about the prostitution laws. Anyway, a fire put her out of business in the late 1970s. Reminders remain — charred wooden beams toward the back, a vivid sign amid political posters on an upstairs wall. 

“After the fire, Al (Haber) renteed the entire place for $100 and started making repairs,” Jesse Palmer wrote in History of the Long Haul. “The long hallway ... plus the political vision of the place gave it its name.” 

Haber, 70, a founder of Students for a Democratic Society in 1959, now lives in Michigan with his wife, Odile, a veteran of the 1968 Paris street rebellion that almost overthrew the French government; the government was saved, oddly, by the intervention of the establishment Communist Party.  

He visits Berkeley occasionally and stops by the Long Haul at 3124 Shattuck Ave., in an offbeat area at the edge of Berkeley that houses La Peña cultural center, the IRA-leaning Starry Plough Irish bar, a free-legal-aid office, James Chanin, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, and the Daily Planet. 

Haber is still hard to figure. Sometimes he seems bemused by what he has loosed. He talks frequently about unity, enough of it to make a difference.  

“For Al, the concept of union was much more than a labor union,” Jesse Palmer wrote in History of the Long Haul. “It meant a group for developing radical theory and tactics ... and supporting its members’ lives over the long haul. Al didn’t think everyone had to be in the same union—just that everybody be in one. 

“Anyway, that’s the way I see it,” Palmer said. 

Dominique and his companion, Melissa, came from South Dakota. They traveled in a van with their dog, Ginger, through a dozen states, from Louisiana to Oregon. “Both our moms thought it was cool, us driving around seeing the world,” Dominique said. 

About seven months ago, they found the Long Haul. “People were just talking to us. You could hang out there. You didn’t have to buy anything,” he said. “You have the usual in-fighting and excruciating staff meetings, and sometimes conflicting visions are being acted out here, but we are glad to be part of the herd.” 

Despite an off-putting reception desk with a person of presumed authority behind it, people wander in. 

Homeless people come in to use the bathroom. Coffee is free. The Internet is free. Books are all over the place. Somewhat aging donated food is free. 

“People have started out as total leeches but end up doing the dishes,” said Greg Horton, a member of the collective. 

Dominique said, “People have been banned, but it’s a pretty big process. You really have to push the line.” 

A notable evictee was the Berkeley Cannabis Club. It took six years. 

The club provided marijuana to people who had a doctor’s prescription but evolved into a money-maker with an expanding, paid staff and large amounts of cash passing around, according to people who were there. 

Anarchist process requires consensus—everybody must agree or abstain. Then everybody must agree or abstain on how to execute the decision. And so on. 

Six years to make a major decision isn’t that long.  

The Long Haul, celebrating its 15th anniversary, has a lifetime lease, presumably arranged by Haber, and pays $1,200 a month rent to the nonprofit Northern California Land Trust. 

Much of the money comes from groups that meet or rent space there—Cycles of Change, a bicycle advocacy group, Needle Exchange, East Bay Prisoners Support, Food Not Bombs, Berkeley Liberation Radio. 

The Long Haul is open Monday–Thursday 6–9 p.m., Saturdays 3–9 p.m., and Sundays 3–11 p.m. It can be reached at (510) 540-0751 or