Public Comment

Minority Rights for ‘Those People’

By Russ Tilleman
Wednesday December 17, 2008 - 07:01:00 PM

Charles Siegel’s Dec. 11 commentary “The Anti-Transit Crowd Is at it Again” takes aim at a local minority group, using the tired old language of discrimination. He correctly points out that only a minority of Berkeley citizens voted for Measure KK, but he seems to have forgotten that legitimate democracies protect the rights of minority groups whenever possible. 

The people who live and work in my neighborhood, referred to as “those people” by Mr. Siegel, have legitimate concerns about Bus Rapid Transit. Maybe Mr. Siegel would not personally be affected in the same way as the people who live here, but that does not give him the right to discount the effects BRT would have on our lives. In decades past, many whites resisted equal rights for racial minorities, because they didn’t care about “those people.” Mr. Siegel’s rhetoric would fit right in with their arguments. 

Instead of name calling, personal attacks, and gross distortions of reality, the proponents of BRT should be making their case based on the science of global warming and the legitimate needs for public transit. If they do not have the science and transportation training and experience to make their case that way, they should hire some impartial experts who are qualified to do so. As it is, someone like Mr. Siegel can make an apparently untrue statement, such as “AC Transit has promised to mitigate” the loss of parking for neighborhood residents, and all that people like me can do is try to point out that he is wrong. To my knowledge, AC Transit plans to convert 72-hour parking spaces in my neighborhood into short-term spaces with parking meters. They will not be constructing parking garages or adding any other new spaces to make up for these lost long term parking spaces. So they have not promised to mitigate the BRT parking impact on the people who live here. If AC Transit makes a legally binding promise to build a parking garage for us that would replace every removed space, I will stop complaining about BRT’s impact on parking. 

Lies will not save the polar bears. We need projects that will reduce greenhouse gas production. Sadly, BRT looks like it will increase greenhouse gases, but the citizens of Berkeley should not have to take my word on this. There should be an independent, impartial group of experts who can honestly tell us what we can expect out of BRT. AC Transit is not impartial, or an expert. Mr. Siegel is certainly not impartial, and he doesn’t appear to be much of an expert either. Likewise with the Van Hool bus company, whose US distributor financed the campaign against Measure KK. 

Personally, I am proud to be one of “those people” who are willing to stand up for their rights. And I like to think that, if an issue like this someday affects people who live and work in another neighborhood of Berkeley, I will be considerate of their rights as well. After all, that is the way real democracies are supposed to function. When citizens find themselves in the majority on an issue, they consider the rights of the minority. One of the reasons they do this is because, sooner or later, they are likely to find themselves in the minority on another issue. What goes around, comes around. 

Democratic governments are supposed to represent all their citizens, weighing the benefits of a proposed act to one group against the harm to other groups. If the people of Berkeley make an informed decision to sacrifice the quality of life in my neighborhood for the legitimate greater good, so be it. But basing important decisions on misinformation, and belittling the concerns of an affected neighborhood, is not good government. Even if most citizens of Berkeley don’t live in this neighborhood and won’t be directly affected by BRT, eventually an issue may arise that does affect them. How can they expect me to care about their neighborhood if they don’t care about mine? 


Russ Tilleman is a Berkeley resident.