Orchestrating Change

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday August 20, 2009 - 11:06:00 AM

Last weekend a nice lady that I know slightly through a shared interest in classical music left a message on my voicemail. She’d taken an unusual route through the Berkeley Hills and come upon the Code Pink demonstration that’s been ongoing at Law School Professor John Yoo’s house on Grizzly Peak for some weeks now. She described feeling “extremely upset.” Not, of course, she said, that she’s a fan of Yoo, but “while I may agree with them, you know, his stance, torture and stuff,” she didn’t like how they went about expressing their opinion.  

She called it a “pink pogrom…which reminds me of pro-lifers in front of a clinic.”  

“I felt just terrible,” she told me. What if Yoo has children who were seeing this? “What a horrible impression it gives of Berkeley where people stalk and stake out,” she said. And she asked, “Why aren’t the police doing anything?” She thought I might know the answer or be able to do something myself. 

She left her phone number, but I haven’t called back because I’m not sure what to say. The police part is easy for me, of course. As a notorious First Amendment absolutist, I always stand with Justice Hugo Black, who carried a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his hip pocket. He was described as whipping out his text while thundering that when the First Amendment says that the government should make no law restricting freedom of speech, “it means NO LAW!” I think that there’s no constitutional law that lets police stop even the most annoying demonstration if it’s not violent, which I’ll tell her when I call her back. 

But her call raised another question, harder to answer. Are Code Pink’s tactics productive or counter-productive? If they turn off potentially sympathetic people like The Nice Lady, are they a mistake, more self-indulgent self-expression than persuasion?  

After the group’s long stretch at the Berkeley Marine Recruiting Center, which seems in the end to have accomplished nothing and alienated many, I’ve been inclined to that point of view. On the other hand, John Yoo is still enjoying a cushy job at taxpayers’ expense, despite the fact that many of us, myself included, have been on his case in print for years now. Some members of Congress have expressed interest in trying him for war crimes, but so far, nothing. A judge in Spain is after him, but again, nothing’s happened. 

So I went over to the law school formerly known as Boalt Hall to check out the action yesterday. The occasion was the start of the law school year, as John Yoo rejoined the faculty after an absence. Demonstrators were invited to act out their objections. 

The Code Pink ladies (I think they’re all women, but maybe not) were there in costume, dressed in pink as jailers and marshals, keystone-coppish in affect. They were joined by more serious folks who favored the color orange, after the orange jumpsuits worn by prisoners, from the lively group The World Can’t Wait (for you old-timers, reputedly spiritual descendants of the East Bay’s own Bob Avakian).  

Several distinguished members of the left flank of Boalt alumni spoke to good effect. Of the 30 or so others in attendance, most of them were the Usual Suspects: that hardy band of Berkeleyans who still believe that it’s necessary and possible to set the world to rights, many of whom are labeled “crazies” by the media for their troubles. I recognized almost all of them from previous demonstrations for other causes.  

The Planet’s reporter was there, of course, but I didn’t spot any other newsies. 

Some video cameras and microphones were in evidence, but it didn’t look like the MainStreamMedia was taking notice. 

And yet…Tuesday morning the local NPR station had a nice piece on the event, serious and respectful. The Associated Press and a Wall Street Journal blog for lawyers picked the story up. KCBS did it. It’s been a while since any of these outlets thought about John Yoo, and without Code Pink’s antics they might never have done so. 

The question of how you influence public policy has been much discussed as liberal columnists one by one have begun gingerly expressing their disappointment with what President Obama has accomplished so far. Many of them had hoped that Yoo and his allies would have been prosecuted by now.  

What’s the best way to force this laggard administration to act on important problems, and not just cleaning up after Bush but making more progress in all areas? If not Code Pink, what? 

At the Thursday Farmers’ Market last week, where I went to observe the tactics of the anti-referendum harassers first hand, I happened on two national-level gurus of my acquaintance toe to toe amidst the peaches. (I should go to North Berkeley more often.) They were lamenting the lack of action in Washington on issues they (and I) thought were critical. 

“We took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post,” said Guru A, “and it didn’t make any difference.” 

Guru B opined that what Obama needed was a grassroots movement to back him up, or more precisely to appear to force him to do what he really wanted to do anyway.  

“I could get something like that going with $10 million,” he said, “but I can’t raise the money.”  

How about asking George Soros? I suggested. “No,” he said, “I know George well, but he’s got his own way of doing things.” 

Well then, what does that leave us with for strategy?  

Code Pink might be annoying to some, but you can’t argue with results, as far as PR is concerned. On the other hand, next week John Yoo will still be meeting classes.  

My friend the professor emerita was in town this week and went to the demonstration with me. She says that where she comes from moral turpitude and gross incompetence are the standards for removing a tenured faculty member, and she thinks both apply to Yoo. Perhaps demonstrations outside of Yoo’s classes are off target—better results might be obtained by confronting the school’s dean or ethics committee with their responsibilities instead. 

And what can be done about the Democrats in Washington?  

Barack Obama burst upon the national horizon as an overwhelming presence, but his influence seems to be waning as the incompetence of the congressional majority plays out in the health care debate. He’s beginning to remind me of Alice’s Cheshire cat: slowly fading, fading, fading away, until finally there might be nothing left of him but his beautiful smile.  

Something needs to be done before that happens, but what?