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New: Trucks Lined up Outside Port of Oakland as Protesters Block Entrance

By JeffShuttleworth/ScottMorris (BCN)
Monday December 12, 2011 - 09:51:00 AM

Protesters have blocked at least two entrances to the Port of Oakland this morning as part of a planned all-day West Coast port blockade. 

As of 9 a.m., hundreds of protesters had blocked off the entrance to Berths 30-32, and Alameda County sheriff's deputies were keeping an eye on hundreds more who had gathered at the entrance to Berths 55-56. 

Dozens of trucks were lined up outside both entrances as drivers waited to get into the port.  

One truck driver, who declined to give his name, said he had come from Santa Rosa and had been waiting since 5 a.m. 

He said he anticipates that the port will be closed all day and is awaiting instructions on what to do with his cargo. 

Meanwhile, protesters milled about, chanting and playing music. Around 8:45 a.m., dozens of police officers in riot gear showed up at the entrance to Berths 30-32 but then left a few minutes later.  

Protester Shake Anderson, who said he has been involved in the Occupy Oakland movement since the beginning, said the demonstrators' strategy is to keep a large crowd at the port to make it difficult for police to make arrests.  

"It's all about numbers," he said.  

Oakland attorney Dan Siegel, Mayor Jean Quan's former legal adviser, was among those participating in the march to the port this morning.  

Siegel resigned as Quan's unpaid legal adviser on Nov. 14, the morning that police raided the Occupy Oakland encampment outside City Hall. He was leaving this morning's protest at about 7:20 a.m., heading to a client's court hearing.  

Protesters began marching from the West Oakland BART station shortly after 5:30 a.m.  

They plan to hold several other marches throughout the day to disrupt shipping, including a march at 4 p.m. from Frank Ogawa Plaza, and another from the West Oakland BART station at 5 p.m. 

Oakland police said this morning that they will attempt to keep the port open, but that traffic through Oakland may be disrupted as they facilitate marches through the city. 

Port of Oakland officials said around 7:15 a.m. that operations were continuing at the port with "sporadic disruptions" caused by the protests.  

Quan held a news conference this morning at which she called on protesters to "respect the rights of the 99 percent who are trying to work today."  

The blockade is part of a coordinated West Coast port shutdown involving Occupy movements from Anchorage, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, San Diego and other cities. 

"They performed a coordinated attack on the whole Occupy Wall Street because this is a threatening movement to the 1 percent," organizer Boots Riley, of the hip-hop group The Coup, said today. 

"This is a retaliation against that. We're causing a lot of profit loss to show it's not a feasible economic plan for them to attack us," Riley said. 

Riley said the action is also in solidarity with International Longshore and Warehouse Union members in a labor dispute with grain exporter EGT in Longview, Wash., and with truck drivers in Los Angeles who are classified as independent contractors and do not receive benefits. 

Port and city officials and ILWU leaders have criticized the plan, saying that the action will hurt port workers by costing them wages. 

ILWU leaders have said that while they support the broader goals of the Occupy movement, they have accused Occupy activists of trying to co-opt union struggles for a broader agenda.

Diesel Fuel Spill on Berkeley Campus Contaminates Strawberry Creek and Bay

By Bay City News
Sunday December 11, 2011 - 10:04:00 PM

Around 1,700 gallons of diesel fuel spilled from a tank in a University of California at Berkeley building Saturday evening, causing a spill that reached Strawberry Creek and San Francisco Bay. 

The spill was discovered around 7 p.m. Saturday, when a campus police officer noticed an odor coming from Strawberry Creek, which runs through the campus, university officials said.  

An investigation determined that diesel fuel tank at Stanley Hall, a large research and classroom building. The fuel, used to power an emergency generator for the building, had overflowed as it was being transferred to another storage tank.  

Emergency crews shut off the source of the leak and removed hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel from the building. The leak was contained by around 9 p.m. but crews today continue to lay down absorbent materials and vacuum up the fuel, officials said.  

Federal and state officials have been notified, and the area is being closely monitored for impacts on wildlife, said Mark Freiberg, director of the Office of Environment, Health and Safety. 

Stanley Hall remains closed, but should be open Monday. The cause of the leak remains under investigation. 

Members of the public who encounter pooled fuel from the spill, they are asked to avoid touching it, but to report it to (510) 664-4406.

New: U.C. Berkeley Oil Spill into Strawberry Creek Still Evident on Sunday Morning (Reader Report)

By Linda Franklin
Sunday December 11, 2011 - 09:57:00 PM

Last night UCB spilled some kind of fuel oil or diesel into Strawberry Creek. When my son came home at 2 am, he noticed a pervasive smell of gasoline, which he had first noticed about 10 pm that evening. His home in on Strawberry Creek in the flats, and he investigated and found thick reddish brown oil in the creek. He flagged down a police officer who said that UC Berkeley had experienced a leak or spill but had "everything under control." Doubting that, he went out to the mouth of the creek at the Seabreeze cafe to see if UCB had put up containment to keep the fuel out of the bay... they had not. He then traced back up the creek, and found pools of fuel at various spots, and a large amount of fuel in the creek below the Undergraduate Library. No clean up crew was there...

When we went back there at 8:30 am Sunday morning, there was a cleanup crew pumping out the remains of the oil. What was the spill, why didn't UCB act to contain the spill before it left the creek and entered the bay? Why did it take so long to get a clean up crew out? 

What is UCB's protocol for environmental spills and is it adequate to protect the environment and the citizens? 

[Editor's Note: Also see this report in the San Francisco Chronicle.]

Press Release: U.C. Berkeley Says Oil Spill Was Contained at 9 on Saturday

From Janet Gilmore, UCB Public Information Officer
Sunday December 11, 2011 - 10:07:00 PM

Emergency crews on Sunday, Dec. 11, removed hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel from a University of California, Berkeley, building where equipment failure caused a diesel tank to overflow. On Saturday evening, Dec. 10, about 1,700 gallons of fuel spilled within Stanley Hall, with some fuel reaching Strawberry Creek and a smaller amount making its way to San Francisco Bay. 

Crews continue to monitor the situation, are laying down materials to both contain and absorb the diesel, and are using special trucks and equipment to vacuum up the fuel. 

At 7 p.m. Saturday, a campus police officer noticed an off odor coming from Strawberry Creek, and employees from the campus's Office of Environment, Health and Safety (EH&S) and Physical Plant-Campus Services investigated. They discovered that a diesel fuel tank in Stanley Hall had overflowed as fuel was being transferred from a larger nearby storage tank. The fuel in the tank is used to power an emergency generator for the building. The exact cause of this equipment failure is not yet known. 

The leak was contained at about 9 p.m. Saturday. Campus crews shut off the source of the leak and immediately contacted federal, state, local and city authorities. If members of the public see fuel that may be pooling as a result of the spill, they are asked to avoid touching it, but should report it to (510) 664-4406. 

Campus officials continue to work closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Coast Guard and California Department of Fish and Game. 

Mark Freiberg, EH&S director, said that the coordinating agencies are closely monitoring the area for impacts to wildlife. 

Stanley Hall, a large research and classroom building, remains closed due to the clean-up efforts, but EH&S and campus crews are monitoring conditions to verify that the building is safe for reoccupancy on Monday.

Press Release: City of Berkeley Police Clarify Reports of Youth Prostitution

From Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, BPD
Friday December 09, 2011 - 03:02:00 PM

Since 2010, the number of juvenile prostitution cases investigated by the Berkeley Police Department (BPD) throughout the City of Berkeley has fallen from seven in 2010 to four in 2011, a decline of over 40%. The population of Berkeley is approximately 112,000.  

In 2010, of the seven cases investigated by BPD’s Special Victims Unit, three involved Berkeley High School (BHS) students. So far this year, BPD has investigated four cases, and two of those cases involved BHS students. None of these investigations involved prostitution on the BHS campus.  

While the numbers appear to be low, even one case is too many and BPD and BHS work collaboratively to investigate criminal activity that may occur on campus as well as those that could affect the safety of the student community. Due to laws pertaining to the confidentiality rights of juvenile victims, not all investigative information can be shared between BHS and BPD. However, these investigations are taken very seriously and steps are taken to ensure that victims are safe and receive support.  

Sergeant Jennifer Louis, of the BPD Special Victims Unit credits the decline in statistics, “in great part to community efforts and collaboration surrounding the prosecution of those who exploit women, as well as the extensive referral and support systems in place for these young victims.” One such BPD collaboration is the HEAT (Human Exploitation and Trafficking) Watch program which is administered by Alameda County. HEAT Watch is a joint effort of several agencies to combat human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children. It includes law enforcement, non-government victim advocates, probation, social services, local businesses and other community agencies. More information regarding HEAT Watch as well as county wide statistics is available on the Alameda County District Attorney website.  

The Special Victims Unit receives approximately one to two reports a month regarding possible youth prostitution activity throughout the City. They come in a range of forms from a call from a community member who sees a young- looking woman they suspect may be engaged in criminal activity to Child Protective Services (CPS) referrals regarding children who may be endangered. Periodically, it may be a youth victim who reaches out. BPD reviews each of these circumstances and initiates a criminal investigation when appropriate.  


Occupy Movement Plans Port Shutdown--Union Leaders Not All Supportive

By Scott Morris (BCN)
Friday December 09, 2011 - 02:49:00 PM

Inspired by the Nov. 2 shutdown of the Port of Oakland by Occupy Oakland protesters, Occupy movements across the country are seeking to disrupt port and shipping activities, particularly along the West Coast on Monday, including at the Port of Oakland. 

But the calls for shutting down ports comes without the support of leadership from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, who have said that while they support the broader goals of the Occupy movement, they are not supportive of unilateral calls by third parties to shut down ports. 

A port shutdown was proposed by Occupy Oakland and Los Angeles groups mid-November. Calls for action throughout the West Coast brought support from other Occupy movements in the following days and weeks. 

Occupy Oakland organizers have said the action is partly intended to show solidarity with an ongoing labor dispute between ILWU members and grain exporter EGT in Longview, Wash.  

But in a letter to local chapters Wednesday, ILWU International President Robert McEllrath clarified that the union had not voted to support the actions, and accused Occupy groups of trying to co-opt their struggle to advance their own agenda. 

"Support is one thing, organization from outside groups attempting to co-opt our struggle in order to advance a broader agenda is quite another and one that is destructive to our democratic process and jeopardizes our over two-year struggle in Longview," McEllrath's letter stated. 

But McEllrath remained supportive of the broader goals of the Occupy movement -- including corporate influence on democracy, the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, and the failure of accountability for the financial crisis. 

"While there can be no doubt that the ILWU shares the Occupy movement's concerns about the future of the middle class and corporate abuses, we must be clear that our struggle against EGT is just that -- our struggle," he said. 

Port of Oakland officials pleaded with Occupy members not to shut down the port in an open letter to the community published as a full-page ad in several newspapers Sunday. 

"Shutting down the Port of Oakland is a bad idea. Another shutdown will only make things worse -- diverting cargo, tax revenue and jobs to other communities. It will hurt working people and harm our community," the letter stated. 

The Port's letter also stated that it is still feeling the impact of the Nov. 2 action, where thousands marched from downtown Oakland to the Port, shutting down operations overnight. The Port said that not only did the action cause lost profits, but lost wages for Port workers as well. 

ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees confirmed that no Port workers who missed shifts on Nov. 2 were paid. Merrilees said that whether or not Port workers would be paid depends on negotiations between the employers and the union. 

"Typically this involves a dispute between the employers and the union over what's going to happen in a situation like this. Naturally the company doesn't want to pay and the union would like the pay and sometimes this requires adjudication and arbitration, and often there are appeals," he said. 

But the Nov. 2 action did have some support among union members, as 10 percent of Port workers scheduled to work that day individually elected to stay home from work, Merillees said.  

During that evening's march to the Port, among the thousands marching were contingents from several local unions including the Oakland Education Association, the Service Employees International Union, and the ILWU. 

Merillees also pointed out that most of the truck drivers at the Port do not belong to a union, and are paid by the container, not by the hour. He said that those workers would not be paid for the lost time regardless, and have no recourse. 

The plight of those truck drivers was scheduled to be one of the issues covered at a teach-in at 6 p.m. Thursday at Bay Area Christian Connection Church at 810 Clay St. in Oakland to discuss turning the Port of Oakland into a "People's Port." 

Port workers, community members and faith leaders were expected to discuss how an upcoming major expansion of the Port into the old Oakland Army Base could be an opportunity to place an emphasis on "people over profits," small businesses, and environmental regulations. 

Organizer Nikki Bas from the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy said that helping Port truck drivers who she says are miscategorized as independent contractors is one of two key campaigns her organization is working on. 

She said that because of their status as independent contractors, the drivers do not have the benefits of sick leave, access to health care, workers compensation and unemployment insurance that their unionized peers enjoy. 

Furthermore, the drivers are responsible for maintaining their own trucks and purchasing fuel, and that after these expenses, many will work 60 or more hours a week but take home as little as $25,000 per year. 

She said that while her group is not organizing for Monday's Port action, they are seeking to capitalize on the increased attention on the Port to bring attention to their own organizing efforts. 

"What's positive about this is people are starting to look a little bit more about what are the companies causing inequity in our society and particularly at the Port," Bas said. 

Meanwhile, Occupy Oakland is planning a wave of outreach this weekend, including a planned outreach event for Saturday at DeFremery Park in West Oakland, not far from the Port. Protesters are planning to go door-to-door in the neighborhood to raise support for the Port shutdown, followed by a 1 p.m. cookout at the park. 

For the Port shutdown, Oakland protesters are planning to gather early Monday morning, meeting at 5:30 a.m. at the West Oakland BART station for the first march to the Port of Oakland. 

Two afternoon marches are also planned. Protesters will rally at Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland at 3 p.m. and march to the Port an hour later. Another group will meet at the West Oakland BART station again at 5 p.m. for a third march. 

Other port shutdowns are being planned all over the West Coast, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland, Tacoma, Seattle and Vancouver. 

The calls for action have even grown beyond the West Coast, as protesters in Houston plan to shut down the port there, and Occupy protesters in landlocked cities such as Denver and Salt Lake City are planning to disrupt Walmart distribution centers. 

While the ILWU may not officially endorse the port shutdowns, union leadership has been careful to maintain that they do support the broader goals of the Occupy movement.  

"We remain supportive of the general thrust of the Occupy movement which is to promote greater economic equality and social justice in this country. It's a new movement and there will be plenty of opportunities down the line to work on other strategies and actics to achieve that," Merillees said.

Of Mice and Men; Micah and Me (First Person)

By Ted Friedman
Friday December 09, 2011 - 03:04:00 PM
Micah M. White, center in white shirt,  a founder of Occupy Wall Street movement, and a new Berkeley resident.
Ted Friedman
Micah M. White, center in white shirt, a founder of Occupy Wall Street movement, and a new Berkeley resident.

When I was a kid, I read "Ben and Me," a 1939 children's bio of Ben Franklin, purportedly written by Franklin's mouse, Amos. In this story, I am the mouse, and Micah M. White, credited by the New Yorker as a key founder of the Occupy movement, is Ben.

Micah is famous at the moment, and I, a mere mouse who roars at the Planet. We both live in Berkeley; me for 40 years, Micah since last year. 

Ben/Micah is a 29 year-old senior editor at Adbusters magazine, and self-styled "independent activist," who has contributed to the New York Times, Teen Magazine, the Guardian (U.K.), and recently, the Washington Post. He claims 100,000 readers. 

If I have a few thousand, I'd be lucky. 

When the New Yorker piece on Micah hit the newsstands (Nov. 28), my editor asked me to do a piece on him. She had read, in my Oct. 10 piece, that Occupy was "masterminded by Micah M. White, senior editor at Adbusters, Vancouver, B.C., an anti-consumerist magazine, founded in 1989," and a one-year resident of Berkeley. 

Talk about "How Berkeley can you be?" How Berkeley is it to start an international political movement--from Berkeley? 

What a story! 

But there is likely to be no story about Micah here, because, you see…Micah despises me! 

Here's why. At an OB general assembly in October, I approached his wife, a Cal faculty member, to write a story about her and her famous husband. 

To write such a piece I would have to correctly note her faculty rank (her rank is not given on her department website), while pursuing the local angle--what brought you and Micah here; your views on Berkeley, etc.? I used this excuse to approach her. 

I tried to take their pictures, separately, throughout the general assembly, which became a Paparazzi game of cat-and-mouse in which I felt more like a rat. 

Here's the short conversation I had with Micah's wife on night three of OB: 

Sidling up to her on a bench in Bank of America Civic Plaza, I identified myself, and asked her faculty title for the article I wanted to write. 

Her reaction threw me off. There was something unnerving in her look of scorn, derision, and extreme distaste when she said, "Why would you want to do that? {write about me]. I definitely had my mouth in my foot , when I snapped, "You ought to know the angle, you're a rhetorician." 

Wrong answer. 

Right answer (not delivered): "My editor says our readers would be interested." 

Micah was elsewhere, but he was soon in my face, demanding I apologize to his wife. He had barely finished the demand, when I said, curtly, "I apologize". To this he responded by moving back from me, as if to suggest I was in his space. "Stay away from me," he called as he left. 

I joked to allies at OB that two can play that game. "I'll get a bullhorn and interview Micah from across the street," I boasted. How far away is that? 

Micah was not through with me. 

He returned the following evening, denouncing me in the general assembly. " your reports are harmful to the movement and an insult to everyone here," he charged. 

Dear readers, have I ever insulted anyone? It's my style. 

He wasn't finished with me yet, though. He caught up to me on the fringe of the general assembly the next night, asking me whether I knew the difference between news and editorials, questioning my credentials (B.S. in Journalism, University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana, 1961), and asking, "how long have you been doing this? 

"Your work is crap, complete crap; of all the pieces on Occupy I've read, yours are the absolute worst." He repeated the crap routine, shaking his head in disgust. 

I later joked that being worst was better than not being noticed, but I was hurt. 

In fact, my initial piece on OB, (Planet Oct. 10), in which I trace its origins back to People's Park and Mike Delacour (local angle) was overly complicated, if not muddled. 

Worse, the piece never examined Micah's role--considerable--in the first OB protest. 

I was too busy with the local angle (Delacour) to notice Micah, whom I didn't even know at the time. I had to be tipped off by a friend who was tipped off by a friend. 

Maybe all my stuff was crap, whatever that is. 

Micah's profile in the New Yorker says that he hangs at Doe Library on campus, where, devoid of electronic devices, he "digs out snippets of radical thought ," for his Adbusters pieces. 

I went to Doe Library looking for Micah Wednesday (not there), and will be stalking him there again. This time, I'll show him the respect he deserves. Remember, he's Ben Franklin, an innovator, and I, a lowly mouse. 

I can't wait to write one of my crappy stories about him. 

Ted Friedman writes his crappy stories from the anything-but crappy South Side. Funky, maybe, but not crappy. Micah lives on the elegant North Side.

Press Release: Telegraph and Haste Open to Traffic

From Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, City of Berkeley Public Information Officer
Wednesday December 07, 2011 - 12:39:00 PM

Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street in Berkeley were both opened to vehicle and pedestrian traffic today, less than three weeks after a raging fire forced the demolition of a 39-unit apartment building at the intersection. 

Pedestrians can now use the sidewalks on the east and south sides of the Telegraph-Haste intersection to travel throughout the Telegraph business area. Vehicles can also return to normal northbound travel on Telegraph and westbound travel on Haste. 

The sidewalk and traffic lane immediately adjacent to the former mixed-use building will remain closed while debris is removed and the Telegraph-facing storefront is stabilized (the revised traffic plan is here). 

“We know that the fire and the closure of this intersection came at terrible time for Telegraph merchants,” said Economic Development Director Michael Caplan. “City staff and the property owner worked quickly and cooperatively to make the building safe and re-open the intersection. We encourage everyone to include Telegraph Avenue’s many unique stores in their holiday shopping plans.” 

The Telegraph Holiday Street Fair is also still scheduled for December 16, 17, 18, 22, and 24 from 11 am to 6 p.m. More than 200 artisans come every year to sell their handcrafted items on the Avenue. Shoppers are urged to use the Telegraph/Channing Garage, which has easy access from Channing Way and Durant Avenue. 

Fortunately, no one was reported injured in the fire, which occurred on Friday, November 18. More information about the fire and traffic is available on www.cityofberkeley.info.

Contractor Error Completes Destruction of Most of Berkeley Building

By Dave Blake
Tuesday December 06, 2011 - 04:18:00 PM

Last Saturday the wrecking crew employed by Kenneth and Gregory Ent, owners of the Sequoia Apartments, began demolishing what remained of the mixed-use apartment building at the northwest corner of Haste and Telegraph,which was the subject of a fire on November 18 of still undetermined origin that left the building uninhabitable, and also necessitated the evacuation of the apartment building directly west on Haste. 

The crew left the first floor and clerestory windows on the Telegraph frontage intact, as their permit required, but when they began knocking down the entire Haste frontage, in violation of the permit condition requiring them to leave the entire first-floor façade intact, ex-building tenants monitoring the demolition phoned the city. Several city employees arrived rapidly and halted the demolition, but too late to save all but the easternmost 10 feet of the southern façade. 

When Berkeley Fire Marshal Bill Finch asked why they were exceeding their permit, the foreman said they had done it because they were confused. The fire marshal later in the day ruled it an accidental demolition. The city then changed the permit to make it appear that the excess demolition was actually originally permitted. 

Thus when I arrived at 4 pm on Saturday and asked the foreman, (first name Alfredo) why he had exceeded his permit, he wasn't technically misleading me when he told me that they had obtained a permit modification and were in full compliance. Maintaining the Haste frontage would have been much more problematic for the owner, because, unlike the stone Telegraph façade, it was composed of un-reinforced brick and would have needed careful buttressing.  

Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who represents the area, told the Planet that every day the street and sidewalk are blocked, the small businesses on Telegraph continue to suffer dramatically. He speculated that if the demolition crew had approached the site from the right direction, pedestrians would have less to fear. He said that Amoeba record store owner Marc Weinstein had suggested a metal canopy which would have shielded the sidewalk, but neither the city nor the building owner agreed to pay for that solution, 

The city has a long history of illegal excessive demolitions. The only one to my memory that has resulted in any penalty was on the lot holding what is now Futura, further up Telegraph at the southwest corner of Durant, which the owner tore down one Saturday 20 years ago (the city generally has poor response on weekends) without any permit, rather than continue fighting with the city over its preservation value, judging that the inevitable fine would be a reasonable price to pay to get his project underway. 

Dave Blake was for 13 years a Berkeley Zoning Adjustment Board member, appointed by three successive councilmembers. He is now VIce-Chair of the Rent Board and serves on the Design Review Committee and the Civic Arts Commission.

Occupy Berkeley Survives—For Now!(News Analysis)

By Ted Friedman
Tuesday December 06, 2011 - 12:31:00 PM
A portion of the burgeoning encampment at the "other" Occupy Berkeley, Monday at MLK Civic Center Park.
Ted Friedman
A portion of the burgeoning encampment at the "other" Occupy Berkeley, Monday at MLK Civic Center Park.
Occupy Berkeley's kitchen in better days and before it was purloined by the adjoining encampment.
Ted Friedman
Occupy Berkeley's kitchen in better days and before it was purloined by the adjoining encampment.
Man with bike, left, who "vilified" the facilitator at general assembly Monday night in MLK Civic Center Park, being asked to leave by camp security.
Ted Friedman
Man with bike, left, who "vilified" the facilitator at general assembly Monday night in MLK Civic Center Park, being asked to leave by camp security.

It is often confused with Occupy Cal, especially on-line, has launched no major actions, and has not distinguished itself from thousands of similar-sized Occupies—but it has something that other Occupies, (including O.C.) might envy—it has survived. 

Occupy Cal is on vacation, and a New York Times on-line header calls Occupy Cal, Occupy Berkeley. O.B. is a good half mile from Cal. 

But, hey, O.B. made Glen Beck's radio show Dec. 2. The controversial conservative talk-show host and TV personality for Fox News was "irritated" when he heard an interview with a camper at O.B., who was discussing alleged sexual offenses within the camp. 

It is now no secret that the burgeoning encampment is troubled. So much of the general assembly's time is spent with inter-camp squabbles that it can do little else. 

Still, O.B. has managed to hold a folk concert (David Rovics, Nov. 19, reviewed on SFGate) and stage a knit-in the following week that was publicized on KQED F.M. 

O.B. made nice with the Berkeley Farmers' Market 20th Annual Holiday Crafts Fair (an Ecology Center benefit), Saturday, and will be cooperating with them on future weekends, as they share the park, according to the key-person coordinating for O.B.. 

O.B. still enjoys the all-but sponsorship of the city of Berkeley. Last week, according to Larry Silver, a long time Berkeley activist, fire officials asked tent-dwellers to move their tents away from over-hanging limbs during the weekend's fierce winds. According to Silver, a two month O.B. camp veteran—campers mostly co-operated, and the firemen left without incident. 

Through thick and thin (and there has been lots of thin) O.B. has showed its scruffy ability to survive. However, O.B. is always a few steps from self-destruction, according to O.B.'s own print newspaper, the Occupy Berkeley Herald, which notes, "Over the last few days there has been a large influx of Oakland Folks into the camp. There has also been an increase in alcohol use and fights." 

When I visited the camp Monday afternoon, I was surprised at the size of the encampment, which has grown from 25 to 50 tents and dominates the grounds of Civic Center Park, a goodly chunk of the park's 2.77 acres. 

I talked to two groups of eight in the park on a cold, but clear and sunny afternoon Monday. One group was self-proclaimed high-school dropouts which said, resentfully, it was their park before the tent city moved in. 

The other group was campers gathered in an outdoor kitchen composed of a stove and pots of cooked food. A cooked chicken-in-a-pot looked good, and the campers were willing enough to share, although they were not happy with the kitchen wars between O.B.'s kitchen and theirs. 

Later, I was told by several O.B.ers that their kitchen was "stolen" by the other camp. 

There are, according to Silver, no more than five overnight O.B. campers holding down the O.B. camp, vastly out-numbered by a huge tent-city. The two camps are split, and the new, beefed-up camp, while sympathetic with O.B. in principle, has its own agenda. 

At the general assembly, Monday evening, the history of the kitchen squabbles was aired in elaborate detail. The kitchen wasn't exactly "stolen," but rather, claimed, after O.B.ers, tired of being "bullied" by often-unruly adjoining campers—abandoned their kitchen. 

According to the bigger camp, when O.B. walked away from the kitchen, it was theirs for the taking, and they moved the O.B. kitchen into their camp. 

Later, a representative of the kitchen-rich camp spoke at GA, inviting O.B. to use its "stolen" kitchen under the auspices of the larger encampment. O.B. has been swallowed whole by the visiting encampment, but at least has a dinner invite. 

It is now no longer a matter of O.B. feeding the camp, as O.B. had hoped, but the camp feeding O.B.. 

Silvers says the kitchen, which he once helmed, was a "Dadaist work. Each day, we would build up the kitchen, but by the end of the day it would be destroyed [by the other camp]. The next day, we'd start all over again. They just wore us down, but it was really an art piece." 

Yet another fallout from the other camp is oppositional campers, who disrupt the GA, often, with invective and insults. Veteran facilitator, Miles Murray, a high school English teacher, who was in the process of defining, "persona non grata," was vilified by just such a non-grata person. 

Murray later explained that disruptions stem from a decision among facilitators to open the meetings to unrestricted discussion, a shift away from the goal oriented, proposal process, after some members of the GA had complained about restrictions. 

According to Murray, the ranks of facilitators are thinning, with many facilitators, suffering from what he called "burnout." 

Murray invited members of the GA to lead a GA. 

Drayco, who was allegedly "stabbed" in a tree in People's Park in January, when he confronted "Midnight" Matt Dodt in his tree during an ill-fated tree sit, blared threats from the edge of the GA. "I'm gonna rebar [a steel bar] the other camp tonight and take back your kitchen," he roared. 

Drayco, a full time avenger and self-styled fixer, apparently was fixing People's Park in January when he confronted the tree-sitter, whom Drayco reportedly believed was responsible for an increase in citations in People's Park. 

But, unappreciated, he has been repeatedly asked to leave GAs and to leave the camp as well, and he was reportedly denounced recently on IndyBay website, an activist bulletin board and radical news source. 

Drayco ended the People's Park protest, trying to reduce police presence. He could end this one by bringing police to the camp to stem mayhem. 


Southside reporter, Ted Friedman, made a point of using his kitchen Monday night, and he made sure he was alone. As his story shows, too many chefs spoil the kitchen.

Berkeley Councilman Says Growing Encampment is Creating More Issues

By Jeff Shuttleworth (BCN)
Tuesday December 06, 2011 - 11:29:00 PM

The Occupy Wall Street encampment in downtown Berkeley is creating more issues now that it is growing in size but there still aren't any serious problems there, Berkeley City Councilman Jesse Arreguin said today.

The encampment in Civic Center Park, which began in early October, along with similar encampments around the country, initially had only 30 to 40 tents but now has reached about 100 tents. 

Arreguin, whose district includes the encampment and who can see it from his office in City Hall, said it has grown since authorities closed down the Occupy Oakland encampment last month and may grow some more if authorities in San Francisco disband the encampment in their city. 

Arreguin said there are concerns about sanitation and crime and city officials "will have to have a conversation" about what to do if the encampment continues to grow. 

However, he said "there's no sense of urgency for us to go in there and kick people out." 

Arreguin said if the encampment becomes too big for the park he would prefer to ask people to leave voluntarily rather than have police use force to get people to go. 

Referring to what he said was an excessive use of force by police officers at the Occupy Oakland encampment, Arreguin said, "We don't want an Oakland-type response" and said he was "outraged" by tactics used by police in Oakland and at the Occupy Cal encampment at the University of California at Berkeley. 

Arreguin said he supports the goals of the Occupy Wall Street protesters but wonders about the effectiveness of camping in a park as a political statement and if another strategy would be better, although he's not sure what that would be. 

Perhaps there should be "a focus on other ways of trying to advocate these important issues," which include corporate greed and the redistribution of wealth, he said. 

Principal Pasquale Scuderi of Berkeley High School, which is across the street from the encampment, is also concerned about its growing size. In a recent letter to parents, Scuderi said the situation at the encampment "has complicated our supervision of students in the park during the lunch hour and after school." 

He said, "Keeping an eye on our students is a bit more challenging in the park at present with administrators and safety staff having to visually identify students amongst increased numbers of adults, young adults, college students, teenaged non-students and almost 90 tents." 

Scuderi said, "As always, we will have two administrators monitoring the park during the lunch hour and we continue to offer plenty of supervised space on the campus for students to eat lunch." 

Scuderi told parents that the school hasn't had any negative interactions with campers so far and he doesn't want to cause "unnecessary anxiety" but he wants to inform them about "some logistical and supervisory concerns." 

Berkeley police spokeswoman Sgt. Mary Kusmiss said there has been "a slight increase" in reported crimes in the park in the past week. Police believe that some crimes aren't reported by Occupy Berkeley campers and victims of several recent batteries have refused to cooperate with authorities, she said. 

Kusmiss said one person at the park who was a suspect in a battery incident was detained on Sunday after a brief foot chase and is being held for allegedly violating his probation and resisting arrest. 

City of Berkeley spokeswoman Mary Kay Clunies-Ross said the city has accommodated the Occupy Berkeley protesters by adding some garbage cans to help with the increased waste at the park and by cleaning the portable toilets, which already were there, more often. 

Arreguin said, "We're monitoring and managing the situation as best as we can." 




What's in Berkeley's Future--and Does Anyone Care?

By Becky O'Malley
Friday December 09, 2011 - 03:54:00 PM

Whither local government? In view of recent more-than-dire predictions about the burden of unfunded liabilities faced by cities like Berkeley, it’s a hard question to address, let alone answer. 

I dutifully attempted to watch the Berkeley City Council meeting on Tuesday. Not only that, I emailed a respectable list of people who sometimes go, sometimes watch online or on cable, and asked them to tell me if, in their opinion, anything happened that the Planet should bring to the attention of the public. 

There wasn’t much response… the only person who provided more than one item of interest was the reliable Jacquelyn McCormick, founder and mainstay of berkeleycouncilwatch.com, a valiant attempt to communicate to Berkeley citizens on a regular basis what the city council is up to. She goes to the council meetings almost every week—and sometimes she and the ever-faithful Merrilie Mitchell are the only representatives of the public in attendance. Sometimes she speaks in public comment time 

Jacquelyn mentioned four topics which sparked a bit of discussion: the dire state of Berkeley’s financial future, specifically regarding pension liabilities, which was the subject of a detailed workshop presentation by the city’s actuary, the conclusion of the city’s contract negotiations with Waste Management regarding disposal of construction and demolition materials, a city-sponsored grant proposal for studying a possible Center Street/Strawberry Creek public space development and a move to postpone action on redrawing council districts so that some students could have a better shot at getting control of a district near the UC Berkeley Campus. 

So I watched all four of these once again, looking for excerptable gems to give Planet readers a feel for the action—but really…not much there. The only bit which seemed worth highlighting for posterity was one student’s earnest plea that the council postpone the public hearing on redistricting, now scheduled for January 17, because it would be the first day of the new school term on the U.C. Berkeley campus and it might be hard for students to show up while they were busy getting settled. 

Come on, guys! That sounds entirely too much like “the dog ate my homework”. If students are sincere in their desire to be full-fledged participants in the city’s public process, they’re going to have do what everyone else does, and fit their public service in with their regular day job. 

Except, of course, that regular people with full time day jobs are rarer and rarer in city circles, now dominated mostly by retirees. A curious apathy seems to have settled over the body politic, where once vigorous and acrimonious dispute were the order of the day. Berkeley’s so-called (dread epithet) progressives, except for councilmembers Worthington and Arreguin, have morphed into complacent burghers. 

Several of the weary citizens who once devoted the better part of entire forty hour workweeks, on top of their real world responsibilities, to Plans both General and Downtown have been replaced on the Planning Commission by shills for the construction industry. Even those commissioners are losing interest, because there’s not much money for building around, even if they are able to shape plans and zoning to their clients’ specifications. 

Realistically, there’s not going to be much money around to do anything for a long time. The council finally did approve applying for a planning grant for the much discussed downtown improvements, but three councilmembers who don’t always agree on everything (Maio, Wengraf, Anderson) voiced doubts that the project would ever materialize because of the parlous state of city finances. One of my correspondents, a reliable progressive on most topics, shared their apprehension. 

Increasingly, no one in Berkeley seems to know what’s going on in their home town, and worse, it doesn’t seem to worry them. At holiday gatherings, I’ve been encountering numerous well-meaning people who are eager to tell me that they really miss the print Planet, but can’t seem to get around to reading it—or any other publication—online. 

Well, I ask them, maybe you could read Berkeleyside…or Berkeley Patch..or the occasional Berkeley stories from the Media News chain online? Nope—in fact most haven’t even heard of any of those. 

And print? Many proudly say they’ve long since cancelled their print Chronicle subscriptions, and they certainly don’t read the East Bay Express. 

These are intelligent educated people who do read the New York Times, who are very worried about the national and international economic crash, who care about Israel/Palestine, about climate change and a host of other Big Picture issues. Some can even be found weighing in on national blogs and op-ed pages on these topics. But they are oblivious to local manifestations of the same problems. They have no idea what’s going on in Berkeley, and frankly they don’t care. 

People living in the Berkeley hills who write whole books, internationally distributed, on locally sourced food don’t seem to notice or care that much of flatland Berkeley is being covered with big buildings which cast long shadows over most of the sunny potential garden space. People who worry in national media about climate change and corporate personhood seem blissfully unaware that the UC/BP alliance threatens to swallow West Berkeley. Pious environmentalists who never fail to renew their Sierra Club memberships don’t know that their state representatives have recently voted for bills which gut CEQA. 

The old saying is that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. (Or you might prefer the risqué version we giggled at in high school: You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think.) 

We do wonder if anyone’s listening, or thinking. We have close to 1000 subscribers who get emails weekly with hot links to important stories, and we get new ones all the time. We have maybe 25,000 page views a week. 

Who are these people, and why do they visit the Berkeley Daily Planet site? Many seem to be former residents who now live elsewhere, but wonder what’s going on in Berkeley. Some are fans of our capable national and international commentators. Who are the local readers, and why? 

Supported by a small coterie of generous unpaid volunteer writers, the two of us here have been struggling for a couple of years to keep the Berkeley public at least semi-informed about what’s happening in our city. It’s a fair amount of work, a kind of stone soup: We supply the stone, and our writers bring the rest of the ingredients. 

It’s miraculous that anyone would do as much as they’ve done for so long with no pay. Some, understandably, have gotten tired of working for free (or just gotten tired) and dropped out, but others have stuck it out. 

We continually wonder if local citizens have simply given up caring—if they believe it’s increasingly unlikely that anything we citizens do can make a difference in what happens to Berkeley. 

Case in point: a new planning director will soon be chosen for Berkeley—applications close December 16. It should be an important hire. Will we get a fresh well-qualified person with new ideas? More likely, we’ll have yet another re-tread, a promotion from within, the kind of placeholder appointments we’ve gotten with recent city managers and city attorneys, and nothing will change for the better. Worst case, we might even get a revolving door appointment who’s spent some time in the development industry. 

But very likely whatever happens will not be noticed by the average Berkeleyan, whether or not the Planet or anyone else reports it. When a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound if no one’s there to hear it? 

As always, it would be interesting to hear what our readers, whoever they are, have to say about the public’s desire to know what’s going on in Berkeley. Your signed opinions are solicited, long or short: Send them to opinion@berkeleydailyplanet.com

And of course if you’re well informed and a good writer who would like to volunteer to add your ingredients to the soup, please let me know: news@berkeleydailyplanet.com. We could use your help. 





The Editor's Back Fence

A Pair of Tantalizing Tales

Tuesday December 06, 2011 - 05:36:00 PM

Richard Brenneman's blog this week spotlights a remarkable report: that the UC Police Department trained with the Alameda County Sheriff's Department on campus to shut down Occupy camps, and "even more astounding: The exercise was part of a national training exercise that included elements of Israeli border police." 

And he has another startling story about the strange ex-general Steven Chu, now Energy Secretary, brought to Berkeley a couple of years ago, along with some Wikileaks cables he found about the general.


Odd Bodkins: Newt

By Dan O'Neill
Friday December 09, 2011 - 05:03:00 PM


Dan O'Neill


Public Comment

December Pepper Spray Times

By Grace Underpressure
Friday December 09, 2011 - 04:57:00 PM

Editor's Note: The latest issue of the Pepper Spray Times is now available. 

You can view it absolutely free of charge by clicking here . You can print it out to give to your friends. 

Grace Underpressure has been producing it for many years now, even before the Berkeley Daily Planet started distributing it, most of the time without being paid, and now we'd like you to show your appreciation by using the button below to send her money.  

This is a Very Good Deal. Go for it! 

Tax Breaks for Millionaires in Berkeley at City Council Tonight

By Paul M. Schwartz
Tuesday December 06, 2011 - 09:04:00 AM

Are you fed up with Millionaires not paying their fair share of federal taxes and not paying their fair share of state taxes? If so, would you be interested in knowing the City of Berkeley has an item on their agenda to provide city tax breaks for local well heeled people? 

My name is Paul Schwartz. I am a resident and taxpayer in the City of Berkeley. I am also an attorney with my practice in the City of Berkeley. I was appointed in March of this year to the Landmark Preservation Commission. I was quite surprised to discover there is a mechanism that gives very large property tax breaks to owners of landmarked properties for maintenance and upkeep. Most if not all of these property owners do not need these tax breaks to maintain their properties. I find this particularly galling when the City is suffering from a significant deficit and is in need of all the revenue it receives from property taxes. 

I am one of 9 commissioners on the Landmark Preservation Commission in Berkeley, California. I was appointed to the commission by my councilperson Susan Wengraf. I want to be clear I am not speaking for the Landmark Preservation Commission nor for my councilperson. This is solely my opinion. 

At the September and October meeting of our commission (we meet monthly), we were presented with four Mills Act applications. According to our chair we do not vote to approve or disapprove Mills Act applications, we merely vote whether the properties are eligible for consideration by the City Council and to forward the applications to the City Council. Mills Act contracts give tax breaks to property owners who own landmarked buildings.  

To date there are 300 landmarked properties in the City of Berkeley and 23 of these properties have been Mills acted. I calculate the revenue loss to the city from already enacted Mills Act contracts to be approximately $6,000 per year per property for a total yearly revenue loss of $138,000 

There are currently four applications pending before the City of Berkeley,(see item 17 on the consent calendar of the agenda for the Dec. 6, 2011 meeting) which would result in significant additional tax loss to the City of Berkeley, the School District, the special districts and the County of Alameda, of close to an additional $120,000 per year. The following is the link to the Dec. 6, 2011 City of Berkeley council meeting. http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/ContentDisplay.aspx?id=63006 . 

The analysis of the planning department recommending approval of these Mills Act contracts (see the above link) is flawed in at least two ways. One, it states our commission unanimously approved these applications. This is not accurate. We voted to forward them to the City Council. We were told we are required to vote to forward them to the city council and it is up to the city council to approve or disapprove the applications. Two, the amount of tax loss is grossly understated. It fails to properly calculate the amount of tax reduction for each property and it fails to include the tax loss to the school district, the special districts and the county. All these entities suffer from property tax reductions. 

The Mills act is a California statute passed by the legislature in the 1970s. It gives cities discretion whether or not to grant property tax breaks to owners of landmarked properties. The idea behind the act was to help property owners maintain their historic or "landmarked" properties by giving them property tax breaks. The property owners are required to use their tax savings for the upkeep of their properties. The tax breaks per property are significant, amounting to between a 70% to 80% reduction in the property tax bill. 

Who loses revenue when a city approves a Mills Act contract? Property tax bill revenue is disbursed as follow: 33% of your property taxes go to the City of Berkeley. 43% of your property taxes go to the School Dstrict. The remaining 24% is divided between "special districts" (e.g. mosquito abatement) and the County of Alameda (for their countywide services). 

The four properties on the City Council agenda are as follows: 

The First of the applications is for a property on Roble Road. The property was purchased for $2.3 million dollars, and is currently undergoing remodeling and improvements totaling close to $2 million dollars. With its purchase price, remodeling cost (which will be added to the assessment) and its square footage, Mills Acting this property will represent a significant tax loss to the residents of Berkeley and Alameda County. 

A very interesting property, it was recently landmarked. I was pleased the property was recently purchased and is being improved, as I believed it would bring in close to $80,000 a year in property taxes, an amount the city of Berkeley sorely needs for its budget. If the property is successfully Mills acted (a new verb), it would bring in significantly less, I estimate between $15,000 to $20,000 per year, a loss of $60,000-$65,000 per year. I know there is no means test for a property to be eligible for a Mills Act property tax reduction, but I think there should be a means test. I am strongly opposed to any, let alone, significant tax breaks for wealthy individuals, especially when most cities are having trouble raising revenue and facing deficits. Owners of upscale homes are able to maintain them without significant tax reduction incentives.  

The second property is located on Benvenue Avenue. This is a beautiful large home. I estimate it to be worth between $2-4mil. Sorry, I can't be more accurate. I am not a realtor. It has been owned for a long period of time and consequently due to prop 13 has taxes well below its current value. Mills acting this property will likely result in a tax loss of between $6-8,000 per year. The tax loss to the City would not be as significant with this home because it is assessed under proposition 13 and already pays relatively low taxes in relation to its value. There are two problems with Mills acting this property. One is the yearly revenue loss, and two is the Mills Act runs with the property, meaning it will continue on to the next owner. If and when it has a new owner, the city will not be the beneficiary of significant property tax increase revenue. A Mills Act contract is for 10 years and automatically renews each year. It stays with the property and can go on in perpetuity.  

The third property was recently purchased. It is on Arch Street and according to the County records was purchased for $2,150,000. Its property tax bill should be a welcome addition to city, school district and county needs, unless it is given a Mills Act contract by the City of Berkeley. I believe the total property tax loss could be close to $40,000 per year on this property alone. 

The fourth property, on San Antonio Road was the carriage house for the Spring Mansion. I don't know what it recently sold for, I estimate approximately $700,000. It is currently assessed as a school and according to the county tax records has not yet been reassessed. If it is Mills acted by the City of Berkeley, it will represent yet another drain on our revenue. 

Since the Mills Act is a 10 year contract, which renews each year in an ongoing manner, the tax losses to the City are significant. The above four properties could represent a loss to the City of Berkeley of approximately $1,000,000 (without interest) over a ten year period. 

I have been informed that the City of Los Angeles has worried about the loss of revenue and has capped the # of properties it is willing to Mills Act. I have also been told the City of Beverly Hills was thinking of limiting their Mills Act properties to those worth more than $10,000,000. It makes you want to laugh. 

I am in favor of the Mills Act, but I think it should not be used by any city unless that city is running a significant surplus. Why the taxpayers of a city should subsidize anybody, let alone wealthy residents of the city for repairs and maintenance to their properties is beyond me.  

If a city enters into a Mills Act contract with a property owner, I strongly believe the city should have a clause in the Mills Act contract that either party may withdraw from the contract upon one years notice terminating the contract and any tax breaks at that time. That way a city would not be locked into a 10 year decrease in property tax revenues. 

If a city wants a property maintained and the property owners cannot afford to maintain the property, I believe the city should receive a lien on the property in the amount of any tax savings received by the property owner. That way, when the owner dies or transfers the property, the city would receive its delayed property taxes. This would allow individuals who have insufficient income to maintain landmarked property the opportunity to maintain the property by in essence receiving a city loan, not a city tax break. . 

The city should have a Mills Act unit within its planning department, a unit that in conjunction with their city attorney has the ability to monitor Mills Act compliance and the ability to enforce compliance. I don't believe the city of Berkeley has such a unit in place and it clearly presents a problem. 

Do the property owners comply and use their property tax savings for the upkeep of their homes? We do not know. We have no enforcement mechanism in force through either the Panning Department and or the City Attorney's office to follow through and monitor these properties. We basically rely on these property owners to honor their commitments under their Mills Act contracts. Compliance needs to be effectively monitored. 

Drafting of the Mills Act contract with the property owner must be carefully done in a detailed and careful manner clearly outlining all obligations of the parties, penalties and enforcement mechanisms. A well drafted contract will protect both parties and more likely prevent litigation in the future which would be an additional expense to the city. I believe under the Mills Act, cities can draft the contracts to fit their needs.  

To sum up, I believe the City of Berkeley should put in place a moratorium. It should not Mills Act any more properties until the City budget is no longer in deficit territory. It should invite these Mills Act applicants to reapply when our City budget is running a healthy surplus. We can ill afford to give upscale property owners property tax breaks. 

The City of Berkeley has a strong Landmark Preservation Ordinance. That alone should provide the necessary protection to maintain historic properties. Owners of historic properties should maintain them at their own expense as a public service and not receive subsidies from their fellow taxpayers.

Demolition Ordinance Before Berkeley City Council Neglects Tenants

By Igor Tregub, Berkeley Rent Board Commissioner
Tuesday December 06, 2011 - 08:18:00 AM

This evening, the Berkeley City Council will be considering a framework for revisions to the ordinances governing the demolition and elimination of housing units. I believe that the language in the framework is a huge improvement over previous language that has been shared with me, as it includes provisions for tenant protections.

However, there are two gaping problems with it:

1) Although tenants of the demolished building have the right of first refusal to return to new construction that replaces it, there are almost no provisions that these new units will be at anything other than market rate. Thus, a situation similar to Park Merced in San Francisco could arise, in which low-income tenants are would be unable to move back into the new units. 

2) There is a provision that demolition would not be allowed if there have been verified cases of tenant harassment or illegal evictions in the prior 12 months. This appears to be too short of a timeline, and the Berkeley Condominium Conversion Ordinance has one that is considerably longer. 

You can take action in two ways: 

1) Submit an email encouraging the Mayor and City Council to strengthen tenant protections in the Demolition Ordinance by 4pm today: 

2) Attend tonight's City Council in person at 2134 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. This is Item 40 on the agenda, and is expected to be heard after 8:30pm. 



Eclectic Rant: Abolish the Death Penalty, Replace With Life Without Parole

By Ralph E. Stone
Friday December 09, 2011 - 04:34:00 PM

The death penalty should be abolished in the United States because life without parole is more humane, less discriminatory, and a less costly alternative – and it avoids the risk of executing an innocent person. 

Thirty-four states impose the death penalty, including California and there are 41 Federal capital crimes for which the death penalty can be applied. Each state has its own list of capital crimes. For example, in 1977 California reinstated the death penalty for first degree murder under special circumstances, including murder for financial gain, murder by a person previously convicted of murder, murder of multiple victims, murder with torture, murder of a peace officer, and murder of a witness to prevent testimony. 

From 1976 through November 18, 2011, there have been 1,277 state executions in the United States with Texas leading with 477 and California with 13. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1988, 58 federal defendants have been executed. As of January 1, 2011, 3,251 prisoners are on death row awaiting execution. 

The death penalty is widely used because, supposedly, it acts as a deterrent. As this argument goes, people will think twice about committing a capital crime which may result in the death penalty. Yet, the murder rate in the sixteen non-death penalty states is consistently lower than death penalty states, and the gap has widened since 1990. During the 17th century, when the public hanging of pickpockets drew crowds to English cities, pockets in the crowd were being picked as the trap door was being sprung. So much for the death penalty being a deterrent! 

Imposing the death penalty is much more expensive than imposing a sentence of life without parole. Why? Because the Constitution requires a long and complex judicial process for death penalty cases. This process is needed to ensure that innocent men and woman are not executed for crimes they did not commit. Even with these protections, the risk of executing an innocent person cannot be completely eliminated. 

According to a number of surveys, it is less expensive to imprison killers for life than to execute them. For example, California has spent $4 billion since 1978 to execute 13 people, or about $308 million for each death penalty case. And a study by Judge Arthur L. Alarcón and Paula M. Mitchell

Race also plays a significant role in the disproportionate application of the death penalty and for this reason it is considered discriminatory. For example, since 1976, while African Americans comprise just 12.1 percent of the US population, 35 percent of all death penalty sentences were handed down to African Americans . By comparison, 56 percent of death penalty defendants since 1976 were White, 7 percent Latino. 

There is no way of knowing how many of the over 1,300 people executed since 1976 may have been innocent. Once the defendant is dead, there is little incentive for defense attorneys and others to continue the case. The Death Penalty Information Center has published a list of 8 inmates “executed but possibly innocent.” At least 39 U.S. executions are claimed to have been carried out despite evidence of innocence or serious doubts about guilt. 


The death penalty then is no more effective in deterring crime than a sentence of life without parole. The death penalty is discriminatory and the risk of executing an innocent person can never be eliminated. Moreover, the lengthy appeals deprive victims’ families of closure and costs the states millions of dollars that could be better spent elsewhere. 

Anti-death penalty advocates plan to begin a state-wide campaign to qualify the “Savings, Accountability and Full Enforcement for California Act”, or SAFE Californiafor the 2012 general election. If passed, the SAFE California Act would replace the death penalty with life without parole; require work and restitution into the Victim Compensation Fund; and increase public safety by directing $100 million saved from death penalty costs into a fund to solve unsolved murders and rapes. And the initiative just may pass. In September, the Public Policy Institute of California published a poll showing that 54 percent of Californians prefer life imprisonment without parole, while only 39 percent favored the death penalty. 

It is time to abolish the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole. If SAFE California passes, then California may set the standard for the remaining states that still impose the death penalty.

THE PUBLIC EYE: Elizabeth Warren: Voice of the 99 Percent

By Bob Burnett
Friday December 09, 2011 - 02:56:00 PM

Wednesday evening, December 7th, senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren met with Bay Area progressives. Some of us recalled a comparable meeting four years earlier with presidential candidate Barack Obama. At the time Obama was a rising star; now Warren is the rising star. While the two have similarities, there is one crucial difference. 

Warren and Obama share the narrative of the triumphant individual, who starts from humble surroundings and works their way to a position of honor and acclaim. Raised by a single mother and her parents, Obama graduated from Harvard Law School and had a successful career as a community activist, lawyer, writer, and US Senator. Warren was raised by parents of limited means. Originally trained as a speech pathologist, she worked as a teacher and eventually got a law degree from Rutgers. After a stint as a single mom, Warren remarried, and secured a teaching position at Harvard Law School, where she is now a tenured professor. In 2008 she gained national recognition by heading the congressional oversight panel studying the use of the $70 billion TARP bailout fund. 

Warren and Obama value the benevolent community, emphasize the importance of working with our neighbors for the common good. Obama’s 2004 Democratic convention speech established his populist credentials: “It is that fundamental belief: I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family." In September, Warren electrified progressives in a candid video shot at a campaign appearance: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own -- nobody… you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” 

Obama’s December 5th address in Osawatomie, Kansas, contained lines such as: “I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules.” On December 7th, Warren echoed the same themes, stating “the economy is broken,” the middle class is being “hammered,” and confiding that the United State is running out of time unless “core changes” are made. 

While Obama and Warren seem to be singing out of the same populist hymnal, there’s a significant stylistic difference between them. Obama is cool and cerebral. Warren is feisty and down-to-earth. Obama was a civil rights attorney and lecturer in constitutional law. Warren became an expert in bankruptcy law and the economic pressures jeopardizing the middle class. Both Obama and Warren are very smart, but Warren understands what the US economy means to the 99 percent; Obama has to have Tim Geithner explain it to him. 

Writing in the NEW YORK TIMES, Rebecca Traister observed, “Embracing Warren as the next “one” is, in part, a way of getting over Obama; she provides an optimistic distraction from the fact that under our current president, too little has changed, for reasons having to do both with the limitations of the political system and the limitations of the man.” This is too glib; it’s an injustice to Obama and Warren. 

Obama first came to the attention of progressives because of his opposition to the war in Iraq. He was an alternative to Hillary Clinton, who seemed to be the inevitable Democratic presidential candidate. Obama never claimed to have different economic policies than Clinton – in a 2008 San Francisco appearance he joked that he and Hillary had the same cadre of economic advisers. Then Wall Street melted down and America entered a prolonged jobless recession. 

As described in VANITY FAIR by Suzanna Andrews, in 1979 Warren had an epiphany. “Warren decided to investigate the reasons why Americans were ending up in bankruptcy court. ‘I set out to prove they were all a bunch of cheaters.’… What she found, after conducting with two colleagues one of the most rigorous bankruptcy studies ever, shook her deeply. The vast majority of those in bankruptcy courts, she discovered, were from hardworking middle-class families, people who lost jobs or had ‘family breakups’ or illnesses that wiped out their savings.” As a consequence of her work, Warren is uniquely prepared to deal with the US economy. 

And she carries the passion of the newly converted. She didn’t get to be head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because she’d pissed off Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. On December 7th, one of Warren’s admirers praised her willingness to “call bullshit, bullshit.” She’s determined to tell the truth no matter the consequences. 

In the run up to the 2012 elections, Barack Obama will define himself as the champion of the middle class – as compared to the Republican candidate. But the real populist, the one who gives voice to the 99 percent, will be Elizabeth Warren. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at bburnett@sonic.net

SENIOR POWER…It’s Called Gray divorce.

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Friday December 09, 2011 - 03:16:00 PM

Famous and infamous, great and not so great. Divorce quotes abound… 

There’s Agatha Christie (1890-1976)’s “I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming... suddenly you find - at the age of 50, say - that a whole new life has opened before you.” O.K.  

And the cracks typified by Jack Benny (1894-1974)’s “My wife Mary [Livingston] and I have been married for forty-seven years and not once have we had an argument serious enough to consider divorce; murder, yes, but divorce, never.” Chuckle chuckle. 


The number of "gray divorces" is growing. (“Graying prisons” is another column.) 

A quarter of all divorces are by couples wed twenty years or more. They often end more with a whimper than a bang as couples break-up, completely sever, dissociate, disunite, and split.  

While studies have determined that the overall divorce rate has held steady or declined since the 1980s, not so for those over age fifty. More than one in four people who divorce today are over age fifty. Only 23.4 percent of people over age seventy have been divorced, but that number jumps to 35.7 percent for people in their fifties. The National Center for Family & Marriage Research reports that the divorce rate for boomers and older couples has more than doubled over the past three decades and is expected to increase. Approximately half of those who divorce are in short-term remarriages. 

There’s less stigma than twenty years ago. A 2004 AARP study found that 66 percent of divorce filings made by wives. Women, more or less empowered, are increasingly the ones filing for divorce. Midlife women are sometimes in a better financial situation than their mothers and grandmothers were. In previous generations they might have stayed in a marriage because of possible financial, religious or social repercussions. 

While women continue to be employed for wages outside the home, not-young women who have gone through a divorce are much less eager to get remarried than are men, according to Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage: A History; From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. As a result, people over age fifty are the fastest-growing group of cohabitants. "They frequently partner up, but they don't want to complicate their lives… Your chance of being able to remarry at an older age is better than ever, but a lot of them just don't want to make that commitment." 

In the 1980s, the Older Women’s League published “The disillusionment of divorce for older women,” “Divorce and older women,” and Frances Leonard’s “Divorce and older women.” OWL was particularly concerned about the displaced homemaker, the term coined by Trish Sommers in 1975 to describe the “middle-aged woman forcibly exiled” from her role as wife and mother and struggling to find a place in the job market. Later, it was broadened to encompass women in their middle years, generally 35-64, who have been deprived of their traditional role by the loss of spouse through separation, divorce, abandonment, or death. There are also many who have been unmarried, unpaid homemakers for parents, in-laws and other women. 

In the 1980s, scholars were researching and writing dissertations like Garry Lynn Yeager’s Developing a Manual for Ministering with a Congregation Having Widowed, Separated or Divorced Persons; Karen Louise Porter’s The Scheduling of Life Course Events, Economic Adaptations, and Marital History: An Analysis of Economic Survival After Separation and Divorce for a Cohort of Midlife Women; and Andrea Stuart Taylor’s Divorce in Late Life; Case Studies of Urban Women. The hero of Marian Engle’s 1981 novel, The Year of the Child, was middle-aged Harriet, a divorced writer working to support a houseful of her and others’ children. Elderly Mrs. Saxe moved into Lunatic Villas, the name of Harriet’s Toronto house. In Ursula Perrin’s 1983 novel, Old Devotions, the lives of two, now middle-aged former college roommates, have differed. Isabel, the divorced storyteller, was considered a “failure,” while Morgan was a suburban housewife.  

Robert N Butler, MD (1927-2010) coined the now widely used term, “ageism,” to describe discrimination against the elderly. He defended as healthy the way many old people slip into memories healthy, and is credited with the concept known as "life review" a therapeutic device people can use to reflect on their lives. Helen R. Weingarten related divorce and life review in Twenty-five Years of Life Review: Theoretical and Practical Considerations (1989). After Marriage Ends: Economic Consequences for Midlife Women, by Leslie A Morgan, was published by Sage in 1991, in cooperation with the National Council on Family Relations.  

Sex is a significant predictor of happiness among married seniors. The more often older married individuals engage in sexual activity, the more likely they are to be happy with both their lives and marriages, according to research presented in 2011 at the Gerontological Society of America's Annual Scientific Meeting. This finding is based on a public opinion poll conducted on a nationally representative sample of non-institutionalized English and Spanish-speaking person 18 years of age or older living in the U.S. Survey responses of the 238 married individuals age 65+ indicate that frequency of sexual activity is a significant predictor of both general and marital happiness. This association remained even after accounting for such factors age, gender, health status, and satisfaction with their financial situation. [American Association for the Advancement of Science, Nov. 20, 2011.] 

Seniors own the bulk of California’s wealth in savings, home equity and other property. At this point in your life, you may have more at stake when you change your marital status. Or, you may be a widowed person living on Social Security income alone. If you choose to remarry, be aware of your decision’s potential impact on your finances. 



In September 1988, Dolores C. Huerta, then fifty-eight years old, was severely beaten by San Francisco Police officers during a peaceful and lawful protest of the policies/platform of then-candidate for president George H.W. Bush in front of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. The baton-beating caused significant internal injuries, resulting in broken ribs and necessitating removal of her spleen. The beating was caught on videotape and broadcast widely on local television news, including the clear ramming of the butt end of a baton into Huerta's torso by one of the helmeted officers. Later, Huerta won a large judgment against the SFPD and the City of San Francisco, the proceeds of which were used in benefit of farm workers. That was fourteen years ago… At the time, the assault was credited with starting yet another movement to change SFPD crowd control policies, as well as the manner in which officer discipline is handled. Huerta co-founded and serves as First Vice President Emeritus of the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO (UFW), and is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America


MARK YOUR CALENDAR: Be sure to confirm. Share by email news of future events that may interest boomers, elders and seniors. Daytime, free or senior-discounted, and Bay Area events preferred. pen136@dslextreme.com.  

Saturday, Dec. 10. 2-5 PM. PEN Oakland 21st Annual Literary Awards. The ceremony will be followed by a reception and book signings. Free. Rockridge Library, 5366 College Ave., Oakland. 510-597-5017 

Monday, Dec. 12. 12 Noon. Senior Center Lecture - J-Sei Center Center - 1710 Carleton Street, Berkeley "Fall Prevention" Speaker: Andrew Teran - Bay Area Vital Link. To place a reservation for the lecture and/or lunch at 11:30 A.M., call 510-883-1106. 

Monday, Dec. 12. 7:00 P.M. Swedish Folk Music with Mark and Jennie Walstrom. Their instruments include the Swedish Säckpipa (bagpipe) and Nyckelharpa (key fiddle). Tonight’s music will center on the Swedish winter holidays. Kensington Library, 61Arlington Avenue Free. 510-524-3043. 

Tuesday, Dec. 13. 1 P.M. Mastick Book Club members will share a book of their choice. Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda. Free. 510-747-7510. See also January 3.  

Wednesday, Dec. 14 6:30-8 P.M. Drop-In Poetry Writing Workshop. Albany Library 1247 Marin Av. Free. 510-526-3720.  

Wednesday, Dec. 14. 6:30 P.M. Berkeley Commission on Disability. Meets at North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Avenue. Check the City online community calendar to verify or call the Center, 510-981-5190. 

Thursday, Dec. 15. 10 A.M. Mastick Senior Center’s Annual Holiday Sing-Along.Join Jim Franz and Friends for the Annual Holiday Sing-Along. Enjoy a visit from Santa, refreshments, and the spirit of the season! 1155 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda. Free. 510-747-7506.  

Thursday, Dec. 15. AARP members invite you to join them for their Annual Holiday Luncheon after the Annual Holiday Sing-Along. Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda. Enjoy a catered lunch including turkey and all the trimmings. Per person cost is $15. Reservations are required and can be made by contacting Corky Hastings at 510-653-7678 or Marge Ryan at 523-4148. Consider bringing a small wrapped gift and participate in the gift exchange.  

Thursday, Dec. 15. 6-8 P.M. Lawyers in the Library. Berkeley Public Library West Branch, 1125 University. 510-981-6270. Also Dec. 22. 

Saturday, Dec. 17. 11 A.M. Landlord/Tenant Counseling. Central Berkeley Library, 2090 Kittredge. 510-981-6100. 

Saturday, Dec. 17. 12:30 P.M. San Francisco Gray Panthers Holiday Party. 1182 Market, Room 203. 415-552-8800. 

Saturday, Dec. 17. 3:30 P.M. The Knitting Hour. Berkeley Public Library West Branch, 1125 University. 510-981-6270. 

Monday, Dec. 19. 12:30 – 1:30 P.M. Albany YMCA/Albany Library brown Bag Lunch Speaker’s Forum: Matt Johanson discusses Yosemite Epics: Tales of Adventure from America’s Greatest Playground. At the Albany Library, 1247 Marin Av. Free. 510-526-3720. 

Monday, Dec. 19. 7 P.M. Book Club. Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time. Tey is known as the mystery writer for those who don’t like mysteries! Kensington Library, 61 Arlington Ave. Free event. 510-524-3043. Each meeting starts with a poem selected and read by a member with a brief discussion following the reading. New members are always welcome. 

Wednesday, Dec. 21. 1:30 P.M. Berkeley Commission on Aging. Meets at South Berkeley Senior Center, 2939 Ellis Street. Check the City online community calendar to verify or call the Center, 510-981-5170. 

Wednesday, Dec. 21. 7 – 8 P.M. The Adult Evening Book Group will read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Facilitated discussion. Come to one meeting, or all meetings. Albany branch of the Alameda County library, 1247 Marin Av. Books are available at the Library. 510-526-3720 x 16. 

Thursday, Dec. 22. 12:30 P.M. Mastick Senior Center. Birthday Party Celebration. All members celebrating a birthday in December are invited to join us in Dining Room 2 for cake, music, balloons, and good cheer. Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda. 510-747-7510. 

Tuesday, Dec. 22. 3 P.M. Tea and Cookies. Central Berkeley Public Library. 2090 Kittredge. 510-981-6100.  

Wednesday, Dec. 28. 1:30 P.M. East Bay Gray Panthers. 510-548-9696. Meets at North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst.  

Wednesday, Dec. 28. 1:30 – 2:30 P.M. Great Books Discussion Group. Albany Library, 1247 Marin Av. Holiday lunch and selection discussion. 510-526-3720 x 16. 


Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012. Book Club members will read French Lessons by Ellen Sussman. Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda. Free. 510-747-7510. 

Wednesday, Jan. 4. 9 A.M. – 1:30 P.M. AARP Driver Safety Refresher Course specifically designed for motorists age 50+. Taught in one-day. To qualify, you must have taken the standard course within the last 4 years. Preregistration is a must. There is a $12 per person fee for AARP members (AARP membership number required) and $14 per person fee for non-AARP members. Registration is payable by check ONLY made payable to AARP. Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda. 510-747-7510. 

Tuesday, Jan. 10. 1 P.M. Sugar Blues or What? Come be inspired, find ways to beat cravings, find specific tools to make healthier choices with Neta O’Leary Sundberg, Certified Health coach-Yoga teacher. Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda. 510-747-7510. 

Friday, Jan. 13. 9:30 – 11:30 A.M. Creating Your Personal Learning Network. Learn to use the Internet and tools like Twitter and YouTube Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda. 510-747-7510. Also Feb. 17. 

Monday, Jan. 23. 10:30 – 11:30 A.M. Learn to Create a YouTube Video Jeff Cambra, Alameda Currents producer, will share the basics of shooting a good video and how to get it uploaded to YouTube. No equipment or experience needed. Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda. 510-747-7510. 

Tueday, Jan. 24. 1 P.M. Doggie Communication 101. Does your dog pull you down the street? Not get enough exercise because you have mobility challenges? Growl or snap? Bark too much? Other annoying or worrisome behaviors? Bring your questions and join dog trainer Ruth Smiler. Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda. 510-747-7510. 

Thursday, Jan. 25. 1:30 P.M. Music Appreciation Class. Join William Sturm, Volunteer Instructor. Piano recital and discussion about “The Classical Romantic: Johannes Brahms.” Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda. 510-747-7510. 















WILD NEIGHBORS: Deception on the Lek

BY Joe Eaton
Wednesday December 07, 2011 - 12:39:00 PM
Resident Male Ruff
BS Thurner Hoff (Wikimedia Commons)
Resident Male Ruff
Satellite Male Ruff
BS Thurner Hoff (Wikimedia Commons)
Satellite Male Ruff

This is the last of what turned into a series on the female impersonators of the animal kingdom: males that temporarily or permanently mimic the females of their respective species to enhance their mating opportunities. Cuttlefish do it, as do isopods, a whole slew of fish, one snake, a couple of lizards, and at least two birds. (If the phenomenon occurs among mammals, I haven’t located any examples.) One of the birds is the western marsh-harrier, in which 40 percent of males have female-typical plumage and are not recognized as rivals by “normal” males. The other, better-known species is the ruff (Philomachus pugnax), which has a much more complicated arrangement. The Latin name translates as “combative battle-lover.” 

The ruff is a kind of sandpiper, about the size of a dowitcher. Although native to Eurasia, it occasionally shows up in California during migration. I’ve seen three or four individuals here, including one that visited what I didn’t realize beforehand was a gay men’s nude beach near Davenport. That was awkward. Anyway, a fall ruff is nothing special to look at. Spring is when they live up to their name: most males grow an imposing, Elizabethan-style neck ruff, the color of which indicates an individual’s courtship strategy. 

Like a number of other birds—prairie-chickens, some birds of paradise, manakins—ruffs are lekkers. A lek is the arena where multiple males display to attract females, who drop in to mate with their favorites. (Remember Werner Herzog’s documentary Herdsmen of the Sun about the Woodabe people of Niger, whose young men doll themselves up and perform a mass dance for the young women?) Mating is the end of the male’s participation; females go off, build a nest, and rear the young on their own. Multiple male ruffs gather at favored spots in the spring, in open grassy areas. Those whose neck ruffs are reddish-brown, black, or some barred or brindled combination select territories (this is where the pugnax comes in.) A resident males are accompanied by satellite males with white ruff feathers who hang out in the periphery of his territory. The ratio of residents to satellites is about six to one. 

Ornithologists have spent decades watching ruff leks and figuring out what’s going on. Some, like David Lank of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, have reared captive flocks and used genetic analysis to determine the paternity of chicks. They’ve found that females (called reeves) typically mate with more than one male. Although residents get more action, some females choose to mate with white-ruffed satellites. Field studies have shown that females are more prone to visit territories with larger numbers of satellite males. Lekking males also mount other males; not for nothing has lek behavior been called “orgiastic.” 

It was only about five years ago that a third type of male was recognized. Bird-banders had noticed that some female-plumaged ruffs were intermediate in wing length between typical males and females. Two Dutch ornithologists, Joop Jukema and Theunis Piersma, discovered that these birds were in fact males, with a mating strategy of their own. They dubbed them “faeders,” from an Anglo-Saxon word for “father,” although their behavior is no more parental than that of residents or satellites: they’re all just sperm donors. Faeders are sneakers, like Type II midshipman fish and beta and gamma isopods, using their resemblance to females to fool resident males. And like those creatures, they invest heavily in sperm production; the testes of faeders are 2.5 times larger in volume than those of “normal” males. Jukema and Theunis estimate that only about one percent of males are faeders. 

As you might expect, the genetics behind all this are interesting. The difference between residents and satellites is based on a stretch of a non-sex chromosome. That means that both sexes carry both forms of the gene. Females given testosterone implants assume either resident or satellite characteristics. It’s not clear from what I’ve read how the faeder morph fits in. 

Haldane was right: the natural world isn’t just stranger than we imagine; it’s stranger than we can imagine.

MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: (a diary of excerpts copied from printed books, with comments added by the reader.)

By Dorothy Bryant
Tuesday December 06, 2011 - 01:18:00 PM

Nothing makes you hate people as much as knowing in your heart that you are in the wrong and they are in the right. — Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize-winning economist, author, in his NY Times column, Sept. 3, 2004 

I doubt that readers of the Daily Planet fall into the category of those who nurse a long-time, festering hatred for someone whose words or actions proved their own ideas just plain wrong. But I suspect we can all recall a brief flash of hatred we felt when someone spoke the words that proved without doubt that we had voiced a stupid opinion. 

No point in squirming in shame each time the memory of that moment pops up in our consciousness. The best antidote is this quotation by George Bernard Shaw: 

I never learn anything until a man contradicts me. 

(Send the Berkeley Daily Planet a page from your own Commonplace Book)


By Jack Bragen
Tuesday December 06, 2011 - 09:29:00 AM

I have been writing this column for the Planet for about a year, and have covered a lot of territory about the plight and the needs of persons with mental illness. I have reached a point where it feels like it is time to do something else with my writing career. 

Becky O’Malley and others at The Planet deserve my thanks for taking the risk involved with publishing a schizophrenic man with a less than pristine background. I hope to continue sending opinion and first person pieces to her, some of which, I hope she will publish. 

I continue to sell an e-book on Amazon that contains most of the editions of this column that have appeared in the past year. I continue to have a blog at bragenjack@blogspot.com. You can still see my writing in other places where I hope it will continue to show up. 

Take care, Jack Bragen

Arts & Events

Theater Review: Yussef el Guindi's 'Language Rooms'

By Ken Bullock
Friday December 09, 2011 - 03:25:00 PM

"I know we're of different religions here, so I will refer to a generic god." 

The paternal--or oddly avuncular--African American chief of a detention center, located somewhere (in a "green zone" overseas? Or stateside?), is "communicating" with his two American muslim translators-cum-interrogators about who's keeping who under surveillance in the semi-porous, second-guessing environment of the center. 

"When I accuse a man of treachery, I think we should be on a first name basis!" 

The Arabic translators, Ahmed (James Asher) and Nasser (William Dao), become more and more nervous as their boss, Kevin (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid), straight-faces it through his further exhortations for them to do their job--and to relax! Because they're at home: 

"In America, we leave family to find family. We don't do blood feuds. We evolve." 

Yussef el Guindi's stage satire dealing with the human warfare that underpins the War on Terror, 'Language Rooms,' co-produced by Golden Thread and the Asian American Theater Company, is his best play yet--no mean accomplishment, after works like 'The Back of the Throat,' 'The Monologist Suffers Her Monologue,' 'The Review' (perhaps the first international play, performed in Cairo and San Francisco via Skype), 'Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes,' and his adaptation to Egypt of Chekhov's vaudeville 'The Marriage Proposal,' all staged in the Bay Area by Golden Thread. It's a rare play dealing with the most serious of subjects which can combine in a short scene hilarity and the hair-raising. 

James Asher, who's played here in several el Guindi plays, turns his comic talents as a kind of latter-day antihero to the portrayal of the Arab American loner Ahmed, out of touch with his family, distant from his peers at the center (he's not a sports fan, for one thing) and maybe suspected of fraternizing or at least sympathizing with the nebulous "enemy" of Homeland Security concerns. Asher can make the audience feel Ahmed sweat, as he listens in agony to what might be interrogation masquerading as a confidential briefing or casual explanation, or awkwardly attempts to act out his loyalty to his country. His scenes with Dao, who at one point asks him to "pass the bat and the honey," as he takes away the strange array of interrogator's "tools," as well as those with Abdul-Rashid--or with both--are the most absurd, provoking laughter and sympathetic paranoia, a kind of burlesque of corporate office politics times twenty. 

But it's the scenes between Asher and Terry Lamb as Samir (who was memorable as a wily but drunken Odysseus in Central Works' 'Penelope's Odyssey') which take 'Language Games' to a different level of seriousness and absurd humor, something almost embarrassingly humane and inhumane at the same time.  

The strange tableau of the last scene, turning a gentle, nostalgic Strindbergian monologue Samir delivers to a silent, almost unrecognizable Ahmed into the final irony of the play, is a brilliant moment, a perfect conclusion. 

The whole cast with Evren Odcikin's direction brings el Guindi's satire hauntingly to life, emphasizing the lives of countless individuals, changed by the vagaries of American policy, strangers thrown together, with the lines between coreligionist, colleague, friend, stranger, antagonist--and, yes, family--irredeemably blurred. 

Thursday through Saturday, 8 p. m., Sunday at 7, through December 11. $15-$25 (Thursday, pay what you can at door; advance tickets $20.) Thick House, 1695-18th Street (between Arkansas & De Haro), Potrero Hill, San Francisco. goldenthread.org

AROUND AND ABOUT THEATER: Christmas Mystery Play Adapted at st. Mark's This Saturday

By Ken Bullock
Friday December 09, 2011 - 03:27:00 PM

'The Mary Play, or Gabriel's Message,' an Advent play adapted from English Mystery Plays, will be presented at St. Mark's Episcopal Church this Saturday afternoon from 3 to 4, followed by a festive reception. The public is invited. 

'The Mary Play' has been adapted by M. J. Gentes from 'The Annunciation'of the York Corpus Christi Cycle of Mystery Plays, as well as the Wakefield Salutation of Elizabeth and the play of Joseph's Return, all medieval guild plays, often staged originally on wagons as part of civic and church pageants, produced by craft guilds.  

Noted local actor Charles Shaw Robinson has directed the play.  

St. Mark's also has a toy giveaway for the Fireman's Association. Playgoers are encouraged to bring new, unwrapped toys for 12 year-olds and under to donate to the Association's charity. 

St.Mark's Episcopal Church, 2300 Bancroft at Ellsworth. stmarksberkeley.org

AROUND AND ABOUT THEATER: Inferno Theatre's 'Adoration of the Magi' at South Berkeley Community Church

By Ken Bullock
Tuesday December 06, 2011 - 04:59:00 PM

Inferno Theatre, founded by Giulio Perrone—maybe best-known in the theater community as set designer for local professional theaters and once director at Dell'Arte School of Physical Theater in Blue Lake near Eureka—has produced some of the most interesting original work around here in the past few years: 'Galileo's Daughters' and 'The Iliad,' both at the Berkeley City Club. 

This holiday season, they've come up with a treat: Perrone's original version of 'The Adoration of the Magi,' in which the three kings journey through other times and cultures on their way to the Epiphany, seeing the sights, hearing the music and sounds and witnessing the rituals of each culture. 

The production features a cast including adept company members Simone Bloch and Valentina Emeri, as well as others—and also Inferno's Youth Drama Program students from Manzanita Seed Elementary School in Oakland's San Antonio and Fruitvale districts. 

'Adoration of the Magi' plays at historic South Berkeley Community Church, 1802 Fairview (west of Adeline): Thursday December 8, 15, 22 at 8 p. m.; Friday the 9th and 16th at 9; Friday December 23 at 8; Saturday the 10th and 17th at 8; Saturday December 24 at 3; and Sunday the 11th and 18th at 5. $12-$25, sliding scale. 355-2279 or email infernotheatrecompany@gmail.com ( infernotheatre.org )

AROUND AND ABOUT MUSIC : Berkeley Symphony--Sarah Cahill plays Lou Harrison

By Ken Bullock
Tuesday December 06, 2011 - 01:23:00 PM

This Thursday—December 8—Berkeley Symphony, led by guest conductor Jayce Ogren, will explore the late Bay Area composer Lou Harrison's seldom-played Piano Concerto, featuring Berkeley's Sarah Cahill on the keys. Harrison, student of Henry Cowell and early promoter of Charles Ives, Alan Hovhaness and Harry Partch, among others, is known for his works in just intonation (versus equal temperament) and for composing in microtones, influenced by Indonesian, Chinese and other Asian musics. 

The program is a perfect setting for Harrison's rare piece: Lei Liang's 'Verge,' for 18 strings, influenced by Mongolian music, and Siberlius's Fifth Symphony bookend Cahill's playing the Piano Concerto with the orchestra. 

8 p. m. Zellerbach Hall, UC campus. $20-$60. 841-2800; berkeleysymphony.org

THE CHRISTMAS REVELS:Chase the Holiday Yuck with Yule

By John A. McMullen II
Tuesday December 06, 2011 - 05:04:00 PM

For thinking folks, the holidays can be conflicting and a downer. If you aren’t religious, and maybe a tad cynical like me, you might consider taking a flight to India or Peking to get away from all the “stuff” surrounding Christmas.  

I’ve got a cheaper way to lift your spirits and not offend your intellect. And if you’ve got kids, it’s a gift that will last in their memories.  

About a quarter century ago, a show came to town that to me is larger than Santa Claus or crepe paper crèches, more spiritual, and an awful lot more fun. THE CHRISTMAS REVELS at the SCOTTISH RITE THEATRE on LAKE MERRITT will chase your holiday blues and touch your heart. 

It’s about myth, tradition back beyond written memory, about the seasons dying and being reborn—and, I guess, about us doing that, too. I have to go to lots of performances, and, year after year, this is the best show in town. By the time the show is half over, the audience is singing and dancing in the aisles—literally! 

It’s about Christmas, too, since that is the Western Tradition, but the Revels tradition is to present the holidays as they are done in different cultures, different lands, and in different eras, as various as a medieval English court to an Appalachian homestead in Kentucky to a Russian village. A hundred talented volunteers labor for months to make this the best show around. Through the years, Geoff Hoyle, legendary local performer, has been a staple as the master of ceremonies. 

This year it’s CHRISTMAS AT THE COURT OF KING ARTHUR. Extolling the cycle of the seasons, and the rebirth of the hero, it sings about "Rex quondum, rexque futurum," the Once and Future King—which makes this year’s theme poignantly allegorical as well as extremely popular. 

Revels started in 1971 in Cambridge Mass by Jack Langstaff, music educator who came to fame reading books to children on early network TV in the 50’s. The Revels had its pre-premiere on Christmas night 1966, when Jack wrote and hosted "A Christmas Masque" for the Hallmark Hall of Fame where a young, relatively unknown actor named Dustin Hoffman played the dragon in the mummers' play St. George and the Dragon. It was one of the pioneer broadcasts in full color—and they erased the tape! Revels came to the Bay Area twenty six years ago through the efforts of Lisby Mayer.  

If you haven’t been to the Scottish Rite Theatre, it’s one of those hidden places that when you enter, your jaw drops a little. It’s a step into the past, when things were truly grand. When you enter the oval theatre with the vast ceilings and Masonic symbols emblazoned about the stage—a theatre that easily holds a thousand—you wonder how you could not have know about it before. The warm wood makes it inviting with none of the hard edges we’ve accustomed ourselves to in modern halls. Its stage is big enough to hold the 80 singers and the enormous sets with lots of fly space for dragons or whatever is necessary to put you in awe.  

I talked with David Parr, who has been at the artistic helm for 22 years. When I asked him how he got involved, he quipped, “I answered the phone at the wrong time.” When I asked him where he was from he said, “I was born in Chicago.” When I asked him why he came to the Bay Area, he said, “I was born in Chicago.” With this easy sense of humor, this self-confessed 1960’s hippie, who is a tenured professor in the Theatre Arts department of City College of San Francisco, has served up the right mixture of creative and temperamental leadership for this annual extravaganza. He met his wife Krista Keim when she was singing in the Revels chorus, and his sons Luke and William are running about at rehearsals, so Revels is integral to his family’s life. 

When I asked David what the Revels was about, he replied, “About two hours,” (I think I heard a rim-shot!). Then he waxed poetic, and you could feel the enthusiasm and spirit through the phone with a professorial tweak, “Arthur is an enduring story, whether it’s the 5th C. hero of Britain, or the 14th C. Arthur of Thomas Mallory, or T. W. White’s ‘Once and Future King,’ the Arthur chivalric romances are always popular. 

“It’s a celebration of the Solstice, which has been going on as long as there have been people around. Honoring the changing of the seasons, the great cycles, is rooted in the human psyche In our production, there are no plots or premises, except to revisit what it would be like if we were in King Arthur’s Court, what dances would have been danced, what stories told. 

“Finally, it’s about Death and Rebirth, and about the magic of the myth of King Arthur, that he has gone to Avalon, but will return when we need him most.” 

This is one not to be missed. Give yourself and those you love a holiday present regardless of how you feel about the Twelve Days of Yule. You’ll come out feeling better about it all. 


At the Scottish Rite Theatre, Oakland Scottish Rite Center on Lake Merritt, 1547 Lakeside Drive, Oakland, CA, December 9, 10, 11 & 16, 17, 18.,Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays & Sundays at 1:00pm & 5:00pm 

www.calrevels.org / (510) 452-8800 

(No ticket sales at the Scottish Rite Center except on days of performance.) 

John McMullen regularly reviews theatre for the Planet, and he also sells the advertising in the Revels Program.