The first 100+ days of Berkeley's New Progs—how's it going here?

Becky O'Malley
Friday April 28, 2017 - 03:53:00 PM

Well, the first hundred days of dread have passed, and as yet no nuclear war, so that’s the good news, right? The record of what Gail Collins calls “can’t do” has been made, and this week it has been exhaustively reviewed in the major and minor media. David Remnick in the New Yorker has a very complete accounting of A Hundred Days of Trump, so I don’t need to add anything.

I find among my scribbler friends with longterm political involvement a sentiment analogous to compassion fatigue: Outrage Exhaustion. Many of us just can’t seem to say OMG one more time, as we learn that this president is unimaginably worse than we could ever have expected.

The good news is that a lot of people who have previously preferred to devote their time to watercolor sketching or madrigals or organic vegis have now awakened from their slumber and are carrying the ball. It seems that what some grandly call “The Resistance” is in good hands, so I’m going to leave it there for now. Thanks, guys, and more power to you!

Instead, I’m going to focus on another first term, now about six weeks more than 100 days in the saddle. That would be the dramatic change (fingers crossed) in Berkeley’s City Council fostered by the new Berkeley Progressive Alliance and its fellow travelers, some of whom were already incumbents in the 2016 election.  

The recent election of Kate Harrison to fill new Mayor Jesse Arreguin’s vacant District Four seat solidified what should be a supermajority of progressive councilmembers. However, we should be well aware of the human inclination to form what we used to call the circular firing squad. We used to think that this was exclusively a leftist weakness, but now the Republicans have started doing it too. 

In truth, everyone in local politics around here would count as a progressive somewhere in the world or at least in the U.S. The factional lines, such as they are, are more subtle and policy-driven, but they do exist. 

The main controversy that drove the results in November was how to manage Berkeley’s building boom and the housing shortage which was cited as justification for enabling it. The city has been dominated for a couple of decades by councilmembers whose campaign finance statements clearly showed that they were bought and sold by the building industry, but just in the last couple of years the propagation of big ugly buildings with billboards identifying them as luxury dwellings has finally caught the attention of complacent citizens. And on the sidewalk outside these monstrosities, we’ve also seen the proliferation of in-your-face homeless people, some of whom have been organizing politically with camp-ins and signs to call attention to their situation.  

Homeless activism has drawn the attention of those of us concerned about civil liberties to the way the city uses its police power. The Black Lives Matter movement is another branch of the same tree, particularly since Berkeley police directed by the previous administration made such a mess (such an expensive mess) in their reaction to the Black Lives Matter demonstration. Now, as well as a new mayor and city council, we have a new city manager and a new police chief—so we can hope for some progressive change. 

And just in time, too. I think the way Berkeley’s new team—mayor, council, city manager,police chief—has handled the recent invasion of the crazy right has been nothing less than brilliant, contrary to bloodthirsty criticism by online trolls. These public servants started off handicapped by U.C. Berkeley’s pathetic planning for the Milo fiasco, which caused a lot of damage, but by the time the March4Trump materialized the BPD’s strategy of confining the problems almost worked: no damage to buildings, no serious injuries, a reasonable number of arrests.  

Yesterday’s demonstration was, literally, a walk in the park. We (me, photographer, dog) were there for two hours, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. My human partner was reminded of a convention of flying saucer enthusiasts that he observed in New Jersey as a teenager in the 50s. We Americans do a great job of crazy, don’t we? 

Despite their spiked helmets and garbage can lid shields, the great majority of those in attendance, at least the ones I talked to, were amiable nuts. I suspect there was a good bit of overlap with the old Renaissance Faire crowd, the ones that liked to dress up in armor, kilts, and other military paraphernalia of days gone by. Some of them were youngish, but many of the guys were mid-life-crisis age, plump, balding and earnest.  

The gals were great, too. Many sported what I call the KellyAnne look: long stringy over-bleached or perhaps vinyl hair, tight teeshirts with slogans, skinny jeans (even on those whose actual bodies were far from skinny). My fave of these was the woman whose sign, hanging provocatively over her silicon-enhanced chest, said “Free speech is sexy.” 

Of course it is! Who could disagree with that? 

And enjoying the spectacle at lunchtime was a gaggle of charming Berkeley High students, who often eat in the park when the weather is nice. Three brave girls sat on the fountain just belong a goofy group of demonstrators, one wearing a suspiciously Germanesque spiked helmet and another with a shirt that said “Mohammed is in Hell”. 

Some of the demonstrators and speakers were even brown-skinned in various degrees. The sound system was terrible, so I couldn’t hear much of what they had to say, thank goodness. One that I did hear was a long, long, explication of why the Pilgrims got on those boats to America, to escape Bloody Mary, who was trying to burn them at the stake for reading the Bible. Plausible, unless you look up the dates for Queen Mary I of England and for the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock decades after her death.  

Another speaker said that “we’re here to support the First Fucking Amendment.” First time I’ve heard it described like that, but whatever works. I doubt that the students were shocked, if they heard it. 

My first First Amendment demo was in 1960, against the U.S. House of Representatives’ House Un-American Activities Committee (yes, Virginia, there was one.) The Un-America Activity in question was association with communists or even Communists, who turned out to be the parents of a couple of my friends.  

In those days, close to 50 years ago now, the SF cops turned on the fire hoses in City Hall to wash the demonstrators down a long flight of marble stairs. Messy, especially because in those days for demonstrations the guys wore coats and ties, and the girls dresses, hats and gloves. 

The Berkeley cops yesterday did a whole lot better, and I for one am proud of how they kept their cool. 

Which, after such a long digression, brings us back to the other issues on which we should judge the first 100+ days of Berkeley’s new progressive majority. Watching city council meetings where development issues were on the agenda, I’m not sure their supporters are enthusiastic for their record so far in this area. A couple of them are sounding off in this very issue.  

It looks to me like some councilmembers believe that they have a legal obligation to continue the mistakes of their predecessors. This is a legal error, probably under the influence of a lame duck City Attorney trying to do a few more favors for the old regime’s developer clients on his way out the door. 

There’s just one word for the way Kriss Worthington let down the neighbors of the Honda repair shop expansion on South Shattuck: inexcusable. There are rumbles of a candidate opposing him next year if he runs again. 

Still in the works is the proposal for 2902 Adeline, coming back to the council on Tuesday. It’s another one where there’s a claim that they deserve all the zoning variances they’ve demanded because of deals made by the Zoning Adjustment Board appointed by the previous council. 

This week the anger is about new Councilmember Ben Bartlett’s endorsement of the developer’s weaselly fake compromise, which offers way too little in the way of community benefits to compensate for the big bonuses they would be getting if their deal goes down. Here the rumor is that Bartlett plans to go after Tony Thurmond’s State Representative seat as Thurmond seeks higher office.  

Some say that he hopes to get campaign money from the building lobbies, both developers and the trade unions—that he’s willing to throw his current constituents under the bus to please the money men. That would be very foolish, especially since some in District 3 are now talking about a recall, which would look very bad on his record even if it failed. 

These are only two of the yardsticks by which the New Progs are being judged, and there are many more. I encourage readers, especially our regular opinion contributors, to add to the list in the next couple of weeks with their own analyses. To be continued….