As the World Burns, Berkeley Fiddles

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday March 23, 2011 - 11:40:00 AM

Last week a reader asked why the Planet wasn’t covering the disaster in Japan. We responded that our focus was local, and that there are better sources to check for international news. We’ve done a modest story about local fundraising efforts, which have been numerous and well-covered in almost every Bay Area publication. But it’s hard to ignore the international news, both about Japan and about what is loosely called the Middle East. And then there’s the news from the Mid West, specifically Wisconsin but also Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and more—popular uprisings are everywhere, and where they will lead, we still don’t know. Meanwhile, California is falling apart as we watch, and Berkeley’s part of the debacle.

It’s hard to keep in mind that world upheaval is not exclusively the curse of the first decades of the twenty-first century. Or more precisely, that upheavals and disasters have always taken place around the world—what’s new is that because of the speed of modern communication news everywhere is present everywhere, all the time. It’s all local news now. 

When we visit Santa Cruz we stay in the country, in rustic surroundings where the power or the phone lines might go out any time there’s a storm, and the fireplace is the main source of warmth besides blankets in bed. One amenity not available in Berkeley is a quirky little FM station that broadcasts the BBC almost 24/7, making it easy to be in constant contact with developing catastrophes day and night wherever you are: in the car, in the kitchen, outside, even in the shower if you’re that compulsive. The challenge, then, is to ignore all that for a while and concentrate on the bursts of sunshine between the rain and hail storms—to listen instead to the cries of the hawks mating and the spring song of the nesting finches and the excitement of the quail nesting on the edge of the woods. 

It’s hard. Last night the BBC ran an extensive telephone interview with a doctor in a small city in Libya which is partly occupied by Gaddafi’s ground forces. The allied air strikes will do nothing to protect insurgents there, nothing for his efforts to save lives in a hospital where electric lines are down and the emergency generator’s fuel will only last for a couple of days. In Japan, there are similar stories of towns isolated by natural instead of human forces, where food and fuel are running out, and people are doing their best to cope. 

Here in the comfortable, relatively well-organized state of California we long to be able to do something to help. The consensus seems to be that for disasters in distant places what will help most is money: In-kind donations are hard to transport and deliver. What’s shocking about this probably correct analysis is the converse: if the Japanese Red Cross or the other worthwhile organizations run out of money the disaster victims will simply be left to perish? Surely not…and yet….we don’t want to take the chance, 

A variety of worthwhile organizations are meanwhile trying hard to keep our attention on the messes Americans have made and continue to make in Iraq and Afghanistan. And now we have the problematical action in Libya to ponder as well. 

Many of us have always believed that as citizens it’s our duty to speak out when the foreign policies carried forward in our names have gone off track. But it’s easy to doubt that marching and carrying signs will actually bring these entanglements to a peaceful conclusion. 

Which brings us home to California. Jerry Brown has just put out a YouTube entreaty directed at getting enough Republican cooperation to place just the minimal, basic taxes to keep the state more or less afloat on the June ballot. Jerry and I have had our differences from time to time over the years, but he’s 100% right on this one and the opponents are completely wrong. And as much as I applaud Jean Quan’s mayoral victory, Jerry’s right and she’s wrong on ending redevelopment too. 

It won’t be as dramatic as tidal waves or hand-to-hand street combat, but for the lives of affected Californians the funding cuts which are on the table if public money is withdrawn are just about as catastrophic (an overused word, but that’s what it would be). 

A down to earth example: There’s a proposal to cut funding for group homes for learning disabled people. We happen to have a friend we’ve known for a long time, a man named Terry who used to ring doorbells all over Berkeley, including ours, asking for money when he was using drugs and sleeping outside. He was pleasant and polite, but unable to read and definitely in trouble. 

Somehow he connected with a program for adults with learning deficits. He’s now off the streets and off drugs, living happily in a group home in Fremont, actively participating in Special Olympics, and in general a big success. Do we want to put him back on the Berkeley streets? I don’t think so—but it could happen. 

And how is Berkeley dealing with this? 

Well, last night’s Berkeley City Council meeting marked an all time low in a long run of embarrassing performances. The mayor’s behavior as chair, shouting down polite inquiries from councilmembers Arreguin and Worthington about what was on the table for a vote, was inexcusable as usual—if you don’t believe me, watch it yourself

The environmental impact report and zoning amendments on West Berkeley changes designed to support mega-developments were rammed through without discussion by the mayor’s claque, no surprise there. 

Regarding the social services cataclysm which faces Berkeley (looking at a $12 million deficit) just as it does the rest of California, the council majority arrogantly chose, once again, the ostrich position, determinedly sticking their heads in the sand. Worthington, Arreguin and Councilmember Max Anderson offered a thoughtful resolution suggesting how the state should be allocating its reduced budget to help cities like ours: no-brainers like cutting prison expenditures to benefit social services. Their fellow councilmembers refused to give them as much as the time of day, saying piously with much wringing of hands that they were so worried about Berkeley they just couldn’t think about the rest of the state, too bad, sorry. 

Don’t they know that it’s all interconnected? How could they not understand that if people like Terry are thrown back on the streets by the state they’ll soon be back in Berkeley for us to deal with? 

Oh, but not to worry. We’ve just learned from a Berkeley Chamber of Commerce press release that the perennial “solution” for problems of people who live on the streets is back again. The goal? “…making the city's commercial districts more vibrant places in which to do business.” 

Once again, we’re ready to cure downtown Berkeley’s multiple deficiencies by banning unsightly people from sitting or lying on sidewalks. Apparently the deal has already gone down, if you believe the release: All that remains is writing and passing the ordinance, small details if you know you’ve already got the votes in your pocket. 

We won’t need to worry, will we, about storefront vacancies caused by the exorbitant downtown rents demanded by commercial property owners who are land banking for tax advantages. 

We needn’t be concerned about looming vacant apartment complexes like the unfinished Arpeggio, a huge monument to bad planning and speculative greed. 

And no one should blame the shortage of parking for downtown’s problems, since we’re all praying that reliable mass transit will arrive some day soon, aren’t we? 

Not to mention the international economy… 

Just blame downtown doldrums on needy street people, that’s much easier—there’s sure to be plenty of them around to take the hit as state and city support services vanish. Our very own tsunami, ready to engulf Berkeley—wait for it. 

But how will we pay for prosecuting folks for sitting down downtown? Let’s just save that for another day, shall we?