The Crazies Go After a Berkeley Family

By Becky O'Malley
Friday January 24, 2014 - 11:26:00 AM

Well, wimp that I am, I initially decided not to write anything about the bizarre flyer that appeared on my doorstep on Tuesday morning tucked under my newspapers. Unlike many of the crackpot publications that I’ve received since I undertook this enterprise, it was neatly printed with correct spelling and punctuation. It seemed to have been written by an educated person (sentences, paragraphs, vocabulary) but it was apparent that the author is someone who resides at the intersection of Literacy and Lunacy.

The cover was a great big Google Maps screenshot of a house on the other side of Ashby from our house, with the address clearly visible. Superimposed on the picture in big type were these words:

Anthony Levandowski is building an unconscionable world of surveillance, control and automation. He is also your neighbor.”

The text accused Anthony, the guy who lives there, a pleasant, mild-mannered father of two little boys, of being the techo-equivalent of Satan Incarnate. 

Here’s a small sample of the over-blown rhetoric: 

“In the spirit of honoring the memories of all who died, went crazy, or disappeared on the streets of Berkeley, we wish to expose Anthony Levandowski and the evil he brings into this world. “Preparing for the action, we watched Levandowski step out of his front door. He had Google Glasses over his eyes, carried his baby in his arm, and held a tablet with his free hand. As he descended the stairs with the baby, his eyes were on the tablet through the prism of his Google Glasses, not on the life against his chest. He appeared in this moment like the robot he admits that he is.”
Oh, please! I’ve seen this nice guy entertaining his little son in front of his house many times. I know a good father when I see one, and he’s a good father. No robot he. 

I hoped if I ignored the flier the whole thing would just blow over. What the nutcase who wrote it obviously wanted was attention, and I didn’t feel like helping him get it. I also didn’t want Anthony’s family to be exposed to more harassment. 

But later in the day a Planet reader forwarded a link to a story on the IndyBay website, complete with a PDF of the flyer. The Googled picture clearly showed Anthony’s name and address. The anonymous posting included a smarmy account of an early morning visit to the home: 

“At 7am this morning, a group of people went to the home of Anthony Levandowski, a Google X developer. His house is a pompous, minimally decorated two story palace with stone lions guarding the door. After ringing his doorbell to alert him of the protest, a banner was held in front of his house that read 'Google's Future Stops Here' and fliers about him were distributed around the neighborhood.”
And soon thereafter, Tracey Taylor, who lives less than a block away around the corner from Anthony and me, posted a story about what had happened on her Berkeleyside website, complete with the picture showing the location, though the street number was blocked out. In the comments on the story there were complaints from readers that disclosing the family’s address might subject them to more unwelcome attention. When I looked again yesterday I discovered that the picture had been removed from the Berkeleyside site. 

Wednesday on the street I encountered a fellow who described himself as an Atlantic Monthly senior editor, and said that he is also the father of a young baby. He was dutifully talking to the neighbors, including me, but he told me he’d just about decided not to do a story because he thought the family didn’t need any more grief. Good call, but too late. A TV news crew also showed up on the corner with lots of equipment later that night, and I talked to them. Since I no longer have television I don’t know if they did a story. 

Unfortunately, the word is out. A Google search today produced a substantial crop of online accounts of what happened, each with the revelatory picture of the house with its address. Comments about the caper were overwhelmingly negative on all sites, as well they should be. 

So I guess there’s no point anymore in trying to protect the family’s privacy. I’ll just add a few points to the story that didn’t make it into other accounts. 

First, the First Amendment supports any wacko’s rights to print up any opinion about anyone and hand it out, as long as it’s not libelously untrue. But nothing in the constitution says that it’s okay to ring the doorbell of parents with a toddler and a new baby (who probably are sleep-deprived) at seven a.m. to tell them you don’t like the father’s job or politics. 

That’s just a rotten thing to do, no matter what you think you must tell them. Time, place and manner, right? And if it’s a home and you go up their front steps, it’s also trespassing. Besides being just plain nasty. 

Second, the miscellaneous anti-techno-babble in the flier is ludicrous. Example: 

“There are men and women in the Congo, slaving away in giant pits in order to extract gold and other precious metals from the earth. This gold will go into phones and tablets made by companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft. Anthony Levandowski has never worked in a pit mine nor will his children. People like him are exempt from this type of degrading and exploitative labor. Instead, he can casually stare at his screens as if there was not human blood making this technology possible, as if there was not a life in his hands.”
Say what? The flier was not printed with a letterpress on parchment. Like all such screeds, it obviously utilized computer technology aplenty, including the kind which contains rare metals, in its production. As one commenter on IndyBay noted, it’s kind of like animal rights protesters wearing fur coats to demonstrations. 

What about that “pompous, minimally decorated two story palace with stone lions guarding the door”? 

Back in the day, before we got here, that house was the home of one of Berkeley’s most famous leftist communes. Some nervous spinster ladies, Bank of America tellers who lived across the street, reputedly installed FBI agents in their attic with a telescope to keep track of activities at the address for several years. 

The clueless leaflet author says that “just a few blocks down Ashby from Levandowski’s house is the former site of a series of communes that existed in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In one of these communal houses, a group of rebels, freaks, communists and lovers wrote the Berkeley Liberation Program.” 

In fact, this might have been the very house where the Berkeley Liberation Program authors lived, though they wrote the manifesto in an Oakland hotel. (Google it—especially see the Planet article by Judy Gumbo Albert). Youth Liberation activists lived there in the 70s with the family of a friend of mine whose Berkeley High son was a member. 

Ashby Avenue has for many years been the home of people eccentric enough to endure the horrendous traffic on Berkeley’s principal sacrifice street for all kinds of reasons, especially saving money, since rents and home prices have always been much less than similar houses elsewhere on the city's quiet barriered streets. Many residents today are artists, musicians, writers. 

What does “pompous, minimally decorated” mean, anyhow? It’s oxymoronic. 

Statues of lions aren’t exactly minimalist decor. The cast-concrete lions on the porch appeared two or three owners before Anthony’s family. They’ve always been thought of as a good joke, since they decorate the porch of what is in fact a very common type of three-bedroom family house, the kind which were built all over the Bay Area in the early years of the last century. The Chronicle’s Pulitzer-prize-winning architecture critic Allen Temko started the tradition with a pair of high-concept Modernist lions on his porch when he lived a couple of blocks south on Ashby a couple of decades ago. Whimsical, not pompous. 

All joking aside, it’s no fun to have crazies stalking you at home. During the time the Planet was under attack from those few misguided zealots who objected to an op-ed we printed about Israel/Palestine, I got threatening emails from people saying things like “I urinated on your door as I walked past your house.” Not amusing. Rabbi Michael Lerner had some of the same crowd camped out at his house for a while, and I doubt that he enjoyed it. 

But as I told Anthony when I called to offer my sympathy, that’s life in the fast lane. The genesis of all this unwanted attention is probably a flattering profile of him which appeared in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, complete with a cover cartoon of the self-driving cars which he’s credited with developing at Google. 

There wasn’t much in the article that I found shocking, really only one thing: the New Yorker author revealed that Anthony Levandowski is a registered Republican! Even though I suspect that he’s a Libertarian at heart, we don’t see many Republicans around here. 

There goes the neighborhood, for sure. But I still think he’s a nice guy who doesn’t deserve to be stalked. On behalf of all the card-carrying pinkos, lefties, Democrats, Greens, ACLU members and cranks around here, I’d like to tell Anthony and his family that we’re sorry that this happened, and we hope they won’t be scared away by a few misguided crazies. 

UPDATE: On Friday I talked to someone, a reliable person I've known for 45 years, who happened to see the demonstrators at the door. This witness described them as about 10 white men and women, possibly in their 30s, possibly wearing predominantly black clothes, though no scarves or face masks à la some Occupyers.