Sunday, May 23, 2004

Summer 1983 ... .

Early in my changing role from university administrative staff member to South Berkeley merchant, while still enjoying dual status in both worlds, I played an active role in the powerful leader Carol Sibley's political organization, ABC. Carol was very active in university issues and at a meeting asked if any among us would be willing to work with a campus African American student organization in an effort to re-name Grove Street -- a main artery connecting the cities of Oakland and Berkeley. If their work was successful, it was to become Martin Luther King Way. One other ABC member joined me in agreeing to take this on. This was precisely the kind of project that I needed for my own organizing purposes.

In one of those pillow talks with Bill, I'd clarified for myself (with his Plato-esque help, of course) that what was desperately needed was a plan with short term goals, something highly achievable. The problem of reclaiming our community would continue to be overwhelming without such a strategy. In my "500 ft." community there lacked any sense of empowerment. The percentage of unemployed was totally off the charts, something like 40% so most were living on welfare. The growing dependence upon the underground economy fueled by the drug trade and minor vice was even then, quite stunning. There was so little to build upon. Faith in the electoral process had eroded to the point of non-existence.

Our meetings with the Black Students Convocation began shortly thereafter, and my plan began to take shape. It would be important to my purposes to not have this change come as the result of an edict from the city council, but through a several month's petition drive so that people could buy in, individually, to the name change. It should take no more than 90 days, as I saw it, in order to meet my criteria for "short term." The students were in agreement. They were wonderful to work with, filled with idealism and enough memory of Dr. King and his work to give the honor substance.

In less than the three months allotted, we produced over 8,000 signatures, and no little controversy! There were those who were going to be clearly impacted by the name change, merchants who would now have to change all of their print materials. That was to be anticipated. The debate in the press was contentious and constant, but we made our arguments well and stood our ground. There were those who wanted to honor Dr. King, but "...why not some building?" The debate was activist Berkeley at its best.

On the shop counter I kept a clipboard with petitions attached (had delivered petitions to all of the merchants in our community). What I needed was for folks to make a demand of the city and have it positively responded to in a short time frame in order to prepare us for greater demands in the future. It worked magnificently, and eventually led to the redevelopment of the neighborhood.

One day a very drunk and dirty older man staggered into the store asking about the petitions. I handed him the clipboard and a pen and watched as he laboriously "drew" his name taking up at least three lines in the process. He then staggered out pleased with himself. Imagine my surprise when -- two days later this same man almost unrecognizably cleaned and starched and completely sober returned to the store. He asked if he could have the clipboard and some petitions. I gave him the supplies and watched him walk away to stand for the rest of the day, two blocks away, on the busy corner of Ashby Avenue and Sacramento Street aggressively collecting signatures from all who passed by or slowed to a stop at the signal light. Another small miracle. The power of Dr. King remained a potent element in the black community. One could only guess at what strengths his name would lend to our efforts at reclaiming this neighborhood. The strategy worked undeniably well.

Oddly enough, the organization (ABC - All Berkeley Coalition) began to lose its sense of purpose as it became clear that the petition drive just might be successful and that the name of Grove Street might actually be changed. The organization obviously had not believed in the possibility that we could actually pull this off. The pressure from the merchants and the more affluent upper Grove street residents were having an effect. I was ordered by the group to cease and desist any further activity on behalf of the university students and flatly refused to do so. Our friend, President Carol Sibley, actually rose to speak against the ordinance at the crowning council meeting and I was forced to defy her publicly. I wrote and delivered the justification paper and received a standing ovation before a crowd so large that it had to be moved that evening in a march through the streets from council chambers at city hall to a public building some six blocks away as ordered by the fire chief!

There hangs on my wall as I'm typing this entry -- an OpEd piece written for the local newspaper at the time. It was processed into permanent form, placed on a plaque and presented to me by the students when our work was done. If there's time later, I'll re-print it here. It tells the story well, I think. That issue, early on in the process moved me into the rival political group, BCA (Berkeley Citizens Action), the more liberal political organization in the city. Bill's university friends (and mine at the time) were far more conservative than life in the flatlands of Berkeley would allow me to be. The gap was growing wider, and I was being drawn deeper and deeper into black life -- both on and off campus -- and away from the Academy. In many ways I was desperately trying to remain on that bridge between, but losing ground with each day.

The attainment of short-term achievable goals served to set the pattern for the beginning of positive change in our community. No longer would I think in the general terms of replacing racial bigotry with true democracy -- instead I'd apply my logic in brief steps over brief periods and allow myself to be satisfied with incremental change. To do otherwise would be to become paralyzed in a hopeless struggle against the monster of continuing segregation patterns with no end in sight. I, too, needed short term achievable goals. Trusting that ABC's unquestionably strong political power was well-intentioned was a mistake in judgment. Their initial support of the students was in keeping with their mission statement. However, when student success loomed into sight, they caved in to the maintaining of the status quo, and abandoned their original admirable intent. A pattern to be witnessed and responded to repeatedly in the decades ahead.

Back to the Future:

In a way, there are whispers of those lessons learned back then in my recent walking away from a position as field representative for a member of the California State Assembly. Having developed highly sensitive BS indicators under tremendous pressures under real life circumstances, my response to hypocrisy is hair-triggered. I've as often as not acted impulsively at such times, though rarely have I regretted my actions. Intuition has proven to be the finest arrow in my quiver.

But there's my mortgage payment still waiting to be sent ... and the realization that in walking away with a mere three months to retirement was a high cost to pay for principle ... .

Why am I hesitating to liquidate my IRA? Is this not retirement, in a sense?

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