Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Tonight we go before the city council ...

to introduce to the community (meetings are televised) the first blush of our proposal for the Convention Center. The week has been spent trying to reach as many local leaders as possible in the hope that the support that we'll need to garner is really there. It looks hopeful.

Jennifer is carrying the lion's share of the work at this point since this phase draws upon her expertise far more than mine. Makes for some guilt feelings, but I'm fairly sure that this will change as we approach the next phase of activity.

This brings to mind that I've lived a lifetime of working over my head, and stretching mightily. The surprise has always been that, in time, there comes a sense of the "it" (whatever "it" is needed) has always been there to be tapped into. But that means that the cost is high in terms of energy dissipated in the attempts, and with a high anxiety level to overcome.

During those earlier times when I was in learning mode on the fifth floor offices at the Berkeley city hall, it was necessary to sit in on Planning Commission meetings, Public Works, Packet Sessions in preparation for council meetings (in order to prep our members). I was often lost. Being surrounded by people whose education and careers had been devoted to the work at hand made it possible for me to "catch" by osmosis knowledge that I'd not been privileged to own, nor had I needed. My experience in Project Community and life with Bill had prepared me to do that effectively, but there were surely gaps in performance.

Case in point:

When we (South Berkeley Housing Development Corporation) were working so hard to make our project compliant with our determination that all employment opportunities were open to the neighborhood people, I'd proposed that all of the demolition be done by local people. Thought this was an inspired notion since anybody could do this, right? There was an entire block of structures to be torn down and lots of idle hands with empty pockets to do it. It would mean that some laborers would have wages because of our good works on their behalf.

On the morning of the demolition, I stood dumbfounded as we watched two giant-clawed wrecking machines spend all of a few hours noisily chewing up every building in that block! Three huge trucks were busily hauling away the debris. The only human beings working were those drivers and a couple of men spraying water to keep the dust down. The technology involved bore no relation to the picture in my mind of human beings pulling apart those houses board-by-board and brick-by-brick for days if not weeks. None of those sessions in those city boardrooms had hinted at the scene before me. My knowledge base was completely irrelevant to the job at hand. This was as often true as not, and that recollection has kept me properly humble over the years since.

We'd also been very careful -- when time came for choosing the contractor/developer -- that affirmative action specifications were strictly adhered to. We'd sent out a Request for Proposals and had spent many days and weeks carefully reading each one in order to assure that this mandate was honored. How disillusioning to discover after the fact that many of those contractors were not local, but were from cities miles away. The common practice was to create (on paper only) a profile of a multi-racial work force by paying non-whites for the use of their names and pictures on their proposals. In some cases the same names of black or brown sub-contractors appeared on several different proposals. A complete distortion of the intent of the mandate.

When the construction work started, the contractor chosen was from a city in the far north of the state and every workman on the job was white. The proposal had cleverly masked this fact. This, in a black community with high unemployment. Not even the laborers who cleaned the site and hauled away debris were black. There were no black sub-contractors.

The community began to grow resentful and I knew it. The day came when a group of men came to me with an request that I join them to walk the construction site. The carpentry had been pretty well completed by then and the painters were beginning to turn up. There were a number of black painters in the neighborhood, so this could get ugly.

We walked back to my store after our brief tour. I got out some old posters and wood for making picket signs, and the men and I returned to protest this development. I was picketing my own dream! Shut it down! It was a pittance, but we succeeded in getting two laborers on the job, but only two. They were still no painters; union problems, doncha know... .

Found myself sitting on my own rage that day, lest I encourage trashing of the project we'd worked so hard to bring into being. But I wondered how often that buried rage was seen as passivity by the outside world? My inside view of that world assured me that the more appropriate word would have been "control." Low expectations better describes what it was like. Low expectations that led to a collective feeling of unworthiness, a feeling that pervades the black community without ever being recognized for what it is.

It was harder and harder to return home each night and into a unknowing world of white liberals whose life experience simply could not have prepared them to see what I was walking into every day. The disconnect followed me from hill to flatlands and back again, with the chasm between threatening to engulf me in the process.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

September 28, 1983


By Betty Reid Soskin

As a member of the Ad Hoc Committee formed to study the feasibility of changing the name of Grove Street to Martin Luther King Way, I've watched with growing concern the misinformation and distortions carried by the press. In the interest of clarification may I submit the following:

First to those who have responded to the issue with, "I'm certainly not opposed to honoring Dr. King in some way --a park, an as yet unnamed public building, any other street, etc.," I would say: Grove Street was not idly chosen. The City of Berkeley holds a position in the world community as an international city -- the site of one of the world's great universities. In this important little city, Grove is the oldest main street; has the greatest diversity of architectural styles; a healthy socio-economic balance; ethnic diversity, holds the city's governmental buildings -- the only high school, the adult education complex and a number of churches - truly a representative 'community' street with an interesting balance of residential, commercial and governmental structures.

To the woman who called to say, "Who are YOU to want to change the name of MY street to anything?" We are a committee of Berkeleyans who are of all races and religions, homemakers, students of both the high school and the university, clergy and laypersons, business and professional people, public servants, yes, and politicians. We are young and old, Flatlands and Hill, Town and Gown. We are even a few children. And we are of the belief that if several thousand other Berkeleyans will join with us and sign a petition to change the name of Grove, that we are prepared to request the city council to honor that wish by voting the change.

(Even while writing the paragraph above I was aware of the world in microcosm. Would that we were wise enough to deal with the age-old question of territoriality more creatively; the privilege of the many vs. the rights of the few.)

For those who have said to me, "Berkeley has done that already ...look at King Junior High and Malcolm X schools," may I say: As one of the senior members of the committee I, too, often feel that "we've done that already" as I recall the pain of the Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties. Look around you folks. It simply didn't STAY done. Under the present administration most of the gains of the period are already lost and more erosion can be expected in light of the greater defense commitments and an ever-growing military budget. Social change is now the charge of a new generation of young leaders, some of whom were barely out of the womb when Dr. King was challenging the conscience of the world.

To the man who called to say, "...this is an ABC plot to disrupt the Grove Street residents" may I say: The Committee is unaffiliated with any of the political organizations in the city. There simply is no device for discovering just which committee member belongs to which political group. I do know that -- as interested citizens, from time to time, we've been visited by the mayor (BCA) some council members (both ABC and BCA), our police chief, high school principal, at least one member of our school board among others. We've tried hard to not become politicized -- and except for questionable reporting, we've succeeded fairly well.

To those who approve the name change on the basis that, "...Those poor Black people don't ask for much and this would be a nice thing for US to do for THEM," may I say: Dr. King is far larger than Black. He is larger than 'American' -- of world stature. His Nobel Peace Prize attests to that most eloquently. He is a leader in the tradition of Lincoln, Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau and Ghandi. He was a continuing influence on men like the late President Anwar Sadat and Nelson Mandela. Behind the Iron Curtain,in Hungary, five Baptist churches are named in his memory. Streets and highways have been named for him in many countries and several American cities.

My personal reasons for participating in this project are simple. I fully approved the idea when first presented. Dr. King has been my personal hero for many reasons for many years, however, I would have settled for the process. How exciting to use it as a vehicle for bringing those powerful speeches out again -- whether or not the street actually got re-named. This was in the spring. In June my motivation was irrevokably altered.

I'd recently discovered while rummaging in the back of my store -- two 3-record boxed sets containing "The Wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King" and "The Wisdom of Malcom X," the complete collected speeches of the two great leaders. I could hardly wait to present them as auction items for the KQED-TV (PBS) annual fund drive. They were beautifully packaged with lifelike portraits of each man depicted in full color on the covers. As I sat filling out the donor forms a mature (white) female volunteer sat studying the albums before her -- and -- after gently reminding me that the value of my gift had to exceed fifty dollars (I assured her that they were to be given in pairs, a $60 value), she continued to look dubious and asked, "is it good blues?" I felt a deep embarrassment for her that continued through the drive home.

Racism? Perhaps, but that's too easy. Ignorance? Certainly to some degree. Time? Yes. Time enough for the oily film of stereotypic memory to cloud over the identities of the two powerful leaders who'd shaken the rafters of the nation and the world in their time. Had they now morphed into the faces of Nat King Cole, Paul Robeson, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, or B.B. King, perhaps?

My day started much as yours with a shattering, "...the U.S navy today shelled the coastline of Lebanon..." The commentator briefly spoke of "stepped-up fighting between Iran and Iraq." My memory was jarred to recalling my city's role in the overthrow of the Shah -- Iranian students educated at Berkeley figuring heavily in the hostage drama. Found myself wondering if folks in other lands connected us with the birth of the atom bomb? With Edward Teller and David McMillan -- Lawrence Laboratories and Los Alamos?

Beginning to notice, again, a kind of numbness growing out of my inability to absorb the onslaught of yet another list of terrifying developments. Assassination in the Philipines -- a civilian 747 blasted out of the sky -- and that invisible part of myself that steps outside of my body for brief periods to watch all that "stuff go by" -- as if I'm not really involved at all. I believe Bill called it Samsara.

One quotation cuts through the numbness like a scalpel:

"Either we will learn to live together as brothers, or we will surely perish together as fools."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

O that we could be reminded of that quotation each time we enter Grove street from any direction! To be reminded that we will surely perish even as 'brothers' if we continue to allow 'fools' to move us ever closer and ultimately beyond the edge of existence.

Spring, 2004:

Iraq again in the news with another Bush at the helm of the Ship of State... The more things change, the more they remain the same... .
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?