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The Berkeley Takeover

On the eve of the Berkeley municipal elections on April 6, Ronald Reagan and other conservative spokesmen in California officially lamented and denounced what they called “an impending radical takeover” in that volatile city. As soon as the election was over and before its somewhat ambiguous results could be analyzed, it was the turn of the liberal newspapers and television stations. They spoke in tones of accommodation. The San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times were gratified because the election had demonstrated that it was possible for the alienated to “work within the system.” The New York Times confidently called the results “another defeat for extremism” and claimed that “the middle of the political spectrum, where almost all elections are decided, was moved to the left.”

Well, the event scarcely ranks in the annals of revolution alongside the formation of the Paris Commune, but neither was it simply a victory for some dynamic young liberals and urban reformers. It was much more than that. If it was not in every respect a great radical victory it was a victory for radicals. The partial victory of the Berkeley radicals, moreover, has meaning beyond the boost it gives to the morale of the American left in the age of Nixon and in the land of Reagan.

On the surface, the victory lay in the election to the City Council of three out of a slate of four young radicals running under the aegis of a diverse group of students, intellectuals, and white radicals called the April Coalition, and in the election of a militant young black councilman, not technically a part of the radical slate, to the office of Mayor. Warren Widener, the Mayor-elect, is a friend and protégé of Ron Dellums, surely the only member of the US House of Representatives who might plausibly be called “radical.” Widener will vote with the three new radical Council members on most of the important issues.

Right now, the crucial question is who will fill Widener’s vacated seat on the Council. There is strong pressure from the left, and a surprising amount of acquiescence from the center, to fill the seat with a fourth member of the radical slate, Rick Brown, a young graduate student in education, who lost the election barely. If Brown is appointed, the four April Coalition radicals and Widener will constitute a majority of the Council (eight members in addition to the Mayor). There is, of course, pressure not to appoint Brown, to appoint instead a “swing” member as a compromise. But there is almost no way that the seat can go to an appointee wholly unacceptable to the Coalition and to Widener. There is every prospect, then, for a radical majority on many issues. That is one, minimal meaning of the election.

Community Control of Police

What comforts the establishment, aside from the fact that all of the radical winners are young, personable, articulate, deadly serious, and clearly well-informed on matters of municipal governance, thus, presumably, assimilable or, at least, amenable to reason and experience, is the decisive defeat in the election of the much publicized proposal for “Community Control of Police.”

That proposal, in the form of an initiative charter amendment, is not well understood outside of Berkeley, though it was certainly well enough understood by the voters of Berkeley. That it was a radical proposal cannot be doubted. There is a false impression that the Community Control proposal was originated by the blacks. It is rumored that the rough idea for the plan came from Bobby Seale, who then handed it to several lawyers to “work up” for placement on the municipal ballot. Actually, the sponsoring and organizing group was called The National Committee to Combat Fascism, a coalition of left-of-center groups which are mostly white but which include the Black Panthers. The Community Control plan itself was apparently drawn up by two lawyers, Peter Frank and Gordon Gaines, working for NCCF out of the Black Panther Party national office. About a year ago NCCF began to circulate throughout Berkeley a petition to put the Community Control plan on the ballot for 1971.

In the spring of 1970, of course, the city was in convulsion. In April there were numerous trashings on the Berkeley campus and two full days of what amounted to pitched battle between the familiar alliance of university students, high-school kids, and street people on one side and massed police from several jurisdictions on the other. In May, after the invasion of Cambodia and the massacres at Kent State and Jackson State, a prolonged and complicated “reconstitution” crisis developed. From early May until the end of the school year the streets of the city swarmed with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young people looking to “do something,” that is, to do some political work.

Many were able to work in Dellums’s campaign for the Democratic congressional nomination. Others worked for Ken Meade, a young liberal seeking the Democratic state assembly nomination. Others helped NCCF to circulate the Community Control petition. It was an exhilarating time for young Berkeley radicals, and in such an atmosphere signatures on the petition came easily. By July NCCF had more than twice the 8,000 signatures needed to qualify the proposal as a charter amendment for the 1971 ballot. It was subsequently adopted by the April Coalition as part of its platform. It was a fateful and possibly a Pyrrhic triumph.

That the Community Control of Police plan engaged the deepest and most powerful political passions of one segment of the Berkeley left cannot be doubted. Tom Hayden, who drove himself hard in the campaign for signatures just as he was to drive himself hard for the amendment during the election campaign, said at the time, “This plan is the last chance of those who say they want peaceful change….” But by no means all of the Berkeley left was so committed to that particular plan for community control of the police. As even a glance at the plan itself will show, it was a strike at the vitals of that institution which is the prized symbol of the urban middle class, the police.

The Community Control of Police amendment would have abolished the unified Berkeley Police Department and created in its place three separate and autonomous departments called Neighborhood Divisions, one for each of three major sections of the city. The Neighborhood Divisions would reflect the regions of Berkeley: the western flatlands in which live most of the city’s black population as well as a substantial and diverse number of nonblacks; a sprawling prosperous “white” section including the Berkeley hills where lives the Berkeley gentry, including the mandarins of the university faculty and administration; and a small, densely populated section immediately south of the campus with Telegraph Avenue as its axis, largely inhabited by students but also by university-oriented intellectuals and professionals outside the gentry, hippies, “street people,” commune dwellers, drug culturists, assorted freaks, a few funky old people, and even some conventional citizens.

The “south campus” is the heart of the Berkeley Scene. People’s Park is there and so are the “dorms,” the crash pads, the head shops, the movie houses, the bookstores, the coffee-houses, and the sidewalk artisans. In fact, the whole colorful Berkeley imbroglio is there, with its seemingly shambling and disorderly movement of people. Sometimes they call themselves freaks. More often they call themselves “the people.” Reagan looks down at them from Sacramento and thinks that they are denizens of some wicked, unspeakable place, that one day they will come swarming up out of their filth and horror to destroy—what? The State. Order. Civilization itself.

The middle-class Angeleno, suntanned, bathed, and scented inside his jersey jumpsuit, turns on the six o’clock news and views the latest events in Berkeley. He sees those frail, bearded young men, those strutting, outrageously garbed blacks, those sturdy long-haired young women, braless in T-shirts. “They are making new demands on the administration,” he is told by the announcer. “They are shouting obscenities at the police.” The middle-class Californian likes the Berkeley “people” no more than Reagan does. “Technology Sucks! Off the Pig! Off the State! Fuck Authority!” Their message sounds to him hateful and inexplicable.

Yet the Berkeley election of 1971 in some way belongs to the freaks, to the people of the south campus area, as much as it belongs to anyone, even to the older, more sober radicals of the April Coalition. In the end, community control of police was their issue more than it was the blacks’. The students and freaks and street people are a constituency. They have entered normal politics in a tentative way and one cannot say with confidence just what that means, or how long it will last.

To establish community control of the police, then, the amendment would have given control over police policy in each of the three areas to Police Councils elected by the voters from Police Council Precincts. There would have been two councils of fifteen members each in the black area and white area respectively, and one council in the campus area. The councils would choose individual commissioners to carry out day-to-day administration of each police department, but policy would remain with the councils. In addition the amendment provided for easy recall of either councilmen or commissioners, called for grievance procedures to be maintained by the councilmen, and required frequent public meetings for commissioners and councilmen, to be held “at a time when interested persons may attend.” Finally, the amendment required that all police officers must live inside the area served by his or her department. (At present all but thirty-five of Berkeley’s 200 police officers live outside the city.)

Under the amendment, the police budget would still have been appropriated by the City Council but would have been disbursed to the three departments according to population, thus ending the City Manager’s control of the police budget and putting it, in effect, into the hands of the voters. The tendency of the amendment, plainly, was away from professionalism, from managerialism, and from police autonomy, and toward community participation in police affairs. As Tom Hayden wrote in the amendment’s defense, “[It] goes beyond the philosophy of representative government and suggests the solution of direct democracy.”

As it turned out, no one but the students and the freaks really wanted the Community Control amendment. The proposal was defeated by a two to one majority. Of the 160 precincts, it carried only twenty-eight, of which all but five were in the campus area. The amendment carried no predominantly black precinct. In fact, most of the black precincts also voted against the amendment two to one. Congressman Dellums, it must be remembered, strongly supported the amendment, though he did not campaign for it as diligently as he campaigned for the election of Warren Widener and the four members of the April Coalition council slate.

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