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The Berkeley Takeover

The April Coalition was powerfully committed to the amendment and both white slate members campaigned hard for its adoption. The Black Panther Party supported the amendment and was supposed to be campaigning for it throughout the black community. The Black Caucus, an umbrella group which was part of the April Coalition, supported the amendment. Widener himself did not endorse the amendment, but made it clear that he supported its principles.

But, clearly, any belief that measures for community control, even community control of police, automatically command black support is confounded by these election results. Confounded too are easy assumptions about a “natural” alliance between blacks and young white radicals and students. The black community certainly contributed to the election of the three April Coalition radicals, mainly to the victories of the two young black lawyers on the Coalition slate. But, again, the election returns clearly show that Widener did not carry the black community. In the heavily black precincts, he was decisively beaten by his principal opponent, the liberal Democrat Wilmont Sweeney, the first black to be elected to the Berkeley City Council and a vehement foe of community control of the police.

Widener’s hairline margin over Sweeney is due entirely to the huge pluralities he rolled up in the campus area. After one has made allowances for the fact that Berkeley is not Newark or Harlem or Watts, that its black community is not a dense, groaning mass but a mixed community of poverty-line people, white and blue-collar workers, and a good many middle-class artisans, proprietors, and professionals, one must still be struck by the divergences between the vote of the blacks and the vote of the students, intellectuals, and white radicals who comprised the main force of the April Coalition.

Those divergences raise questions not only of what was won and what was lost in Berkeley, but also about the general potential of a radical coalition of students, older intellectuals and professionals, and blacks. Equally important is the question raised about “cultural revolution” as opposed to radical politics. To raise the last question is not to prejudge the answer. The wildest freak who went out and did his bit for the Community Control amendment was doing political work. He was at least seeking to legitimate the authority of the police. He was also seeking to educate a community, and he may have been seeking to win political power in the city.

The community control measure itself, while it may appear to be an attack on the cops or a bizarre attempt to get the police off the backs of the blacks, students, and street people, did contain genuinely political elements. So did much of the rest of the April Coalition platform. But it is not clear that the students and the street people, who played such a large role in the election itself, are committed to a coalition with the blacks and the working class, or that they are committed to any long-run political strategy at all. To look more closely at these questions, it is necessary to look at the April Coalition and its platform and campaign strategy.

The April Coalition and Electoral Politics

Berkeley, as nearly everyone knows, is not an ordinary university town. It is a handsome city of 113,000 citizens, of whom around 30 percent are black. Its climate is probably as fair as this planet can offer, seeming to the easterner languorous and to the southern Californian bracing. It is a very hard place to leave for those scores of the university’s newly minted PhDs who literally have to be driven out each year into the provinces (New York, Cambridge, southern California). It isn’t just the climate and the bay and the hills and the flowers, or the intellectual and political excitement in and around the university. All of these things combine to help make the city a marvelous place to live and work in.

There are, to be sure, plenty of weeds and even serpents in the garden. The black third of the population is lively, aggressive, upwardly mobile, and sharply separated geographically. The south campus area has been turning increasingly ugly as the dope trade, street crime, overcrowding, and years of struggle with the cops have altered its character. In Berkeley, as elsewhere, the symptoms of contemporary urban pathology have made their unmistakable appearance. The demand for public services has been increasingly insistent but the city already has one of the highest municipal tax rates in the nation.

The university, which pays no taxes, gobbles up larger and larger chunks of income-producing land, meanwhile attracting to itself a large population demanding services. The students and the street people feel themselves to be members of the community but, at least so far, powerless to affect its life. The older residents, the middle classes, and the straights groan under the tax burden while simultaneously fearing that their beautiful city is turning into Haight-Ashbury or Sodom. The university, preoccupied with its own internal problems, insists that it cannot solve them until the community around it has been brought under control. The blacks, while not lacking formal power these last half-dozen years, find it difficult to turn representation into jobs, housing, medical services, and status.

Berkeley has for decades been known as one of the best governed cities in California. When Californians say best governed, they usually mean well administered. When they say well administered, they usually mean professionally managed. Berkeley has been professionally managed, by a succession of recognized experts, since 1924. It lives under the “strong manager” system. The City Manager controls the budget and appoints heads of departments, all of whom are responsible to him, and heads the municipal civil service. The Council and Mayor are nonpartisan, as in all California local governments, and weak with respect to the Manager. The members of the Council are elected at large in “oneshot” elections, four of the eight Council members being chosen every two years.

The watchwords here are efficiency, professionalism, and administration over politics. The Berkeley Police Department has been celebrated for decades for its professionalism, its high standards for officers, its ties to the university’s School of Criminology, and its freedom from both corruption and “politics.” The city’s civil service is highly professional, free of corruption, and, by all of the orthodox criteria, competent. Berkeley municipal government thus combines cool, professional management and an efficiently bureaucratized civil service with a politics of low visibility. All of this was attacked by the April Coalition, which sought to raise politics over administration and to radically hand government over to the neighborhoods and communities.

Berkeley has always been a “progressive” city. A few years ago it swiftly integrated its school system. In this effort a smoothly functioning city government and school system were highly effective, keeping strife at a minimum. The program has worked well: It is a model for any other geographically segregated city and Berkeleyans are justly proud of it. The success of school integration, surely, was a major factor in the black community’s decisive rejection of community control of the police.

In spite of the tensions of generational and communal strife, Berkeley is a tolerant city. While studying this election, I talked with a man in his late twenties who lives in a smallish flatlands commune and who had done much organizational work in his neighborhood for the April Coalition. He mentioned that several children lived in the commune, and I asked him if the kids were hassled very much over the arrangement by teachers and principals at school. He smiled and said, “No, this is Berkeley. Anywhere else we might get hassled, but here the school authorities accept our arrangements as natural enough.” Berkeley is also a Democratic stronghold in party elections. It helps to send liberal Democrats to Congress, and in 1970 it provided the base for the smashing victories of the radical Democrat Dellums.

But Berkeley has not been a radical city. Until this year, it seemed unimaginable that a group of unknowns calling themselves radicals and running on an indisputably and wildly radical platform could have become the most formidable power bloc in the city government. For the April Coalition to achieve the success it did, everything had to fall into place. None of the three successful Coalition candidates even came close to winning a majority of the votes. Their victory was not a case of a desperate and radicalized community turning to its natural leadership, but of excellent organization, of alliances and skillful electioneering, and, perhaps most important, the intense mobilization of students during the campaign and on election day.

In one sense, it was the Community Control of Police amendment that galvanized the students and street people who provided the victory margins for the three April Coalition winners and Widener. On the other hand, the police control amendment clearly alienated much of the black community, diminished their support for some of the April Coalition candidates, and led to the entry into the Council race of several candidates who drew off black support from the Coalition. I am even tempted to say that the Community Control amendment cost the radical coalition outright control of the Berkeley city government.

The drive to win power for radicals in Berkeley began long before the Community Control of Police amendment qualified for the ballot. The essential components of the April Coalition had already been assembled a year before in Dellums’s campaign to unseat the liberal Democratic 7th Congressional District incumbent, Jeffrey Cohelan. There are roots of it in the Committee for New Politics formed in the aftermath of the campaign of Robert Scheer for senator in 1966, and even in the split of the Democratic Club Movement over the Vietnam war in the same year. Berkeley has always been home for many radicals, old CPers, old Trotskyists, socialists, independent radicals, and left-wing Democrats. Their number, moreover, has always included radical faculty members and “hill” dwellers with skills, money, and organizational experience.

These older leftists, liberals, and radicals have no prejudice against working in elections, seeking office, cooperating with Democrats, and, when necessary, acting pragmatically, even opportunistically. They can view public office as valuable in itself, can conceive of an election campaign as a process of public education, and do not believe that electoral campaigning and buïlding a radical movement are irreconcilable. This is not to say that they are running dogs of the Democratic Party, or “old whores” as some young revolutionaries are inclined to call them. They were, after all, prepared to try the impossible in the Scheer campaign and in 1970 set to work as soon as the formidable Dellums came into view. They see themselves as keenly conscious of the movement and are sensitive to the need for coalition with the blacks in the East Bay. They do not, typically, make any distinction at all between electoral politics and a presumed “real” politics.

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