The massacre at Charlie Hebdo united a stricken world behind the principles of free speech. But how are we doing really? Nationally the US Supreme Court has equated speech with money and hampers earnest bipartisan efforts to get money out of politics. Here in Berkeley it is just as bad.
The balloon drop manufactured by the Free Speech Movement commemorators and the University of California bounces through town yearly, giving people the false impression that UC loves free speech and that its repression in 1964 is part of the faded past, despite the harassment of Palestinian rights advocates accused of violating student-conduct codes by making others “uncomfortable.”
The university has never vacated the SLAPP-suit injunction it instituted against park advocates such as David Nadel in 1992, an injunction which makes it a crime to garden.
Protesters kettled without charges in the recent civil rights protests are now in the best position to reflect on the chilling effect of having criminal charges hovering over one’s head which may or may not be instituted at any moment for the duration of a year.
It is reasonable to ask if one has freedom of assembly if the predicable window-breakers at the back of every march entitle the police to fire CS gas, and sometimes lethal weapons, indiscriminately into a crowd.
If you try to put up a poster on a light pole near the BART Station, which is entirely legal, it will be torn down in a matter of seconds by the green-shirted work crew hired by the Downtown Berkeley Association, the same organization which played the largest role in funding both the unconstitutional anti-panhandling ordinance it pushed for in the 80s and the even more costly anti-sitting law it promoted in the most recent election.
The DBA has the key to the locked kiosk of its preferred events, and its board is dominated by wealthy property owners, but insists that downtown be stripped of all other fliers, which it considers garbage and a potential fire hazard.
The newspaper boxes we used to dance with trying to get cross street intersections were replaced with uniform metallic boxes which are mostly empty now. People put their trash in them because the trash cans are so full, and people new to Berkeley would never know that the town once had dozens of newspapers to choose from; irreverent, conservative, radical, neighborhood-based, a panoply of thought in a town with a full spectrum.
Extremism is probably a better predictor of a group’s tendency to silence or annihilate dissenting views than any particular philosophy or religion.
But one wonders, when controversial speakers come to Berkeley and are unable to speak at all because of those who insist on disrupting the hall, how distant we really are from people who would try to destroy, rather than compete with, a point of view.
As a folksinger once sued for a quarter million dollars for singing “See You in Santa Rita” by a public university on this date in 1992, I hope I am forgiven for avoiding the celebrations Berkeley loves to give itself to convey the message that the work to protect our right to free speech is done.
Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related, local authors are preferred, and we don’t publish anonymous pieces. Email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org. The recommended length is 500-800 words. Please include your name and a one-line bio that includes full, relevant disclosures. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.