Love it or hate it, Berkeley is different from most other cities.
Earlier this month we were reminded that on Oct. 12, 1992 — 29 years before the nation — Berkeley became the first city in the country to formally celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day. Formalized by the City Council on the eve of the Columbus Quincentennial, the revision was led by Berkeley activist John Curl and several Native leaders.
From the Streets to the Ballot Box: Berkeley Politics in the 1970s,
Berkeley Historical Society,
1931 Center St.,
through April 2022
But Berkeley is home to many other political firsts, a fact reflected in the Berkeley Historical Society exhibition “From the Streets to the Ballot Box: Berkeley Politics in the 1970s,” which opens Nov. 6 and runs through mid-April 2022.
David Mundstock was an activist and historian of Berkeley electoral politics who passed away Aug. 28, 2020. He was the only child of Jewish parents who had emigrated from Nazi Germany to Canada and later settled in San Francisco. Mundstock was a UC Berkeley undergraduate and law student and was deeply dedicated to the democratic promise of electoral politics. He spent countless hours registering people to vote, but his biggest contribution was organizing students to become a major constituency of the progressive coalition that elected the first representatives of the “new politics” to the Berkeley City Council in the early 1970s. The coalition became known as Berkeley Citizens Action, or BCA.
David understood the nuances of Berkeley’s electorate and painstakingly compiled data on every election, often charting results in color on large precinct maps.
I was a member of the Inkworks Press collective, which printed many Berkeley campaign materials, and I befriended David while researching electoral posters. He asked me to survey his extensive archive in 2016, so though I was surprised to hear of David’s death, I wasn’t surprised to learn that he willed me his collection. After extracting box after box from under dusty eaves and creaky file cabinets, I reviewed the materials and donated them to the Berkeley Historical Society. One of the meta-messages here is how community citizen-scholars passionately build collections that eventually need to move to more secure and accessible institutions.
The Mundstock collection is a powerful body of work detailing the evolution of politics in a vibrant city — over 30 cartons of documents as well as 150 political posters, boxes of campaign buttons and bumper stickers. It is still being processed at the BHS; this exhibition is a selective showcase highlighting just some of the many subjects available for further research.
Here are three of the many progressive campaigns documented in this collection:
Community Control of Police (1971)
The need for fundamental change in policing, dramatically brought to the fore with the 2020 murder of George Floyd, has a deep history in Berkeley. In September 1970 the “community control of police” measure qualified for the spring elections — an unprecedented proposal to replace the citywide police force with three independent “neighborhood” departments, under civilian governance and a requirement that police officers live in Berkeley.
The measure was advanced by members of UC Berkeley’s School of Criminology and the National Committee to Combat Fascism, a coalition of the Black Panther Party and several community organizations. Berkeley had seen major law-enforcement struggles during the 1969 fight over People’s Park, where the primary problem was behavior by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department and involvement of federal agencies including the FBI. This measure addressed persistent local concerns with the Berkeley police and served as a model for grassroots organizations around the country struggling against police racism.
In early spring 1971, a major public debate was held in Berkeley about the community control of police measure, featuring Rep. Ronald V. Dellums and Vice Mayor Wilmont Sweeney. Dellums pointed out that there had been numerous incidents of racist behavior by the police, which had only six Black officers in a department of over 200.
On April 7, 1971, voters elected three members of the progressive April Coalition slate but rejected the police measure by a large majority. In 1973 Berkeley voters again rejected police reform measures including a local residency requirement and “demilitarization” of the force, but approved a civilian-run review commission, one of the first in the country. In 2002 the former assistant city manager in Berkeley testified that the Police Review Commission “saved the city at least $100,000 from one potential lawsuit alone.”
Berkeley Marijuana Initiative (1973) and Measure C (1979)
Cannabis in California has been legal for medical use since 1996, and OK for recreational use since late 2016. Given Berkeley’s countercultural credentials, it should be no surprise that efforts to decriminalize marijuana were an early tool in the electoral arsenal. These efforts lacked a commitment to engaging with communities of color, which have always borne the brunt of drug enforcement. But still, they paved the way for less draconian community standards.
David Mundstock drafted one of the shortest initiatives ever. The key operational clause: “the Berkeley Police Department shall make no arrests for the possession, use, and cultivation of marijuana without the authorization of the Berkeley City Council.”
No ballot argument was submitted against the Berkeley Marijuana Initiative, but it drew national attention when Tom Accinelli came up with a fundraising idea for a “Win a Kilo” marijuana raffle at a dollar a ticket.
The measure was challenged in court and was never implemented as intended, so in 1979 military conscientious objector Steve Bloom drafted a new initiative. Measure C would direct the City Council to ensure that the enforcement of marijuana laws became the Berkeley Police Department’s “lowest priority.” The measure further cut off funds for the enforcement of marijuana laws, tried to stop arrests and mandated reports of all marijuana law enforcement activities to the City Council. Unopposed, the measure won.
Divestment from South Africa (1979)
Can a city influence social justice in a faraway country? This was exactly the question citizens answered in 1979, when Berkeley became the first city in the United States to add municipal weight to support the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa.
That year four Berkeley Citizens Action candidates were elected to the City Council: Mayor Gus Newport, John Denton, Florence McDonald and Veronica Fukson. Together with Councilwoman Carole Davis, who switched sides, there was now a progressive majority on the Berkeley City Council. The ballot also included a pair of initiative ordinances which BCA thought would help the campaign by fostering greater voter interest and turnout — Measures A & B, the Responsible Investment Ordinances about South Africa.
Concern about City of Berkeley investments that supported white-ruled South Africa had been voiced for years, leading to various unsuccessful City Council motions. In 1978 students at the UC Berkeley chapter of California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) decided to address this issue with an initiative. The Campaign for Economic Democracy and BCA people from the campus community joined in the effort.
Measure A condemned apartheid and required the withdrawal of City of Berkeley funds from banks doing business with South Africa, and a Citizens Committee on Responsible Investments would help the Council implement this policy.
Originally flawed in its language, the supportive City Attorney’s office submitted an amended initiative to reflect a “minimal” adverse financial impact if both measures A and B passed as a package. There was no campaign against them.
Eventually, massive international pressure led to the fall of South Africa’s apartheid system. Nelson Mandela was freed on Feb. 11, 1990, and negotiations to end apartheid formally began that lasted for four years, ending with the election of Mandela as president. In 1996, the country initiated a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to reckon with the gross human rights violations during apartheid.
Lincoln Cushing is an archivist and author who documents, catalogs, and disseminates oppositional political culture of the late 20th century. His books include Revolucion! Cuban Poster Art and Agitate! Educate! Organize! – American Labor Posters and he was curator for the All of Us or None: Poster Art of the San Francisco Bay Area exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California in 2012.