A Tale of Berkeley’s Soul – Just Another Lurid Story Behind the Story

by Steed Dropout
July 16, 2012

[Editor’s note: Dropout has come under attack for his latest Berkeley Daily Planet Berkeley City Council yarn, and instead of defending himself, he has, as they say, rolled over.]

Berkeley, Ca.


After a rousing disruptive protest at city council a month ago, it seemed protesters had nothing else to accomplish.

And it was clear a despised no-sit measure was assured to go to the ballot. The last hurdle was pro forma.

But don’t tell major media. The Berkeley city council (AKA “People’s Republic of Berkeley) would surely attract major media from across the bay, and Oakland-San Jose, as the no-sit measure cleared its final hurdles, last week, before going to voters in November.

And sure enough, the media vans were parked in their usual places on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, across the street from Old City Hall.

Tale of two crowds. June 12, before first no-sit Berkeley City Council protest. Crowd #1. Photo by Ted Friedman.

Tale of Two Crowds. July 10, before No-Sit Berkeley City Council debate. Crowd #2. Photo by Ted Friedman.

Anything I reported would be buried in a sea of other reporter’s ink. I counted five reporters and twice as many photographers. I was used to that.

My response: do something off-beat, maybe innovative. When I got an email alerting me to a possible story in Berkeley’s People’s park, I began my reporting day earlier than I had expected. I took some pics of the reported tree-assault in the park, and headed for my “office” at Berkeley’s notorious Cafe Mediterranum.

Someone tipped me to a demo against my favorite Telegraph Avenue head shop, a sixties emporium of ecstasy. A media van for Ch. 2 T.V. stood empty outside the head shop. Did I miss the story, just because I was an hour late? When I am not Steed Dropout, I am Johnny Come Lately.

Through staff at the head shop and other sources, I learned that Channel 2, KTVU had gotten word that the head shop was on the wrong side of Berkeley’s un-popular no-sit measure and would be demonstrated upon.

Is there anyone alive who does not know that Berkeley is on the verge of banning sitting on side-walks in business districts until 10 a.m., using the law to cite, and ultimately jail homeless youth, according to the measure’s critics.

The advance notice on the head shop protest was off by a city block; it was Craig Becker, owner of the Cafe Mediterraneum, a telegraph-Ave. block away, who supported no-sit, along with Roland Peterson, Executive Director of Telegraph Ave. property owners, who had been mis-identified by a lone protester as the head shop’s owner.

Backstory: Roland Peterson has no need of a head shop, nor does he need to appear hip. Now the owner of the head shop…now that guy is hip.

The lone protester beat a hasty retreat when corrected.

So did the television reporters.

But the television reporters soldiered on with a man-on-the-street angle. Next day the intrepid mainstream media vamps reported, in all seriousness, there had been a boycott of the head shop.


On Telegraph Avenue, the back doors of one of those long busses with rubber intestines spontaneously erupted, mysteriously popping out of their moorings. I got the pic but not the story, and headed for the big story downtown: “Ho-Hum Council Rubber-Stamps No-Sit.”

Bus on Telegraph at Haste pops a gut before council. Photo by Ted Friedman.

At the sparse demo outside city hall, I told local activist Michael Diehl, who organized several anti-sit-lie protests last year, that there weren’t enough people for any fireworks at council–protestors, still glorying in their last month’s council protests, were too pooped to pop.

Just a girl and her rabbit, lying-in at council. Photo by Ted Friedman.

Carol Denney, well-known Berkeley singer, songwriter, journalist was singing, but the crowd was way down from the previous month’s protest, two-thirds down. Denney had stepped in at the last minute. Had she been on the program, all of Berkeley would have showed.

July 10. Speakers queueing to question council's wisdom. Carol Denney, third from left in brown and grey, popular folksinger, writer-editor, activist. Photo by Ted Friedman.

Denney was singing this great protest song about homelessness, and it made me think of Malvina Reynolds, Berkeley’s legendary 50’s-60’s folksinger. Denney has given BR permission to print Denney’s lyrics from city hall:

we looked like flowers
when we were young
we looked like angels
every one
our skin was beautiful
our eyes were bright
we sleep in doorways now
night after night

asking for handouts
is no one’s desire
makes you so small inside
makes you so tired
just have to roll along
whatever goes by
and want to surrender
and just want to die

we built all the bridges
we fought all the wars
now it’s just sirens
the slamming of doors
the slamming of jail cells
again and again
once we were soldiers
once we were workers
now we’re just them

they look at our clothing
they look at our shoes
our troubles and stories
are yesterday’s news
if we were puppies
they’d throw us a bone
if we were children
they’d take us all home

wish I had wings
wish I could fly
make me a home somewhere
up in the sky
where nobody hates
where nobody stares
where somebody listens
where somebody cares

night after night
day after day
looking for mercy
to meet us halfway
they want us to leave
but where do we go
we are just people
they don’t want to know

Diehl said he expected a bigger crowd later at the meeting. But the next day, he admitted he had, along with me, feared a weak showing.

I made a note to try to get Denney’s lyrics, but forgot, and had no time to follow up.


(Bear with us here).

They didn’t have enough oil to light the menorah, but the little they had lasted for eight days. The protestors didn’t have sufficient oil but the oil burned? I mean it looked like they wouldn’t have enough people for a real big stink in council.

Had I jumped my angle before the story even played, and what does this have to do with Hanukkah in July? Journalism kids — don’t do this at home.

Lines to speak July were longer than those June 12 - same issue. Photo by Ted Friedman.

The spine of my story was that we hadn’t expected much at council after protestors had seemingly shot their wads a month before. My hunch seemed supported by a small turn-out outside Old City Hall before the council meeting.

My story, then, would be about a wounded tree, a broken bus, a misreported head shop boycott, and a tame city council meeting that started small and grew. And something about Hanukkah. Let the majors who swarmed Berkeley top that.

Speculation and opinion colored our perception, as we reported that the crowd had miraculously grown, producing the Mother of All City Council Protest Extravaganzas.

Some of Berkeley's leading community activists, Osha Neumann, 73, Ann Fagin Ginger, 87, and Dan McMullan, sitting down to oppose sitting ban. Photo by Ted Friedman.

(Elder Berkeleyans, who had attended council for halfa century, said afterwards that this had been wild, historically).

See the YouTube Video. (video: Urban Strider, Berkeley)

One protestor wrote me after my piece came out, challenging my perceptions of a miraculous eleventh hour struggle.

“Accuracy always works, and does not preclude opinion, but facts are more interesting,” the reader complained.

Why is it that everyone always has better facts than this reporter?


Rushed at deadline, and with two stories, one breaking, I hastily said, in a pic caption that the small crowd had come to hear Carol Denney, without checking to see if she was even on the program. She wasn’t, had stepped in to help out, before she went upstairs to council and cheerlead the crowd to an emotional peak. I thought it was a cast of thousands.

She didn’t get the credit she deserved for all she did. But later, I noted, ” you will always be the star of the evening — you worked up the crowd to the grand finale, as the whole world watched.”

In the media glare outside council chambers last week. Poster calls no-sit crime, 'silly.' Photo by Ted Friedman.

But this is just more media hype, even it is my my media hype.

Denney credited more than a dozen leafleters and many other Berkeley radicals who donated their time to stack the meeting.

My corny tale of one mexican-american political intern’s crusade against no-sit, a trite feature-writer’s cliche, ignored the more interesting and correct angle that many others participated as well, and that the whole miracle of the oil resulted from the collective souls of Berkeley radicals.

I had started out in my planet-piece lead, saying I had discovered the soul of Berkeley Somehow I never made good on that.

The real story would have spread-around the credit for the “miracle” of radicals uniting — even some anarchists joined — would have fleshed out the story.

And as for the angle about some politically ambitious kid stacking the house at the 11th hour…hey, that’s a great story…it’s hard to give up, except that I barely covered that one.

Kid journalists, and I’d like to think myself one of you, don’t get slant-happy.

As usual Dropout is holding back (“rolled over” under attack). What he said was “If they want my sorry old ass, I’m offering it up without a struggle.” —BR Managing Editor.

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