At Least We Don’t Jail Our Prophets

Berkeley residents who get tired of being called NIMBYs and worse by the powers-that-be think they have problems. The artists and other denizens of West Berkeley who object to the new taxation scheme which the big property owners are trying to foist on the neighborhood they call home are currently getting the full treatment from those who think they know what’s best for the area: how to clean it up and make it all nicey-nice for the newly lucrative biotech labs and the high-end condos speculators are hoping to build near them. Their turf is also the target of city re-zoning efforts both spot (Berkeley Bowl) and far-reaching (auto dealership specials). They complain, with some justification, that their now-affordable housing and workspaces are being threatened by gentrification, that there’s obvious inequality in the way different contenders for West Berkeley space are being treated. By Becky O’Malley

Well, perhaps they’d better watch their language. In Berlin, a sociology professor who specializes in documenting the effects of urban renewal on minority populations was arrested, along with three colleagues, and put in solitary confinement for three weeks under Germany’s draconian post-911 “anti-terrorist” laws. The evidence? Prosecutorial word-spotters detected those suspect words “gentrification” and “inequality” in his published academic articles. Not only that, he met with some of the more radical anti-urban-renewal dissidents without taking his cell-phone along, presumably so that he couldn’t be tracked by police spying on the “militant group” (known just as “mg”) which has been blamed for a number of arson attacks on construction projects.

The Deutsche-Welle website reported that, “the prosecutor’s office said Andrej H. [Holm] had met with a suspected member of mg twice and that the researcher used ‘keywords and phrases’ in his academic texts that had appeared in documents written by mg, such as the term ‘gentrification,’ according to news reports. It also said that ‘as an employee of a research institute, [he] had access to libraries where he could inconspicuously do the research required for the founding of a militant group.’ ” As of Thursday, Professor Holm was out of jail, but the charges against him had not been dropped.

Thank goodness, things are nothing like that bad around here. There are, however, many echoes of the German attitude that those in power know what’s good for you, and if you protest you’re suspect, to be seen in many local controversies in the Bay Area and elsewhere. For example, there’s a big development project proposed for the Bayview-Hunter’s Point area right now which proponents are sure will be great, but some local folks aren’t sure and are protesting. Developers and established community leaders are united in applying derogatory labels to their protests.

Academics around the world are busy with petitions on Professor Holm’s behalf. The progressive planning associations (yes, there are some) are doing their best to get the German government to listen to reason. But even supporters are carefully qualifying their opinions to make sure they’re not linked to the radical anti-globalization points of view which the “mg” crowd is thought to espouse.

Here in Berkeley plenty of voices have been raised to suggest that if it’s good for British Petroleum (now just coyly ‘BP’) or for auto dealers or for the Bayer corporation or for any of the other big landholders in West Berkeley it must be good for everyone. They’ve got a right to these opinions, of course, and we support that right by giving them space in the paper to express them. But they cross a line when they suggest that there’s something illegitimate about citizens who don’t like the plans that are being made. And city officials, both elected and hired, who disparage citizen complainers and do their best to evade their scrutiny are even worse, since theoretically their job is to serve the people, all the people, not just the economically powerful people.

And the various individuals and groups who are scrapping with AC Transit and UC Berkeley deserve to get some respect too. The people who are mad at the transit agency’s plans, with just a couple of exceptions, sincerely want to be able to get somewhere efficiently on the bus. Their major gripe is that they think the limited amount of public money could be spent more intelligently to accomplish that goal.

The UC neighbors who think that building a glorified gym and offices right next to the Hayward fault, with road access already over-burdened, are not crypto Stanford fans or opponents of physical fitness. The Planet has published a number of letters from the letter-writing campaign being organized by parents of student athletes, who of course are entitled to promote what they think their kids need or at least what they want. But we’ve also gotten links to blogs being written by other supporters, and with friends like those the UC Student Athlete High Performance Center doesn’t need enemies. A sample, from a blog called calgoldenbears: “IT IS TIME WE THOUGHT OF EVERYONE AND NOT JUST THE TREES, THE RICH LAND OWNERS, AND THE OUT OF CONTROL FARCE THAT IS BERKELEY CITY GOVERNMENT.” (all caps sic).

For those who once were proud to attend a school that seldom won a football game, people like this guy look like prime examples of how our alma mater has gone downhill. Back in the day, the football players used to train at Edwards Field, and then run all the way to the stadium, accompanied by student cheers as they passed. Is it really an improvement to put the new gym (which will serve a maximum of 500 students daily out of perhaps 40,000) in an area poorly served by mass transit, so that it must have a huge parking lot? Of course, when have footballers ever taken the bus?

But no matter how put-upon our local civic watchdogs must feel sometimes, and even if being called “civic watchdogs” sometimes feels to some of them like an insult, they should keep an eye on the chilling tale of what’s been happening to Professor Andrej Holm in Berlin. If they do, they will surely realize that there are worse fates than simply being unappreciated. It’s true that a prophet is often without honor in his or her own country, but at least here, now, we don’t throw our prophets in jail for using the wrong vocabulary.