August 1, 2013
In the fall of 2011 Occupy caught the world by surprise, as tens of thousands of Americans, led by youth no less, took to the streets demanding economic justice. In Berkeley, California, Occupy upset expectations of a different sort. That city, my home for thirty-three of the past forty-six years, is widely regarded as a prime redoubt of the American left. But in the East Bay and, for a few weeks, the entire country, the epicenter of Occupy materialized in front of Oakland’s, not Berkeley’s, city hall.
To hear the media tell it, Berkeley’s default came out of the blue. “The Occupy movement,” wrote Carolyn Jones in the San Francisco Chronicle, “has been surprisingly quiet in Berkeley, which prides itself on a long history of rabble-rousing.” The quiescence surprised the alternative press as well. “[W]hy,” wondered Zaineb Mohammed in a piece posted on the New America Media website, “is [sic] the city and college that ignited the mass protests of the ’60s barely a blip on the radar now?”
Media puzzlement at Berkeley’s truancy was predictable. For decades the press has disseminated the myth of radical—or leftist or liberal or progressive—Berkeley; take your pick, the terms are used interchangeably. With few exceptions, reporters cite sporadic “rabble-rousing” as evidence of a tenacious civic activism while disregarding numerous signs of a rightward turn within city hall, political disengagement outside it, and ideological disarray all around.
But Berkeley’s enduring radical image is not simply the creation of an unobservant media. It’s also the work of the city’s political class and its constituents. Not that twenty-first-century Berkeley politicos call themselves radical or leftist or even liberal; their label of choice is “progressive,” a contested term embraced by political actors with diametrically opposed views.
The rival claims to that label reflect confounding aspects of contemporary progressivism: Berkeley politics flesh out uncertainties if not downright disagreements on the left over “growth,” environmentalism, U.S. manufacturing, homelessness, and public employee compensation. In any serious political alignment, the positions taken on these subjects are crucial, yet their ambiguous formulation on the left has gone unremarked. To grasp the political realities of today’s Berkeley is not only to dispel an antiquated myth about an iconic place; it’s also to begin to grapple with major incoherence in progressivism at large.