Breast friends: In a downtown Berkeley park on Saturday, a blues band played to a large crowd of mothers and babies and Ellen Sirbu rejoiced. “I was worried we weren’t going to get coverage,” the local director of Women, Infants, and Children casually told a Tribune reporter. With that comment, Sirbu officially outed herself as either slyly modest or the world’s most naive event organizer. After all, here was a sunny, slow news day, and Bezerkeley was preparing to tackle the world record for the most women breastfeeding at the same time — broken in Australia by more than seven hundred little suckers just a couple days earlier. In a world where readers constantly complain about the lack of good news, here was a positive story. It featured more than eleven hundred cute little babies (some cuter than others) and just as many breasts that could be shown with impunity in “family” newspapers and TV newscasts — hell, this was the very definition of family. What media outlet could possibly resist? Well, none could. The Trib, Chron, Merc, and good ol’ Berkeley Voice were there. So were ABC7, NBC3, KPIX, both KTVU and Fox national news, Reuters television (Europe), AP, and Westwood One and KCBS radio — and those were just the ones we confirmed. “I’m hoping she’ll say, ‘One, two, three, suck!'” confided the Westwood reporter. No such luck. Sirbu launched the feeding with the more politically correct “latch,” and the East Bay promptly shattered the Aussie record, if only for a few days. Orange County will try to beat it this week.
Count on this to become an annual event (Sirbu is already fantasizing about filling the Oakland Coliseum). The East Bay, after all, seems to get it. It’s just too bad the bean counters at our local hospitals don’t. To this day, every new mother leaving the Summit or Alta Bates maternity ward is given a handy little Peter Rabbit diaper bag with a tag that reads “Breastfeeding Success Kit.” Nice euphemism. A real breastfeeding kit wouldn’t be laden with formula. To wit, these kits are provided by the Enfamil company, which wants to get moms hooked on its product. The formula companies also get the names and addresses of new parents through the hospitals or baby-related Web sites and businesses. One afternoon, a nice package greets the mom-to-be on her front porch — just a one-month supply, a little something to get her started. The Nestlé legacy is alive and well right here in our front yard. And that really sucks.
Campaign-season colic: Last December, after Oakland’s Port Commission announced plans to sell four Jack London Square buildings to the developer it had signed on for a $250 million redevelopment of the square, the Oakland chapter of the NAACP went ballistic. President Shannon Reeves publicly slammed the proposed $17.2 million sale as a sub-market-price insider deal for white developers at the expense of local minority businesspeople; he made a show of shooting off a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft urging a criminal investigation. “We must stand up and not allow these sweetheart deals to go through. We are very, very serious about this,” Reeves told the Tribune. When the deal went through a few days later, Reeves, who is also secretary of the state GOP, promised to pursue legal action and threatened to organize a black boycott of the square. “Why should the black community continue to spend money in Jack London Square, where we don’t own anything?” Reeves was quoted as saying. “We’re going to spend the winter educating the African-American community about this deal.”
Winter came and went, and so did spring. Now that the summer is nearly over, there are still no signs that Reeves’ heavily vaunted campaign is ramping up, nor does he seem eager to talk about it. Reeves did not respond to several requests for media enlightenment. But Wilson Riles Jr., who at the time was vying for Jerry Brown’s position, and joined Reeves in criticizing the port deal, says the boycott never got off the ground. This was confirmed by port officials, who needed to be reminded that the NAACP had ever threatened them with a boycott.
Perhaps Reeves is just waiting for the go-ahead from Ashcroft, who has yet to offer legal aid to his fellow Republican. Riles, however, says the protest against the deal wasn’t all a bunch of noise. Noting the port’s plans to expand the airport, he says, “The Port Commission is now going out of its way to provide access to minority contractors because of the stink about Jack London Square.”
You can’t hug a child with spent nuclear fuel rods: While Berkeley activists stir up opposition to the transport of low-level radioactive waste from the old accelerator at LBNL, some East Bay residents may have something, well, a bit more dangerous to worry about. Now that Yucca Mountain, located ninety miles northwest of Vegas, has been approved as the nation’s repository for high-level nuclear waste, the US Department of Energy is gearing up to transfer at least 70,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste to the mountain by truck or train over the next few dozen years. We’re not talking picocuries-per-gram here. This is heavy, heavy shit — waste products that’ll still be deadly tens of thousands of years into the future. This raises some highly unusual problems: From what materials, for instance, can you fashion warning signs for the facility that will endure that long? And in what language do you write them? (Might we suggest Cockroach?) The actual transport routes have not been made public due to obvious security concerns. The irony, of course, is that not knowing when a semi packed with spent nuclear fuel might overturn on a local freeway is enough to make just about anyone feel insecure.
The need for paranoia isn’t equally distributed around the East Bay, but fortunately, the Environmental Working Group has put up a Web site (mapscience.org) where you can type in your address and see just how close you are to one of the proposed nuclear transport routes. The site also offers fun facts: If the waste is hauled by truck, according to DOE data, 14,479 shipments will ultimately pass through California. If by train, nearly as many blazing hot (“hot” meaning “radioactive”) shipments would roll through the state. But here’s the scary part: Between 1994 and 2000, Caltrans has chronicled 1,880 fatal tractor-trailer wrecks in California, 490 involving rollovers. And among the 4,264 California train accidents counted by the Federal Railroad Administration from 1990 through 2001 (355 per year), there were 1,319 derailments, 233 collisions with other trains, and 2,350 mishaps involving a train hitting or being hit by a car, truck, or person. For folks living near Fremont, these last ones should be especially chilling. After all, one of the proposed rail routes passes smack through town. Sure makes you happy to live in a regional transportation hub.
Stealing candy from babies: You had to admire Hizzoner’s strategizing skills. After bizarrely suggesting last month that he should be able to refer ballot measures directly to Oakland voters without niggling city council interference, what did Jerry Brown do but ram a public-safety tax proposal right past the supine councilmembers, whose willingness or unwillingness to cooperate was suddenly under scrutiny by the entire city. Faced with Brown’s deft PR move, the council fussed but didn’t fight, and the mayor won himself three months to stump for his hundred-new-cops plan.
Whether or not the mayor’s proposal is good for the city, there’s no doubt it’s good for Brown, who has managed to find himself an issue just as many Oaklanders were concluding he’d lost his imagined common touch. As he has so many times in his career, Brown draped his appeal in populist anger. But the novelty of his latest gesture is that this time he’s tapping populist anger on behalf of the system, not in opposition to it.
For readers who missed the abundant news coverage, the council voted 7-1 last week to send voters a bid to raise hotel, utility, and parking lot taxes for five years. The taxes would raise an estimated $70.1 million, which would be combined with another $975,000 in federal funds to hire a hundred new police officers and fund four violence-prevention programs. The vast majority of the new spending would be earmarked for the highest-crime neighborhoods. The mayor’s timing couldn’t have been more apt: His ballot proposal was rubber-stamped on the very day we all awoke to read about a seven-year-old Oakland girl who had separately observed the murder of both of her parents.
It also clearly resonated with most of the voters who showed up for the debate that evening. With City Hall overflowing with teenagers bused in by groups opposed to hiring more officers, the media seemed not to notice that the vast majority of adults present supported the hundred-cop plan.
But while several dozen speakers showered Brown with credit for bringing public safety to the fore of Oakland politics, he was strenuously denounced by others for his tactics. Although Brown’s plan has apparently been in the works far longer than his critics suspected, it first emerged publicly at the final meeting during which the council could submit it to the voters. League of Women Voters types justifiably complained that this left opponents with only three weeks to coalesce, write, and file ballot statements. One speaker asked the council to withdraw the proposal until it could be presented in a way that helped voters understand what goals they’d be supporting with their tax dollars. Councilmembers Danny Wan, Dick Spees, and Jane Brunner were respectively “troubled,” “upset,” and “not happy” with the mayor’s disregard for their involvement. “I am outraged,” said Brunner. “It should not be the last night of the council so we cannot change it, we cannot take it out, and we cannot discuss it.”
But in the end the protests didn’t matter, since everyone but the ever-stalwart Nancy Nadel voted aye. It was interesting, too, that the council later in the session agreed to forward to the voters a ballot proposal that could make the strong mayor form of local government permanent; if the council itself chooses to be so weak, why wouldn’t voters want a strong mayor?
But if Brown came out of this a winner, the same can’t be said of the police. Oakland’s finest took heat — even from many of the same people calling for more cops. There were complaints about police brutality, complaints about the demise of community policing, and complaints about relations between the cops and residents of West and East Oakland. Top cop Richard Word acknowledged that his department has a lot of fence-mending to do.
And only the chief alluded to the single most interesting question of all: Can Brown’s measure pass? Because of the way the city has structured the proposed tax, supporters need only a bare majority. Even that will be a challenge. A police tax will unite Oakland’s small but predictable antitax bloc with hospitality workers, social-service types, and residents who feel a certain antipathy for the cops. The Riders trial, furthermore, will thrust accusations of police brutality onto front pages during the tax campaign’s home stretch. For tax-backers to win will require a massive promotional effort, the first installments of which have already begun. Darned if the OPD hasn’t already run a large advertising insert in about 70,000 copies of the Tribune, which quickly made its own position clear with a rare, front-page editorial supporting the tax.
It’s debatable whether Brown can generate sufficient support in liberal Oakland for an establishment-backed public-safety initiative. He’d probably have much better luck selling such centrist messages to the more conservative statewide electorate. Of course, that may be his real long-term plan.