The Year We Grew Up

On daily life: In the East Bay, the tension between love of country and love of dissent is almost palpable.

This is the year we discovered we are not invulnerable, the year we comprehended our mortality. Our home suffered the most devastating terrorist attack in history; somewhere along the line — in the confused outpouring of anger, hope, fear, and national pride generated by the September 11 attacks — we became patriots.

But it was also the year that the American Council of Trustees and Alumni singled out the un-American activities of college professors who made critical statements about US foreign policy, calling them “the weak link in America’s response to the attack.” It was the year that Congress passed a law loosening federal restrictions on wiretapping and Internet surveillance and called it the “Patriot Act.” It was the year when Tom Brokaw rewrote an American motto, closing his nightly newscast by raising a small white plastic vial and intoning “In Cipro we trust.” It was the year when everyone, from the President on down, encouraged us to express our faith in America by opening our wallets and purchasing a luxury vacation or an SUV. It was a year when national feeling and advertising, censorship and dissent crossed tangled paths, when it was hard to tell what was patriotism and what was a sales pitch or, worse, simply bullying.

In the East Bay, the tension between falling in line with nationalist sentiment and speaking one’s mind was almost palpable. Although the Bay Area more recently has been associated with profligate yuppie spending than with peace activism, the East Bay reclaimed its place in antiwar history when 9th District Representative Barbara Lee issued her lone vote against the September 14 Congressional war resolution, which she called giving a “blank check to the President to attack anyone involved in the September 11 events — anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit.” She was also one of only 66 House members to vote against the Patriot Act.

Lee is not normally a high-profile national figure, but her vote turned her into a cause célèbre. Critics accused her of America-bashing and proclaimed she had just voted herself out of office; others hailed Lee equally loudly as the nation’s lonely conscience. Lee’s support is strongest in her home district, which covers Berkeley, Oakland, and Alameda; constituents sent flowers to her Oakland district office, and a rally to support her drew 3,000 participants. Her office has been deluged with correspondence; Lee expects that when it’s tallied at the end of December, she will have received between 65,000 and 75,000 calls, letters, and e-mails regarding her vote. She says that nationally about 65 percent of the responses have been positive, with that figure rising to about 80 percent in her home district.

But not everyone in these parts approved of Lee’s vote, including a few grandstanding politicians who took advantage of her sudden prominence to polish their own contrarian images. Oakland NAACP President and Republican Party state secretary Shannon Reeves accused Lee of partisanship — a dirty word after such a display of Congressional agreement — and of dishonoring the memory of the African Americans who in past years served at the Oakland Army Base and the Alameda Naval Air Station. “While she has always enjoyed the unconditional support of the black community, her vote does not speak for the level of patriotism that we, as blacks, feel,” he wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle opinion piece. Former state assemblywoman Audie Bock, a Green turned Independent turned Democrat, promptly announced her candidacy against Lee in 2002, using Lee’s vote as her only election issue. Bock’s campaign was vicious, featuring a Web site called www.dumpbarbaralee.com that showed Lee’s face just inches from an image of the smoking Twin Towers and the slogan “It’s OK to love America.” Perhaps sensing that attacking Lee wasn’t playing well with East Bay voters, or perhaps because word leaked out that Bock’s Web site was apparently registered and funded by a Sacramento consulting firm that normally handles Republicans, Bock pulled out of the race, handing her endorsement to her campaign cochairman Kevin Greene.

Of course, Barbara Lee was not the only one to take flak for her antiwar stand. In October, the Berkeley City Council, by a narrow five-four vote, passed the nation’s first resolution opposing the US bombing of Afghanistan. Although the resolution’s wording had been somewhat watered down by the time it reached the council floor, it ultimately called for “bringing the bombing to a conclusion as soon as possible,” for the city to “urge our representatives to devote our government’s best efforts … [to] overcoming those conditions such as poverty, malnutrition, disease, oppression, and subjugation that tend to drive some people to acts of terrorism,” and, in typically Berkeley fashion, to “request that we engage in a national campaign to lessen our dependence on oil from the Middle East and to commit to a nationwide conversion to renewable energy sources such as solar and fuel cells within five years.”

Some disgruntled shoppers and businesspeople, who interpreted the resolution as unpatriotic, threatened to boycott Berkeley businesses. Although rumors surfaced about canceled contracts, and supportive neighbors quickly launched a “Buy Berkeley” counter-boycott, there was no discernible drop-off in the city’s revenues. Berkeley also grabbed headlines with what was perhaps the year’s silliest local nonstory, when Fire Chief Reginald Garcia ordered flags removed from fire trucks, apparently fearing that they would draw the ire of frenzied antiwar protesters, and then, besieged with complaints, apologized and reversed his order.

Barbara Lee takes the broad view of the Bay Area’s torn reaction between its residents’ patriotism and their beloved right to dissent. “The East Bay may be known for its anti-war sentiment, but if the goal of the country is to achieve lasting peace, ensure domestic security, and seek the improvement and betterment of its citizens, then the reaction of the East Bay has been no different from that of the rest of the United States,” she says. “In this part of the country there may indeed tend to be more disagreement about what constitutes the appropriate use of military force, but the free expression of ideas is still one of the most important principles of our democracy.”

Throughout the Bay Area, people expressed their dismay at the attacks by going to protests, vigils, memorials, and religious services. We donated our cash and our time to New York relief efforts, and once local charities began to worry that there would be nothing left over for them, people turned their attention to making life better for those in their own neighborhoods. Like everyone else across the nation, we gave blood. The East Bay chapter of the American Red Cross reports that in the last quarter of 2001, it exceeded its normal collection by 4,000 units of blood, with thirty percent coming from first-time donors. Bay Area online auction-house eBay developed one of the nation’s most prominent e-fundraisers, its disaster relief “Auction for America.” Among other all-American items up for bid, New York Governor George Pataki sold off a photo of himself and Joe DiMaggio during a ticker tape parade for the Yankees, and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani offered a baseball signed by Yogi Berra. (Perhaps the award for the most dubious Americana goes to Universal Studios, which used the occasion to auction off props from the movie American Pie 2.)

Moviegoers will soon be donating their time by sitting through The Spirit of America, a three-minute montage by Oscar-winning director Chuck Workman, slated for theaters throughout the country starting this week. Crafted from clips of 130 movies, the trailer, as the National Association of Theatre Owners press release has it, is “a gift from Hollywood to the American movie-going public.” They also promise that The Spirit of America was well in production before Karl Rove made the first of his now-famous visits to chat with movie industry moguls about how they could aid the war effort. At least four of the major theater chains, including Signature, Century, United Artists, and AMC Theatres, have agreed to run the trailer in some Bay Area locations. How well will it play in the East Bay? Independent owner Allen Michaan, who operates four East Bay theaters including the Grand Lake, has adopted a wait-and-see attitude. “If people react well, we’ll keep playing it for a while,” he says. “If they don’t, we’ll take it off.” Michaan also has a more direct way of expressing his political views: the marquee at the Grand Lake, on which he has relayed messages about the energy crisis and the ballot recount. This autumn, it simply said “Imagine.”

Some commercial Americana seemed more calculated to grab at your wallet than to tug at your heart. When members of ‘N Sync, Destiny’s Child, and Britney Spears got together just days after the attacks to record a song penned by Michael Jackson, was it about patriotism or generating an instant hit? What about all of the clothiers hawking baby doll T-shirts with glittery letters spelling out NYPD and FDNY? Or TV commercials insisting that we buy GMC trucks to “Keep America Rolling” or Kenneth Cole’s “God Dress America” billboards that conflate patriotism with buying designer pants? We’ve been told repeatedly that it is patriotic to buy, that we’re stimulating a troubled economy, that “normalcy” should be our watchword. The President made appearances in commercials sponsored by the Travel Industry Association of America to encourage people to keep flying, and officials like San Francisco’s Mayor Willie Brown hosted events intended to bolster holiday shopping by reminding us that America is still “Open for Business.” Some companies have laid the buy-for-America message on so thick that even advertising experts have balked, particularly after automobile manufacturers made a big play for sales in the wake of the attacks. “There’s 5,000 pulverized bodies smoldering in the rubble of the World Trade Center, and they’re advertising the Great October Terrorism Sale-a-thon,” Advertising Age critic Bob Garfield indignantly told the Chicago Tribune. As some have pointed out, it seemed that a culture so loathed by its attackers for its fascination with consumer durables was assuaging its troubles by urging people to buy more consumer durables.

But the biggest seller of the year has been the red, white, and blue. In Berkeley, David Kerchman, owner of Flying Colors, was getting 150 calls a day for American flags, all the more strange because Flying Colors is really more of a banner design firm than a retail outlet. While Kerchman did special-order some flags, he says, “I couldn’t see profiting off of this,” so he started a fund called “Remember the Heroes,” and donated the $1,800 he made to the American Red Cross and the firefighters of New York. Michael Medici, operations director for San Francisco flag distributor Doublet, which does normally stock American flags, says that the demand for them was so high that they sold out two days after the attacks. He estimates that during a normal year he sells fewer than 1,500 flagpole-sized American flags and 3,000 to 5,000 handheld ones, but that by the end of this year, he’ll sell between 800,000 and a million. Medici says that although flag manufacturers have gone on round-the-clock shifts and hired extra people to keep up with demand, there is in fact a Stars and Stripes shortage. New Jersey-based Annin and Company, the nation’s leading manufacturer of American flags, is backed up to August 2002 and in the meantime is rationing what it sells to distributors like Doublet.

If you can no longer make a patriotic statement by buying lots of flags, you can simply go for size. In a my-flag-is-bigger-than-your-flag move, software maker Siebel Systems plastered a nine-story-high custom-made flag decal across its Emeryville office. The 200,000-square-foot emblem lasted less than two weeks. Although Siebel refuses to comment on its disappearance, there’s rampant speculation that the flag was removed after employees complained it was making the building a terrorist target. Siebel still has a 3,400-square-foot flag stickered to its San Mateo headquarters, where people are either more courageous or more receptive to the charms of a giant Old Glory. In fact, when it was pointed out that the gargantuan window decal violated city code, the San Mateo City Council hurriedly passed an emergency ordinance excepting flags.

Does all the flag-waving translate to a renewed sense of civic duty? Not so far, it seems, if you count the election turnout in the months following the September attacks. This November only 18.7 percent of registered voters in Emeryville turned out to vote for their new City Council and school board, and only 17.2 percent of Oakland voters bothered to cast their opinion on Measure B. In December, only 15.4 percent of San Francisco registered voters made it to the polls for the City Attorney runoff election, which not only broke the city’s thirty-year record for its lowest turnout, but also made the election its most costly; if you divide the $2 million the city spent on the election by the number of voters, you get $29 per vote.

Maybe they should have handed out flags.

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