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Think Tank Berkeley

Last week, Gene Bernardi and I went to the Berkeley, California, City Council meeting.  We were there to represent Veterans for Peace, East Bay chapter, and speak against the city buying a tank.  Of course they’re not calling it a “tank” — that wouldn’t go over very well.  So officially it’s a “Reinforced Panel Van.”  A photo of it was projected on a huge screen for us all to see.  It was white and looked like a regular family van, and that was their selling point — that it didn’t actually look like a military assault vehicle.  Nevertheless, this is part of Homeland Security’s police militarization program.

The tank issue was placed right after the consent items and so it came up relatively early, sometime between 8 and 9 p.m.  In the past, items such as this, ones that drew a lot of public opposition, were often delayed until as late as midnight, when many had gone home.  But now we have a new mayor, Jesse Arreguin, and new council, with a new way of doing things after many long years of centrist Democrats, now replaced by progressive Democrats.  This was one of the few bright spots in the recent election.

Twenty or thirty people spoke. Russell Bates and Andrea Prichett from Berkeley CopWatch were there; so were many other local activists.  Steve Martinot and JP Massar spoke, as did many others.  Cynthia Johnson ceded time to Gene Bernardi.

Gene pointed out that the city was putting the cart before the horse, that before acquiring military hardware, the council needed a full public discussion on Berkeley’s participation in police militarization programs, especially in light of the recent national election.

As I was standing in line, waiting to speak, I overheard audience members talking about how this was “not a tank,” and it really hit me how effectively the promoters of that vehicle were downplaying its military functions, passing it off as an innocuous passenger vehicle, bullet-proofed for safety.

Then it was my turn. “We don’t need a tank, please don’t buy one,” I said.  “There are numerous words for armored vehicles, such as half-tracks, armored cars, armored personnel carriers.  It’s officially called a ‘van,’ but let’s not get hung up on nomenclature.  It’s a tank!   Call it what you want, it’s an urban assault vehicle!  That’s a tank.  A tank is a tank is a tank. And we don’t need a tank.”

More speakers.  Two or three actually spoke in favor of buying the vehicle.  Their argument was that it would make police feel safer.  One person said she “felt sorry for the police” because they didn’t have enough equipment.  They also needed dogs, she said.

The overwhelming majority spoke against acquiring it.  Several pointed out that the best way to ensure police safety is good community relations.  Others attacked the wrong-headedness of  applying military solutions to social problems.  People wondered what strings might be attached, that the city might become tied in with other Homeland Security actions.  The example of Standing Rock was cited, relating to the use of military equipment against peaceful protesters.  Others agonized about the waste of $80,000, which could be better used on better things, housing the homeless, for example. (The full price of the tank is $205,373; Homeland Security would pay the balance.)

After public comment, the councilmembers held their discussion, which was surprisingly brief.  The councilmember who spoke longest was Chris Worthington; he’s been around a long time and has always been really good.  But tonight I couldn’t believe what I heard him saying, that the vehicle was acceptable because it didn’t look military.  It didn’t have the shape of a tank, and it wasn’t painted in camouflage, so it would be appropriate for our community.  “I’m in favor of it,” he said.

Other councilmembers also spoke in favor, saying one after another that it would give police greater safety.  Everyone would be safer with this vehicle.

When it came to a vote, only one councilperson voted against the tank. That was Cheryl Davila.  Some years ago, she had been appointed to a commission by former Councilmember Darryl Moore, who later fired her for proposing divestment from Israel.  In this year’s election Davila ran against Moore, and won.

So this is Berkeley’s new progressive council?  I remember the last time a tank was proposed, a couple of years ago, Councilmember Max Anderson shook his head and demanded, “What do you want a tank for?”  (The police were quite openly presenting the vehicle as a piece of military equipment that time, which was probably why it was rejected.)  Councilmember Anderson was great that evening.  But he wasn’t there tonight.  He’s gone now, retired after 27 years on the council.  I miss him.

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