Bicoastal Beauty, Bicoastal Disgust

Photo by rulenumberone2 | CC BY 2.0

We set down at San Francisco Airport on Thursday afternoon. The weather was unexpectedly cool.  As anyone who has spent time in the Bay Area knows, this is an occasional phenomenon in San Francisco during August. After leaving the terminal my traveling companion and I got on the BART train to Oakland, disembarking at the Coliseum station.  Longtime friends met us there.

A few minutes later we were at their home drinking a cold beer. Oakland looked pretty much the same as it had my last couple of visits, most recently in 2015.  After catching up on family news and such, the topic turned to Trump and his politics of fear and hate.  The general consensus was that we were all surprised to some degree at the levels of racism, sexism and anti-semitism his rule had unleashed.

As the discussion continued, it became clear that this surfacing of hate has caused my hosts to lose some of their remodeling business due to their extreme distaste for some of their potential customers’ politics.  It’s not like we didn’t know that the US is still a racist and sexist nation; it was just kind of surprising to us that these phenomena were present at the levels we find in supposedly progressive bastions like Vermont and the San Francisco Bay Area.  As the evening continued, our discussion turned to other topics, but politics were never off the table.

The next day I spent some time discussing the demise of the Sixties movement with a retired professor from UC Santa Cruz.  The conversation centered around questions of violence, sectarianism and the repression by the state.

Although we disagreed on the role of groups like the Black Panthers and Weather Underground, we both tended to agree that a belief that revolution was just around the corner in 1968 was partly the result of faulty analysis.  How much that contention played in the end of the movement seems to be one of the discussions my conversational counterpart plans to have in the book she is writing.

After parting ways with the professor I headed to Telegraph Avenue.  As someone who spent many days in my twenties hanging out on the Avenue (as it is known), I always make it a point to see how it has changed each time I visit.  Overall, it is one of the least gentrified business districts in the East Bay, but it no longer seems to be the host to a constant street scene like it did at least into the late 1980s.

Most of the longtime countercultural businesses are gone and I was only asked for spare change once.  Naturally, this pleases the police and many business people who they cater to, plus it makes the parents of modern college students feel better.  The changing nature of Telegraph Avenue has made it possible for local politicians, University trustees and some businesses to once again float the idea of converting most of the embattled green space near the Avenue into housing and shops.  That space, known as People’s Park, has long been a highly-desired piece of real estate.  Conceived in the haze of countercultural dreams and fought for in blood, the Park’s supporters are gearing up for another battle to keep the space green and public.  One wonders which way the struggle will turn this time around, especially in the context of the hyper-gentrification taking place in the entire Bay Area.  As Bob Dylan once sang, “money doesn’t talk, it swears.”  In the modern capitalist world of housing speculation and debt packaging, that swearing is a din that can shut out any words of opposition, no matter how those words are projected.

When my friends and I arrived at the apartment of a couple other longtime friends on Saturday, we were met with CNN broadcasting the news that an anti-racist protester had just been murdered by a nazi in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The footage of the murder (and attempted murder of many others) was rather difficult to watch.  The reporting was equally difficult to listen to, given all the qualifiers reporters in such situations are required to use.

Naturally, the footage brought back memories of protests from earlier decades, including one where the woman we were visiting had destroyed the windshield of a police van after police attacked a concert in the aforementioned People’s Park.  From there the conversation diverged to include numerous topics from astrology to antifa to Trump and the legalization of marijuana (to name just a few of the topics discussed).  Needless to say, there was no love for Trump and his trumpist minions in that apartment.  Nor was there any love for his poison anywhere else I spent time at in the Bay Area, including an Oakland A’s baseball game.  One young man in the beer line at the game had on a Make America Great Again cap; he removed it rather quickly when confronted by a couple women around his age who asked him rather directly if he was a nazi.  As if suddenly realizing where he was, he removed the cap and somewhat comically told the women he had picked up his dad’s cap by mistake when he left the house.  The women laughed and the young man paid for their beers.

Next up was Folsom, California.  While visiting family there, we hiked an absolutely spectacular trail in the Tahoe region, ending up at a small mountain lake known as Eagle Lake.  As we walked along through the trees and among the rocks, the thought that there were serious moves underway to open up similar public lands to fossil energy corporations simmered in my mind.  Not wanting to poison the beauty, I set those thoughts aside and took in the splendor.  The following day was spent hiking among the Sequoia.  Nature’s beauty should not be privatized.  Nor should it be destroyed.

Folsom has a small daily newspaper.  It seems to be a typical small daily that has somehow maintained editorial independence in today’s world of Murdoch and Time/Warner.  The paper’s reportage of national news was mostly downloaded from corporate media sources but its coverage of regional and local issues seemed to come from actual reporters employed by the newspaper itself.  Furthermore, the editorial page includes a fair amount of local opinion.  It was also surprisingly liberal for a paper in a region I always considered more conservative than its neighbors nearer the California coast. Indeed, in an editorial decrying the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville and Trump’s defense of the perpetrators, the editorial board  ended their op-ed titled “Nazis Bad for Business and so is Donald Trump” with these words: “Trump said he wanted to run the country like one of his businesses.  And he is.  He’s running it into the ground.”  Although decidedly liberal in its underlying context, the statement is also quite revealing in its supposition.  That is, white supremacists and nazis are not good for business. This is the bottom line. Back in the 1930s, Hitler was able to convince German business otherwise. The question for the USA in 2017 is will Trump be able to do the same?  In this context, making white supremacy unprofitable is one of the key elements of the protests against white supremacists and their allies.

The salty air of Cape Cod fails to hide the smell of low tide, just as the liberal characterization of Massachusetts fails to hide the racism of many of its residents. I ended my bicoastal travels by visiting a friend currently living on Cape Cod.  While I was there, the departure of the white supremacist Steve Bannon from the White House came across the news feed. Naturally, this is considered good news.  However, when tempered by the earlier news that Trump considers monuments to the men that fought to preserve slavery “precious,” Bannon’s departure proved once again that getting rid of one white supremacist in the US government doesn’t change much of anything.  It wasn’t only those in the non-parliamentary left who smiled when Bannon took a hike, it was also mainstream liberals and even many GOP conservatives–both of which are invested in the same system as Trump and Bannon.  Digging deeper, not only did the neoliberal capitalists and politicians also cheer Bannon’s exit, the stock market even showed a positive jump. Most likely, the generals gradually assuming power in the White House are also pleased by his departure, since their war intentions seemed to differ from Bannon’s, at least in the specifics.

The evening of August 18th saw torrential rains and flash floods across eastern Massachusetts.  I spent a few hours inside a small performance venue called the Cape Cod Melody Tent listening to one of the best bands I have seen this summer.  Fronted by two excellent bluesmen Taj Mahal and Keb Mo, the appropriately named TajMo Band mixed it up in a show that included an opening set from a new blues artist named Jontavious Wills.  Willis’ playing and singing is top-notch and the spirit of his show is one with that of the TajMo Band he preceded.  While most of the two-hour set from the headliners included the entire TajMo band–a seven piece outfit behind Taj and Keb–the two front men did sit down for at least two songs with Taj Mahal on a National resonator guitar and Keb Mo on slide.  The rest of the show saw Taj Mahal alternating between acoustic guitar, harmonica and the aforementioned National while KebMo played both electric and acoustic guitar.  Although there were way too many deck shoes and polo shirts for my liking in the crowd, the music Taj, Keb and company made brought the sold out audience to its feet numerous times.  Despite the ushers gently enforcing a no-dancing-in-the-aisles rule (and some cranky audience members insisting others sit down), the crowd did its best to do a little shakin’, rattlin’ and rollin’.

The concert seemed a fitting finish to a bicoastal journey.  The news that forty thousand anti-racists had chased white supremacists and other right wingers from Boston Commons the next day was a hopeful exclamation point, even though it is tempered by the knowledge that it’s more than just a few racists that need to be put on notice in this nation soaked in the blood of millions by rulers pursuing what they believe to be their manifest destiny.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: