THE LIGHTS OF BERKELEY

BHS I

BHS II

Images courtesy of Juan Carlos Guerrero

All images courtesy of Juan Carlos Guerrero

All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr

One evening last week, I cracked open the World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See and began reading the opening scene, in which American bombardiers fly over the French town of Saint-Malo, liberating it from German occupation. As I sat in my cozy living room in Berkeley, the sound of (I kid you not) helicopters began to fill the space. It was a dramatic coincidence but I remained reasonably certain that the Bay Area wasn’t being bombed. We were several days in to nightly protests over police violence and the helicopters belonged to law enforcement and the media.

I’d been feeling ambivalent about whether or not I should join the protests, demonstrations that were intended to be peaceful but were turning dangerous due to a small group of people who were using them as an excuse to antagonize the police and damage property, which had led to aggressive police tactics in response. Each evening the protests continued and every morning I saw another boarded up storefront. I remained ambivalent about what was being achieved.

Then last Wednesday, I learned that the students at Berkeley High had walked out of their last class of the day in an organized march that led them through downtown Berkeley and onto the university’s historic Sproul Plaza, site of many a student protest. They chanted, “UC Berkeley join us now, you’re the ones that showed us how.” They walked peacefully through campus and ended at the bell tower, where they staged a die-in with Black students lying on the ground while their White peers stood in a circle around them, paying witness before joining them. At one point a few onlookers began heckling the crowd and the scene could have turned ugly. But how did the BHS kids respond? They began yelling “We love you” to the hecklers and they diffused the conflict.

Some of these kids are my clients, others I work with on a volunteer basis – and I couldn’t have been prouder or more moved to learn that they had managed to accomplish what their adult counterparts couldn’t. They demonstrated exactly what I most appreciate about teenagers: their innocent spirits and ancient souls. They have the ability to recognize injustice and they’re optimistic enough to try to do something about it. It’s why we put so much hope in the generations that succeed us.

“That’s great T,” you may be saying, “but what the heck does any of this have to do with All the Light We Cannot See? I mean, I heard it was one of the best books of 2014 and everyone I talk to raves about it. Couldn’t you spare a few words for this modern masterpiece 10 years in the making?”

Folks, everything you’ve heard about the book is true. It is wonderful and I highly recommend it and it just so happens to have two teenage protagonists. And although the story takes place 70 years ago, it feels very timely. In fact, I couldn’t help but take note of the following passage, which describes the senseless shooting of a civilian woman and child.

“Werner waits for the child to blink. Blink, he thinks, blink blink blink. Already Volkheimer is closing the closet door, though it won’t close all the way because the girl’s foot is sticking out of it, and Bernd is covering the woman on the bed with a blanket, and how could Neumann Two not have known, but of course he didn’t, because that is how things are with Neumann Two, with everybody in this unit, in this army, in this world, they do as they’re told, they get scared, they move about with only themselves in mind.”

all-the-lightI can’t think of a better way to articulate the root of so many of the problems we have today.

 

SUBVERSIVES

Another great cover. Who needs Henry when the books look this good?

Another great cover. Who needs Henry when the books look this good?

Subversives:
The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power
by Seth Rosenfeld

Being a staunch Gen Xer in a city of militant hippies can be a confusing existence. Starting with the realization that there is such a thing as a militant hippie. So I figured that Subversives, which chronicles Berkeley in the 60’s, might provide me with some missing historical knowledge about this place that’s become my home and, in the process, maybe I would start to understand the mysterious habits of an indigenous species known as the Baby Boomers.

Subversives follows the trajectories of three men whose paths converged during Berkeley’s student protests: Mario Savio, leader of the Free Speech Movement; Clark Kerr, president of the University of California; and Ronald Reagan. Seth Rosenfeld, the book’s author, spent more than 30 years piecing together this story as he battled the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act to attain secret agency files. Four lawsuits later, he finally obtained 250,000 pages of previously unreleased material that fleshes out the standard 60’s narrative in a detailed and fascinating way. Given my penchant for getting to the bottom of this whole Baby Boomer thing, I found myself particularly drawn to Mario Savio’s story.

Born in 1942 and raised in a Catholic household, Savio was an uber intellectual with a genius-level IQ and a sensitive soul. He loved math and science and assumed he would become a physicist. As he hit his teenage years, Savio’s deep thinking became more complicated as he tried to reconcile his scientific mind with his devout religious beliefs.

Later, looking back on his childhood, Savio claimed that his most formative experience was when he came across pictures from the Holocaust for the first time. “It’s like a dark, grotesque secret that people had, that at some time in the recent past people were being incinerated and piled up … I started to get the idea that people weren’t really coming completely clean about things … that there was almost a conspiracy not to tell the truth to oneself, even on a mass scale.”

Reading this quote from Savio, I started to get where his generation was/is coming from a little more. If one feels that society has refused to acknowledge evil and act accordingly, it would follow that one would Question Authority and all the convention, consumerism and bureaucracy that comes along with that authority. So, yeah, trying to change the world comes with some entitlement.

There isn’t space here for me to tell you exactly how, a decade later, Savio found himself standing on top of a Berkeley police car delivering an improvised speech to hundreds of his fellow students who sat surrounding the car. That speech would come to mark the beginning of the Free Speech Movement and, some would argue, the beginning of The Sixties.

I began reading Subversives during the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. I’d been riveted by CNN’s 24-hour coverage (by the way, if anyone can tell me why people hate Don Lemon, I’d love some insight) and I was feeling like I needed a reading selection with some relevance—however indirect—to current events. In Rosenfeld’s prologue, he explains that his book “illustrates the dangers that the combination of secrecy and power pose to democracy, especially during turbulent times.” Enough said. I recommend this book to anyone interested in a history of Berkeley and/or those seeking to fan any dying flames of resentment toward Ronald Reagan.

Speaking of Reagan, I think I’ll be reading fiction next …