The other day I had some errands in Berkeley. So I hopped on BART (the Bay Area’s subway system) and rode into town.
Every trip to Berkeley is a dual-purpose event for me: whatever else is on my schedule, I always bring along a camera to record my impressions of the day. And since street protests are few and far between this year, the only thing left to photograph is daily life.
Berkeley may look like a normal town at first glance. But if you have a keen eye for details and a shutter-happy index finger, you begin notice those little things that make Berkeley unique.
So let’s take a trip to LiberalLand. The pictures you see here don’t constitute any sort of “official portrait” of Berkeley — they’re just the random scenes I encountered as I wended my way through the city on various errands.
[Note: All faces, license plate numbers and street addresses in this photo essay have been blurred or cropped, to respect people's privacy.]
My political journey began before I even got off the train. As we approached Berkeley, I noticed a fellow passenger reading a book by [Berkeley resident and left-wing economist] Robert Reich, while wearing a “We Are the 99%” Occupy Wall Street button. Needless to say, the guy got off at the Downtown Berkeley stop.
I’d only been in town a couple minutes before I encountered my first “only in Berkeley” moment: A car sporting a huge sign that announced “The root problem is that you have become A SELFISH PEOPLE.” I was a bit curious as to the exact meaning of this, but was fearful of approaching the car any closer lest I be accosted by the owner, something I hoped to avoid.
A nearby home had a “Beware of God” sign in the window.
I stopped by a cafe, only to find a member of Q.U.I.T — Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism — seated at a table, enjoyed the free wi-fi.
The front of her shirt had the other name for the same group, “Queers for Palestine.”
Q.U.I.T./Queers for Palestine is an ultra-radical lesbian political group that protests against the only nation in the Middle East where gays live freely with full rights, and in favor of a culture that outlaws homosexuality and violently persecutes gays. Are they insane? Yes. Did I find it a bit unnerving that such a political stance is considered so “normal” in Berkeley that people just stroll around on an average day wearing “Queers for Palestine” shirts? Yep.
Less than a block away I spotted “Boycott Israel” spray-painted on the sidewalk. Coincidence?
I don’t even want to know what this mess on the back of a nearby newspaper rack was supposed to mean. “2+2=5″ pretty much summed my impressions of the city so far.
Over the last four years I thought I had seen every single Obama sticker design ever manufactured. But until I spotted this on a car in Berkeley I had never encountered this particular bit of political iconography. Although the colors have faded a bit since 2008, the details were fascinating: Obama has gigantic hands, and is releasing doves and butterflies from (incomprehensibly) a cupboard drawer, surrounded by people literally praying to him, including someone in a full-body cat suit next to someone with a Muslim skullcap and another guy giving the black power salute.
But not everyone in Berkeley is so enthusiastic about Obama. The city has plenty of Obama opponents — but they’re all attacking him from the left, as evidenced by the sentiments on this truck, in which Obama is equated with the evil Bush.
This was actually my favorite bumper of the whole day. The futility, pointlessness and fleeting-but-soon-forgotten enthusiasm of each campaign season is so poignantly illustrated by the layers peeling off, 2008′s Obama sticker so poorly made that 2004′s Kerry sticker is already re-emerging. Most hearteningly, there was no 2012 sticker on top of the 2008 sticker.
I literally laughed out loud a few hours later when I saw this “We Are the 99%” sign on a house in a very pricey neighborhood in the Berkeley hills. Although you might not be able to tell due to the weed-choked front yard, homes in this area are famously expensive. Out of curiosity, I noted down the address and later looked up the home’s estimated assessed value on one of those real estate property records Web sites: $1.2 million.
Nothing better illustrates the deep-seated hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance of the Berkeley worldview than someone who lives in a $1.2 million home imagining that they are part of “the 99%.” Berkeleyans are in general quite highly paid and well-off, but they are ashamed of their success, and so pretend to be poor. Not so ashamed that they actually give up their privilege, mind you: it’s much easier to put a “We Are the 99%” sign in the window of your mansion than it is to actually experience any hardship.
While we’re on the hypocrisy theme, take a look at this Mazda 5 parked on a Berkeley street. What’s the problem? Look more closely at the bumper…
…where you’ll see a “Be Green” sticker. Nothing wrong with having an average mpg MPV — that is, until you start lecturing all passersby about “being green.” Berkeleyans want the convenience and luxury of modern civilization, but not the remorse of being a polluting high-end American consumer that necessarily accompanies that convenience. Solution? A “Be Green” sticker on your exhaust-belching machine! Problem solved. (See The Concourse of Hypocrisy for more details.)