When Radicals Won

Berkeley, Madison but not Cambridge

In April 1971, the students and residents of Berkeley, California elected three radicals to their city council, over the oohs of apprehensive conservatives and the ahs of the national press. It was "an experiment in take-over for a Red sanctuary within the USA," one Louisiana congressman informed his colleagues. The headline in U.S. News and World Reports was less pessimistic: it said, "Radicals use the system--and find that it works!" The story beneath this pronouncement speculated on the election's significance for other communities with large student populations. It mentioned Madison, Wisc. and Cambridge, Mass. as particularly inviting targets for radical takeover.

Sure enough, two years later Madison elected a radical mayor. But so far at least, Cambridge's elections are very much in the mainstream of American politics. Few students vote in them, and professional Harvard-baiters like Al Vellucci consistently outpoll professional leftists like Saundra Graham.

The political atmosphere was far different at Berkeley, where student demonstrations for the establishment of a People's Park resulted in the National Guard's being called in for a 17-day period in 1969. One year later, a coalition of students (and the street people and radical intellectuals found in most students towns), blacks (Berkeley is about a third black), and white leftists (Berkeley has a fair number of old leftists, many of whom spent the sixties working for the American Civil Liberties Union or the local Pacifica radio station and came back out of the closet and into the streets towards the end of the decade), elected black Congressman Ron Dellums. Elated by success, leftists began to plan for the city council elections the next year.

They put together the April Coalition, a diverse group of leftist candidates united in support of an initiative to split Berkeley's police force into three community-controlled segments--one for student residential areas, one for black residential areas, and one for the areas dominated by the white, non-student and generally professional people who inhabit most of the rest of the city.

The Coalition's volunteers organized a registration drive that put 10,000 new voters, mostly students, on the rolls, and then they went on to the election. Coalition candidates campaigned on a wide variety of issues. To name just a few: the need for city day-care centers, replacement of property and sales taxes with a progressive income tax, rent control, a referendum on the as yet unexpected 18-year-old vote, a Vietnam peace initiative, the construction of low-cost housing, a city affirmative action program, stricter antipollution legislation, prosecution of war researchers at the university, the elimination of sexist books from school libraries, guaranteed adequate severance pay to workers in firms leaving Berkeley to escape unionization, the construction of bicycle paths, youth hostels and more parks, and even the addition of long cords on all public telephones so that people in wheelchairs and children could reach them more easily.


When election results were tallied, it became evident that some kind of leftist-student victory had been won. Although the police control initiative failed--largely because it didn't get much middle-class black support--two Coalition councilmen (both black lawyers) and a Coalition councilwoman (a self-described "populist radical") squeaked by the large field of candidates, along with Warren Widener, a black mayoral candidate expected to side with the Coalition on nearly all issues except the police initiative. At the Coalition's victory party, Newsweek reported, the exhilarated crowd waved red flags and clenched fists and clapped in rhythms reminiscent of The Battle of Algiers. The Revolution had apparently come to Berkeley in a big way.

It didn't work out quite like that, naturally. The three Coalition councilors and Widener faced four liberal and conservative councilors, and found it hard to push legislation through. Moreover, the Coalition itself was split on particular issues. Its black members were unsympathetic to its feminists. "If this doesn't benefit the black community, I'm not voting for it," one black councilman explained, opposing the funding of a women's health center. In a 1973 election for four new councilors--which the conservative Berkeley Gazette described as "the last effort of rational, reasonable people"--Mayor Widener endorsed not his ex-partners in the April Coalition but a slate of liberal Democratic types, the Berkeley Four. With student turnout down 20 per cent from 1971 and an impressive 75 per cent turnout in wealthy Berkeley Hills, only one Coalition candidate got herself elected, and the Coalition was left with its old minority.

But if the April Coalition was clearly not the October Revolution, neither was it run-of-the-mill American politics. For one thing, city council meetings often resembled meetings of Chilean campamentos under the Popular Unity government more than the obscure meetings of politicos that pass for council meetings in many American cities.

The Coalition members were able to make a lot of symbolic changes in the way Berkeley was run. Rather than have half its members abstain from saluting the American flag at the beginning meetings, for example, the council agreed to stop saluting the flag altogether.

Some of the Coalition's accomplishments went far beyond symbolism. After 11 months of infighting and concomitant hiring freeze, the city council accepted a drastic affirmative action plan. "Public jobs in the city are now open to minorities and to women with probably fewer restrictions, less biased exams, lower educational requirements, greater waiving of police records, and more genuine encouragement than one could find anywhere else in the country," The Nation reported in April, 1973. The council passed a stringent rent control law, with enforcement controlled by elected neighborhood councils.

In many ways, the election that made Paul Soglin Madison's mayor last April was similar to the 1971 Berkeley election. In fact, some of Soglin's opponents accused him of trying to turn Madison into "another Berkeley." Like the Berkeley radicals, Soglin got some help from divisions among his opponents, defeating a couple of liberals in a primary and then going on with liberal support and a massive student registration drive to beat the conservative incumbent,

Soglin had begun leading demonstrations against the war in 1963, helped lead Wisconsin's Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, went to law school and then got himself elected to the city council, where he scandalized his colleagues by releasing the names and photographs of the city's narcs to Madison's student and underground press.

Nevertheless, Soglin's obtrusive competence and advocacy of slightly less controversial programs (city purchase of the Madison Bus Company, most notably) won him enough grudging respect to get him elected council president in 1971. In his 1973 mayoral runoff campaign, he won support not only from student radicals--including The Daily Cardinal, the university's student newspaper, which Soglin's opponents claimed was his "party organ" and which embarrassed him a couple of times during the campaign by making fun of his liberal supporters--but also from organized labor and some liberal Democrats. Some of Soglin's original supporters said he had sold out when he dumped his old campaign staff. "If I had wanted to sell out, I could have done this thing a whole lot easier by joining the Democratic party," he replied. But he still swept 90 per cent of the vote in Madison's student wards, enough to carry him to victory in the city as a whole. The outgoing mayor, apparently unconvinced by militants' complaints about Soglin, had the outgoing deputy police chief remove the files on radicals and antiwar militants--reportedly including Soglin--before Soglin could take office.

Soglin hasn't been in office very long, but he doesn't seem to have sold out yet. His first appointments included more women, campus people and labor people than Madison had been accustomed to, and he went down to Washington to lobby for some new buses. But the main issue confronting Madison--the issue which focused some national attention on Madison this summer--is the trial of Karleton Armstrong who has acknowledged bombing the University of Wisconsin's Army Mathematics Research Center, long a target for antiwar agitation because research done there found wide application in the Indochina war, in 1970. A researcher was killed in the bombing, and Armstrong pleaded guilty of second-degree murder in exchange for the opportunity to present a political defense.

Accordingly, a series of defense witnesses--former Marines who say they committed or saw atrocities during their service in Vietnam, antiwar activists, a tape recording of Daniel Ellsberg '52--have supported Armstrong's contention that the real criminals, people whose bombs killed not one unfortunate researcher but hundreds of thousands of innocent people, not only go unpunished but continue to hold the highest offices in the country. "At this point," Paul Soglin said during his election campaign, in a statement he has continued to uphold since, "it would be the height of hypocrisy to abandon Karleton Armstrong. Whether Armstrong is innocent or guilty, anyone who conceptually supported ridding this campus of the AMRC, no matter whether they approved or disapproved of the bombing itself, must come to his defense.