An ode to the public commenter

Council Watch

Hello, I am here to speak about DRONES.

Hmm. That doesn’t sound nearly as impressive or hilarious coming from me.

Given that Berkeley City Council is on spring recess right now, I thought I’d take the time to write about the 10th member of the City Council — the general public.

Some public commenters, the ones who go once to plead their displeasure over X or Y agenda item pertaining to their business, property or what have you, are sane.

The regulars, however, open with something like this column’s first line. They do things like question marriage conspiracies, complain about drones, rant about the government, fascism, the police state and Cal students. Commenters have also been known to bring animals to meetings, the most famous being Sling Shot Hip Hop the bunny.

Meetings have broken out into musical numbers at the prodding of a singing public commenter, and somehow, the entire Crowd knows the lyrics to join in. Granted, it’s the same lyrics over and over again, but then you hear the Crowd turn what is a simple musical melody into a three-part harmony, and you realize that “Glee” isn’t fiction.

A recurring theme for public commenters is “the government is evil.” The most recent manifestations of this theme are comments about how drones are the worst thing ever. Council rejected a proposal demanding Berkeley be a No Drone Zone last December. That hasn’t stopped public commenters from coming and informing us that drones are capable of peeking into our living rooms and spying on us through our curtains and blinds.

Right. Because if the American government truly wanted to track any of us down, it would need drones to do it. And because the city of Berkeley really has the resources to enforce a no fly-over zone.

The most adorable public comments occur when children come to speak to their elected officials. Berkeley starts its activists young: When Rodrigo Guzman, a 9-year-old at Jefferson Elementary, was denied re-entry into the United States after a winter break trip to Mexico, his classmates organized a campaign to bring him home.

At a council meeting last month, his classmates asked the President of the United States to do something to help, invoking Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks and their fight for civil rights. Rodrigo himself, absurdly eloquent for a 9-year-old, video-called in to say a few words at the meeting. “I am very sad of … the law that didn’t let me come back. I hope that in the future, people … (will) have the rights to come back,” he said. Jeez, this kid already knows his basic rights. When I was nine, I didn’t know my rights from my lefts.

On the flip side of the tearjerkers are what I call the Scaries. They’re not physically intimidating, but they make dramatic statements that leave you going, “Whoa, what is life?” For example, City Council was considering getting an armored truck for the city last summer. Naturally, Berkeley residents turned out in force to the meeting, decrying a “police state.”

This one woman, donning a sundress and a straw hat, shuffled up to the mic and quietly asked, “What are you afraid of?,” very melodramatically and then sat down. Goosebumps all over. I can’t even explain why it was so chilling.

But as much as I love to pop popcorn to these wildly entertaining public comment sections, there’s still something to be said about civic engagement and free speech and access to local elected officials. I’m just not the one to say that something.

Instead, I will leave you with an example of an exaggerated public comment so that if you choose to give one, you have a guide for leaving an impression. Here goes: “Hello, I am here to speak about DRONES. As a longtime Berkeley resident, this city stands for ideals and green things. My grammar is not making sense right now and neither am I, but that is OK because I am SO ANGRY. Why would you put a project/development/store on this corner? It’s blocking my sunshine!”

Now the mayor will thank you for your time. Refuse to take your seat. Ask someone to yield time so you can speak for two more minutes. (Don’t even get me started on time-yielding. That inefficient process deserves a column in and of itself.)

Or, if you’re feeling particularly Berkeley, burst into song. I’m sure the Crowd will somehow magically know the lyrics and maybe even supply you with a soprano and bass line for accompaniment.

Contact Lynn Yu at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @lynnqyu.