The shit is hitting the fan in Berkeley, again. The city, which is notorious for not thinking clearly or honorably about People’s Park and its legacy, announced plans recently to install a public toilet on Haste Street directly in front of a legendary mural that Osha Neumann and O’Brien Thiele painted 45 years ago. The smell of teargas had just barely begun to fade.
“I don’t think the toilet was meant intentionally to be malicious, though it amounts to that,” Neumann told me. He added, “If I hadn’t heard about it I think it would have gone through. The city is focused on toilets, not on murals.”
Lord knows, the city desperately needs places for people to pee and poop. Signs everywhere and especially in the front windows of cafes and restaurants say, “restrooms for customers only.” It’s not just a problem in Berkeley. It’s a problem all over post-pandemic America.
“Portland Loo” is the name of the toilet. The cost: $96,000. The dimensions are 8 ½ feet tall by 10 ½ feet long. The first Portland Loo was installed in Portland, Oregon in 2008. Since then more than 50 units have been sold.
The Haste Street mural depicts Mario Savio and the 1964 Free Speech Movement as well as People’s Park, where, in the spring of 1969, Governor Reagan dispatched the National Guard. One man, James Rector, was shot and killed, another man blinded, dozens wounded and arrested. For Reagan the White House was the next stop.
People’s Park is a sore spot, for sure. After all these years, the emotional and psychological wounds haven’t healed. In an email Neumann sent to the Berkeley city manager, the mayor and the city council, as well as the Director of Public Works, he asked, rhetorically “The City can’t find any place to install a toilet except smack dab in front of my mural – our mural? And somehow that’s okay?”
Then he went on a rant of sorts, which seemed to be appropriate, and in keeping with his own Sixties personal history as a member of the Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers.
Neumann explained that the toilet would “permanently obscure the view of a mural, which has been a Berkeley landmark since it was painted in 1976, and which was officially landmarked in 1990.” He added, “a mural which is still the only memorial in the city (and perhaps anywhere) to the events that gave Berkeley its reputation as a place where people struggle for the betterment of human kind, for the end of stupid brutal wars, for the elimination of racism, for freedom of speech, and for life free from repressive strictures on how to dress, whom to love, and how to wear your hair. All those freedoms this mural celebrates.”
He sent his email to scores of Berkeleyites, some of whom might be called “The usual suspects.”
A reporter asked Neumann, a longtime activist and artist who is now a lawyer, “Will the city’s decision to install the toilet in front of the mural create a shitstorm?” “I hope it will do that,” Neumann replied.
He has been a lawyer since 1987 and has represented the homeless, victims of police abuse and people arrested for acts of civil disobedience.
The Haste Street toilet isn’t a done deal. The head of public works emailed Neumann and said he wanted to talk. Neuman replied with his own email address. He hasn’t heard back.
“I have a feeling that they know they have a problem,” Neumann said. “There’s a lot of opposition to the toilet.” Indeed, it’s another Berkeley movement and it’s growing fast.
Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.