by Justice William W. Bedsworth
It was my great good fortune to attend law school at Cal Berkeley from 1968-1971. I often think of those days in terms of the famous Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” I picture a remorseful Asian shaking his head and saying, “Jeez, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean that interesting.”
Between People’s Park and Vietnam, Eldridge Cleaver and “Off the Pigs,” Berkeley in those days made Fellini look like The Little Mermaid. It was the world’s largest open-air insane asylum. We never knew when a lecture in torts or land development law would be replaced by a demonstration of crimes or constitutional law.
It was an intensive three-year course of study in the 1st, 4th, and 5th Amendments—and a great education if you were comfortable living in a cement mixer full of tear gas, rubber bullets, flower children, and frat boys.1
It was the only law school in America where you didn’t have to choose between going to school and going to the circus. I fell in love with the place and never fell out.
As protests go, Berkeley in the ’60s was the ’27 Yankees or the ’76 Canadiens. It was world class.
Regardless of your political inclination, you had to admire the sheer scope of it, the spectacle. Berkeley was the Lucas and Spielberg of protests, the ne plus ultra of staging and special effects. And I saw it all.
Which probably explains why I take somewhat personally the sorry state into which demonstrations of protest seem to have fallen. It’s like listening to Joplin and Hendrix2 and then being subjected to Roseanne Barr and Steven Tyler singing the national anthem.
Case in point: Steven Jerome Talley. Mr. Talley, a resident of Seattle, was representing himself on a burglary charge. In the course of that representation, he asked the court to declare a mistrial. The court refused.
Mr. Talley’s response was to go to Plan B. B as in “Bare-ass Naked.” He stripped. As described by a somewhat bemused prosecutor, “He did it in two quick movements. His pants are down, the shirt is off. And he has no underwear. No nothing.”
Now that’s just sad. If that’s the level to which our ability to articulate dissent has sunk, we’re in pretty pitiful shape. We’ve regressed in 200 years from tea in the harbor to pants on the floor. That’s pathetic.
It’s also hard on court staff. Taking custody of naked people presents all kinds of logistical problems. It’s kinda like moving a big chest of drawers: you’re never quite sure just where to grab hold.
Mainly though, it’s just abysmally pedestrian. Lady Godiva did it in the 11th century. It’s old news. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Well, all right, got no t-shirt.
The point is Godiva was 1,000 years ago. And unsuccessful. Nudity as a form of protest seems to me to say that you’re so thoroughly bereft of creativity that you are not only unable to imagine anything innovative, you’re also unable to imagine what you look like naked.
Apparently modern protesters do not own mirrors. According to the Associated Press, another man was arrested for “reckless burning” after he “removed all his clothes and set fire to them on the steps of the Treasury Building.”
The AP purports to be unclear about just what it is the man was protesting—a sure sign of a badly executed protest—but the bigger question in my mind is how they’re gonna make that “reckless burning” charge stick. I have been to the Treasury Building. And setting fire to anything on its front steps—an area composed entirely of marble, concrete, and asphalt—does not sound reckless at all to me. Sounds like the epitome of a controlled burn. Feckless, maybe, but not reckless.
But returning to my point about modern protests,3 the Treasury Building guy was described as a resident of Louisville, Kentucky. It’s not like he was in the neighborhood and just decided to drop by. He came 600 miles for this. He clearly gave this a lot of what passes for thought in his household.
And apparently the conclusion he arrived at was that the combination of a small bonfire and his bare bum was going to bring the government to its knees. Remarkable.
But the winner in this dreary little competition is the San Antonio bank customer who, having been turned down for a loan, “stripped off his clothes and sat naked in the vice president’s office quacking like a duck.”
They turned this guy down?
Read that again. Stripped off all his clothes and sat naked in the vice president’s office quacking like a duck. If you can picture that without smiling, you’re suffering from terminal melancholia. That’s funnier than anything I can make up.
But as a protest, it stinks. You’re not going to make anybody feel bad about a decision by stripping naked.4 You’re not going to get anybody to reconsider a position by depositing your tush on their table. You’re not going to establish yourself as a force for change by quacking like a duck.
And you almost never get a loan that way. Even in Texas.
So I was more than a little disturbed today to read that nude protests have been planned for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. This seems to be the only weapon in the modern protest arsenal.
The report I read says the plan is for “100 nude women holding large mirror discs, reflecting the knowledge and wisdom of progressive women and the concept of ‘Mother Nature’ into and onto the convention center, cityscape, and horizon of Cleveland.”
This disturbs me on several levels.
First, it’s Cleveland in July. It’s gotten to 106 in Cleveland in July, regularly pokes into the nineties, and usually carries with it a relative humidity level of 418%. I was there for a ballgame before global warming, and it was so hot people had stopped drinking beer and were pouring it over themselves. Taking off your clothes at this convention may not convey dissent as much as discomfort.
Second, our politicians have accomplished essentially nothing in the last few years other than convincing us they are unable to color within the sexual conduct lines. Way too many of them have been completely unable to remember who they’re married to or what sexual orientation they have adamantly proclaimed. Given those difficulties, I’m not sure a lot of them will see naked women as anything but unexpectedly great entertainment.
Third, it’s just weird. A hundred women going naked and holding “large mirror discs” is not going to “reflect the knowledge and wisdom of progressive women” as much as the fact you can find 100 crazy people in any major city.5
Fourth, I’m concerned that if we add naked women to this year’s presidential politics, we’re going to convince the rest of the world there’s a hole in the ozone layer over the United States, and they have no choice but to quarantine us. I think Donald Trump will not only be able to get Mexico to pay for a wall, but Canada as well. And I think most of Europe will chip in for back-up walls in case those two fail to contain us.
But mostly I’m just offended by the idea that Cleveland will look crazier than Berkeley. No place is crazier than Berkeley. God bless it.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. And look for his new book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon and Vandeplas Publishing.