Fifty years ago Berkeley birthed the Free Speech Movement when Mario Savio stood atop a police car in the middle of Sproul plaza on the UC Berkeley campus and called for moral action. He shouted out:
“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
Last night, the voters of Berkeley, by passing Measure D, yet again have been called upon to lead the country. This time we are engaging in the public health battle to address type 2 diabetes other preventable chronic disease caused by the overconsumption of sugary sweetened beverages. We have laid down our votes upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon the apparatus of an industry that is heavily and uniquely responsible for our country’s ill health.
That the voters of Berkeley could see through the beverage industry’s efforts to shift the discussion away from health and to drive wedges between neighbors through manufactured messaging wrapped up in slick packaging, is a testament to Berkeley’s refusal to be manipulated, to our freedom of thought, our freedom of speech.
Industry has known for a while that Measure D would prevail in Berkeley. Needing to frame this as an isolated incident, rather than the public health earth shattering event it really is, they started disparaging us Berkeleyans a few weeks back, calling us “hippies” and implying that we are out of touch with the rest of America.
This framing ignores the wave of 30 other efforts across the US that have failed due to industry’s purchased influence. Berkeley showed that if an initiative to disincentivize the consumption of fully sugared beverages can win, voters need to remain focused on the essence of the struggle—our children’s health— and not be easily distracted by fake-issues created by focus group marketing research, or allow wedges to be driven between neighbors. Voters need to reject the Big Tobacco playbook that the beverage industry follows.
Many other communities across California and also across the country have watched Berkeley’s davidian struggle with great interest, as they too, are trying to figure out the winning formula to rein in the beverage industry’s unabashed marketing power and ubiquitous presence.
For Latinos and African Americans, whom suffer disproportionately the ravages of diabetes, heart disease and stroke, this win inspires hope. We know that we have to counter the aggressive marketing of sugary sweetened beverages in our communities. Putting the revenues generated by Measure D toward educating Berkeley’s children about healthy eating and increasing physical activity is a strong first step to change norms. It is a very large step to begin addressing the health disparities among our most vulnerable neighbors.
Berkeley voted for justice last night. And, as our friend Cornel West has proclaimed loudly and often: justice is what love looks like in public.
Thank you for the love, Berkeley!
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