VENICE — When things got dicey on the Venice Boardwalk last summer, activist-at-large Jerry Rubin did what he often does at such times: He summoned reporters and stopped eating.
Rubin recently broke his 87-day fast (his 13th) in the same showy way--with organic grapes, a banana-yogurt blend and, as ever, the press--declaring that he'd won the right to eat because Councilwoman Ruth Galanter had just boosted his bid for a mediated solution to the furor over artists and performers on the boardwalk.
But it wasn't exactly true--Galanter had always backed mediation and she was offering nothing new now. And no one from a previous failed mediation seemed eager to sit down with Rubin again, anyway. But that didn't dampen his triumphal breakfast, not with the cameras clicking.
The scene was classic Rubin. Here was the effective media hound who has steamrollered war toys, taken "peace pizza" to Sylvester Stallone, frozen the flag and pushed a frosted cake into the face of H-bomb inventor Edward Teller to promote world peace. Here too was the infuriating gadfly whose noisy intransigence often leaves him out in the cold when important local decisions are really made.
"The trouble with Jerry is, whatever the issue of the day is, you've got to fight to the death," said Linda Lucks, a former Galanter aide who has known Rubin for years and says she likes him. "He's fasting and everything continues on as it has for years. This is not a life-or-death matter."
She was referring to Rubin's latest lobbying campaign to fight the regulation of the unfettered folks who paint, heal, sing, dance, tell fortunes and juggle chain saws on the public west edge of the boardwalk, officially named Ocean Front Walk. His group, Save the Healers, Artists, Politicos and Entertainers (SHAPE), was the loudest voice opposing a summertime police crackdown on illegal vendors and artists. The crackdown was mounted in response to complaints from the rent-paying legitimate vendors who operate stalls and shops on private property on the east side of the walk.
Whether SHAPE was the most effective voice is another question. Lucks said Rubin's uncompromising stance against restrictions may actually have contributed to the crackdown on the very crowd he represents. "His efforts were counterproductive. . . . He doesn't understand how much more effective he'd be if he listened to other people," she said.
"I would sooner have hot nails driven into my temples than sit down in another mediation with Jerry Rubin," said Carol Berman, a longtime Venice activist who said the talks failed last spring because Rubin and his allies dominated the four sessions.
Everyone but those in Rubin's group dropped out of the mediation. Rubin insists that the talks were going well and produced a set of noise guidelines for boardwalk entertainers. The independent mediator said in a letter afterward that "others in the mediation sessions felt that progress has not come fast enough and they preferred to use other forums for discussing the issues."
An array of groups favoring tighter control over boardwalk activities then met later--without SHAPE--and drafted a proposal to regulate use of the boardwalk's west side through a permit system. It won the support of the Venice Entertainment Guild, a group of street performers and artists who broke away from SHAPE two years ago. SHAPE opposes the idea, which awaits consideration by city parks officials. Meanwhile, police have eased off the stepped-up enforcement.
Rubin and his supporters say he is just a tough bargainer who's getting a bad rap for taking the boardwalk issue seriously as a free-speech cause.
"Life and death? It's even more than that," Rubin said. "It goes to the very lives of our children. It's the life of creativity and freedom and how it affects people. . . . I think globally and act locally."
Critics frequently say that Rubin flits from crusade to crusade, but that his main cause remains, well, Jerry Rubin. His friends insist otherwise.
"Jerry Rubin has been one of the only people who's been totally open, while these other people have met clandestinely to set up their own agenda. He's been the voice for the underdogs," said Harry Perry, the turbaned, roller-skating guitarist who is an emblem of boardwalk free-spiritedness. "For this, what he gets is crucified."
Attorney James Fosbinder says people don't understand how important the Venice Beach cause is to Rubin. "To him, it's just the most wonderful place--to the point that he seems obsessed beyond what people consider rational. He's a little goofy. I'd say that to his face."
Rubin, 48, has been a fixture at Venice Beach since moving from Philadelphia in 1967, and almost no local issue escapes his busy reach. A longtime peace activist (and no relation to the Chicago Seven defendant-turned-entrepreneur of the same name), Rubin lately has made it nearly a full-time job to lobby on behalf of the boardwalk denizens, al though he is neither artist nor performer.