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Al Martinez

Giving Voice to Yesterday's Activism

April 02, 2001|Al Martinez

You get the impression talking to Art Goldberg that at any minute enthusiasm will build to critical mass and he'll explode. If he does, bits of outrage, joy, anger and indignation will fly through the air like chunks of shrapnel, and God help you if you're in the way.

His energy defies superlatives. At 59, he's the way he was at 25 when he was gathering crowds as a leader of Berkeley's pivotal Free Speech Movement. His voice has the kind of vibrating edge that can inspire you to either march to his drumbeat or enrage you to the point of breaking his face.

He was approaching critical mass the other day when I met with him in his campaign headquarters on Hollywood Boulevard, in the heart of a working man's world of Latinos and Armenians and kids who dream about changing the world.

Goldberg was one of those kids once. I knew him in Berkeley when he and a lot of other razor-sharp radicals were redefining liberal politics in America. They were street fighters for new ideas, in-your-face confronters who were challenging the old to make way for something better.

I wrote about those wunderkinder back then and again 10 years later when most of them had drifted away from all the drums and bugles. Goldberg was one who hadn't. He'd fought past doubters and detractors to become a storefront lawyer, and now 20 years after that he wants to be a people's advocate in politics.


Goldberg is running for L.A. City Council from the 13th District in the April 10 election. He's the brother of Jackie Goldberg, another political street fighter, who gave up her seat in the same district last November to join the state Assembly.

I've tracked Art's career with some interest because he's part of an era in politics I miss, before blandness and big money became the standards. And he hasn't altered his style much either. Most politicians don't shout, interrupt, wave their hands and generally say what they want to say accompanied by fireworks. For better or worse, Goldberg does.

Fueled by a passion most activists never dream of possessing, he's taken on the LAPD, big corporations, deadbeat dads and even universities with a deceivingly pleasant gap-toothed smile that blinks on and off to the mood of his confrontations. He can become annoyingly shrill when he has to, and he rarely wavers.

Though these may be the kinds of characteristics that can turn a mannerly meeting into chaos, being nice is not what government ought to be about. Loud voices reshaped the world once, and I'd like to believe that's still possible.

There are 13 people running for office in what is probably the most intriguing district in L.A., stretching from Hollywood through Silver Lake, Echo Park, Atwater and Glassell Park to Mount Washington, north of downtown. The race has got a collection of interesting characters who run the gamut from ex-Councilman Mike Woo to Conrado Terrazas, whose family worked with Cesar Chavez, and city librarian Wendy McPherson, a lesbian activist. It's L.A. in microcosm.

I asked Goldberg why anyone should vote for him over a lot of those other good people going for the same office. "Because," he said in a moment of reflection, "I'm not finished."


I knew what he meant even though he flew off in a hundred different directions after that and never did say finish-what. He's still the kid on the streets of Berkeley living in a world that needs repairing, and he's going to repair it his way. No games, no adjustments, no compromises.

Whether or not his brand of politics will win votes remains to be seen. I'm not even sure I'd vote for him, but I'd probably vote for what he represents.

"I've never wanted to be the 'good German,' " Goldberg says, sitting across from me, leaning in close, his foot jiggling with caged energy. "If you know something's wrong, you've got to speak up or you're part of the problem."

He talks about the failure of both political parties, of a repressed society yearning for a voice, of altering the nature of the police, of getting kids involved again.

"It's my religion," he says with a wave of his hand. "I get high off of engaging in the struggle to make things better." He pauses for a moment and then, more quietly, says, "This country is so rich, but there are sick people lying in bed who have no medical coverage and can't afford doctors. That's what drives me."

Then suddenly, bang!, both arms in the air, the smile hitting you like a laser beam, "And I get paid for believing that! I'm a lawyer! I get paid!"

He used to call himself a Maoist. Today he's says he's a businessman with a purpose. He wears a suit and a tie, but the radical nature of his politics remains clothed in jeans and T-shirt.

Goldberg will tell you why he's stayed a '60s kid in a series of verbal pyrotechnics that light the room. But his best explanation is the simplest one. He's just not finished yet.


Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. He's at

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