“Now California ain’t exactly what it ought to be,” crooned George Webber last Sunday at the Sonoma Plaza. “It’s far too fractious and confused and nowhere close to free.”
Webber was speaking – or singing, rather, to the tune of “Oh! Susanna” – in character as one of the so-called Bear Flaggers, as part of last week’s Bear Flag Revolt re-enactment in the Grinstead Amphitheatre. It’s that annual rite of passage in which Sonomans relive the legendary 1846 “capture” of Mexican Gen. Vallejo at the hands of 33 American roustabouts who raised the makeshift Bear Flag over what would eventually become the 31st state of the Union, California.
If it weren’t for the presence of several late-middle-age uber-amateur thespians of the “Bear Flag Acting Troupe” chewing up more scenery than the sheep at Sonoma Raceway, one would be forgiven for mistaking Webber’s oratory for a “Cal 3” campaign slogan ahead of the Nov. 6 election.
Cal 3 is the name being given to the upcoming ballot initiative driven by venture capitalist Tim Draper to divide California up into three separate states – Northern California, Southern California and plain ol’ California – under the theory that the current large, heavily populated state is so dominated by its coastal regions that the needs of vast swaths of inland, rural constituents are virtually without representation in Sacramento. That those swaths also happen to be in Republican-leaning districts in an era of Democratic domination in the state legislature should not go unacknowledged.
Given that the state’s Democratic-leaning population centers along the coast might have little impetus to vote for the proposition – nor would Congress, which has to approve any new statehood, be likely to add four new senate seats to a Golden State trifecta – one would think its chances of coming to fruition were preposterous. But, then again, the last time we thought an electoral outcome was preposterous, well, we all know how that turned out.
Still, the possibility of transforming a single, unified California into a gerrymandered trio of economically and politically competing states is not without its intrigue in Sonoma. After all, it could mean the end of the line for the city’s world-wide claim to fame – the one that doesn’t involve grapes, that is – as the birthplace of the California state flag. It would ultimately depend upon how a twice-sliced California viewed itself – i.e., is the central coast “California,” in which Sonoma would situate, one of three new states, or simply the torso of the old state? In other words, does anyone get to keep the Bear Flag?
Or, perhaps a better question: Does anyone want to? After all, there certainly aren’t as many bears around here as there used to be. But, more problematic for the flag than our dearth of ursine, is that the banner was raised by a troubling band of brigands who, even by the most generous accounts, are typically painted as a gang of drunks and thieves who hijacked the territories from the roundly respected Gen. Vallejo as an alternative to seeking citizenship.
Later accounts frame many of the Bear Flaggers as openly racist; at least one was purported to have personally killed hundreds of Pomo Indians.
The Bear Flag Revolt re-enactment has come under scrutiny in the past. Most recently, eyebrows were raised in last week’s story by Kate Williams (“The Bear Flag Revolt Revolt,” June 8), in which some local historians and Latino residents questioned the family-friendly stage show’s depiction of what critics describe as a racist land-grab – one of many perpetrated over the centuries by white folks over most other ethnicities that have stood in their way.