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Bear Nuked

[whitespace] Oski & the Nukes
Illustration by Doug Minkler

The week of the Big Game, Oski, the Berkeley mascot, undergoes a startling transformation

By Traci Hukill

POOR OSKI! Cal's friendly ursine mascot would be lucky if it were only the shame demons and bloodshot eyes of a monumental bender that were compromising his wholesome image. But the truth is more dire: on certain posters appearing around Palo Alto and Berkeley this week, the sweet buffoonish bear has morphed into a deranged harbinger of death, glowing with radiation sickness as he bounds across a football field while missiles and grotesque skeletal griffins fly overhead. A stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium and tritium in waste containers stands in his way, but Oski doesn't see them. Oh, no. And we all know what happens when enormous mutant bears stumble over bins of nuclear waste.

The posters could conceivably be a move by Stanford loyalists intent on evening the score after last month's brutal kidnapping by Cal students of Stanford's mascot, the Tree. After two weeks in captivity, in which the Tree suffered the indignities of a blindfold and bound limbs (this documented on Polaroid film and sent to the student who actually wears the Tree), the beloved mascot was returned safely home to a community that was relieved but stung. For retaliation to follow would not be unheard of.

But Stanford students, it turns out, aren't responsible for Oski's besmirched image. Doug Minkler is. And the Berkeley activist-cum-poster artist's latest oeuvre, materializing around Palo Alto and Berkeley just in time for the Big Game this weekend (that's the annual Stanford- Berkeley football game, for those blessedly unaware of such phenomena), packs a hefty political punch in its darkly comic, cartoonish depths.

"I think [nuclear weapons proliferation] has totally been pushed out of people's consciousness," says Minkler, who's created posters on numerous occasions, including the drive to oppose Proposition 209. "It seems to be a monster that's so far removed from our hands that we'd rather deal with more day-to-day things that we can change. But in fact, we can change this one."

Minkler's specific gripe with Oski has to do with the University of California's involvement with the Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley labs. UC manages all three. As fellow critic Jackie Cabasso, executive director of the anti-nuclear Western States Legal Foundation, explains it, " 'Managing' means everyone who works there gets a check from UC." Furthermore, she adds, university affiliation with the labs "provides a fig leaf of academic respectability to a variety of very dangerous and destabilizing activities."

Cabasso maintains that while Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore are supposed to be part of a nationwide program of "stockpile stewardship," they're both actually developing new nuclear technology with annual budgets of $1 billion apiece. And Lawrence Berkeley, although its charter forbids any involvement with weapons manufacture, isn't much better; it's the development site for a key component of an above-ground nuclear test facility.

That explains the mortarboard, complete with academic tassle, adorning the skull of one of the poster's demons. Like this, most of Minkler's other work is both ironic and very serious. His Prop. 209 poster, titled "California Civil Whites Initiative," bears the slogan "Klan Approved." He got a lot of attention for entering a poster titled "Got Milked?" which criticized the dairy industry, in a juried art show in Marin that happened to be sponsored by pro-agriculture interests. Right now his poster "Get a Life, Get a Bike" is in the 100 Years of American Posters exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Fame hasn't poisoned Minkler's grass roots, though. Says Aram James, a friend of Minkler's since junior high and the son of Cold War peace advocate Stephen James, "Even though his artwork is in the Smithsonian, he refuses to sell his silkscreens for more than $20, because he wants to make sure the stuff gets to the people."

James, a Palo Altan who participated in his father's peace program by visiting the Soviet Union as a student diplomat in 1966, will join Minkler and other activists at a pre-game demonstration at the Berkeley BART station. There, while many exuberant game-goers board shuttles to the Big Game, the no-nukes contingent will distinguish themselves by wearing nuclear clean suits instead of school colors and throwing a football around the parking lot. You know, ironic--but serious.

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From the November 19-24, 1998 issue of Metro.

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