One of my favorite movies is “Brazil,” by the Monty Python comedy troupe’s alum Terry Gilliam. In the most-telling scene, Harry Tuttle, played by Robert De Niro, breaks into an apartment, not to rob it, but to fix a broken air conditioning system. That’s because the vast government bureaucracy, Central Services, won’t do it. “Harry Tuttle, heating engineer at your service,” he announces to the tenant, Sam Lowry, played by Jonathan Price. “Now they got the whole country sectioned off. Can’t make a move without a form.” The crucial form is 27B-6.
An example of real-life Henry Tuttles: city residents filling their own potholes. It’s a Pythonesque absurdity in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom on May 10 reported a $97.5 billion surplus projected for fiscal year 2022-23. You’d think the state Department of Transportation and its local equivalents would make all roads as smooth as silk. Instead, these bureaucratic systems produce neglect that makes many streets look like the surface of the moon.
Enter the Vallejo Pothole Vigilantes. “Vallejo residents say they’re fed up with potholes on city streets,” ABC7 News Bay Area reported in January. “Some of them have banded together in the new year as vigilantes of sorts, taking matters into their own hands.” Resident David Marsteller explained, “Pretty much, we watch a YouTube video, a few of them, on how to repair asphalt. We are up to about 60 right now.” When asked how many more potholes needed to be filled, he laughed. As of late May, the group had raised $8,110 on GoFundMe.
“I would like to discourage pothole vigilantism. It can be a hazardous task to undertake repairs without the proper help with traffic control,” Vallejo Mayor Roger McConnell first griped. But he later embraced them, writing on his Facebook page: “(I)t is with great respect that I offer praise to the newly formed citizen group ‘Pothole Vigilantes.’ … As I have cautioned them, however, safety is paramount. This is why I have had meetings with the Interim City Manager Mike Malone to plead with him to incorporate these noble souls into a working relationship with the city of Vallejo. This would not extract much from our annual budget on any level.”
On Feb. 11, the Vallejo Sun reported, “The Vallejo City Council approved mid-year adjustments to the city’s budget on Tuesday by adding a youth coordinator position and allocating $500,000 toward street repair as the city attempts to address growing pothole issues throughout Vallejo.”
A similar group is Oakland’s Pothole Vigilantes. Its motto: Citizens by Day, Vigilantes by Night. “With over 7,000 potholes, Oakland’s streets were just ranked the worst in America,” its website reported. “It would be great if the government did its job. Until then, we are here to fix Oakland’s streets.” It posted nicknames given them, “The Angels of Asphalt, the Punishers of Potholes, the Renegades of Red Tape!”
The group’s FAQ explained, “We’re a few people just like you who got sick of seeing the streets of Oakland decaying around us every day as the city continues to debate how to spend our tax dollars.” When asked to fix potholes themselves, they respond, “We’d love to, but that’s not the way this works. We give you the tools (asphalt and a tamper) to fill your own pothole for the greater good.” Their GoFundMe has raised $13,897.
Rise in Private Policing
With crime rising sharply, city neighborhoods are hiring their own private police, according to Mark Powell, a former reserve officer with the San Diego Police Department. “Many communities throughout San Diego already have private security companies patrolling their neighborhoods,” he wrote in January in the Times of San Diego. “The San Diego Police Department now takes hours to respond to non-emergency calls due to an officer staffing shortage and citizens are getting frustrated.”
Some observers have blamed the crime increase on the “defund the police” movement and the reluctance of liberal district attorneys to prosecute some crimes. But Powell pointed to a 2014 article in Police Chief Magazine that described city neighborhoods back then already hiring private police. These are long-running problems.
“Private sector companies are cheaper and focused more on customer service,” according to the article. “In Oakland, California, several neighborhoods have hired private security to patrol their neighborhoods in response to rising crime rates and reductions in police staffing. More than 600 Oakland households pay $20 a month for unarmed patrols in clearly marked cars to run 12 hours a day, Monday through Saturday. In Beverly Hills, California, Evidence Based Inc., a private security firm, was approved to provide armed safety personnel to protect Beverly Hills Public Schools.”
A Homeschooling Resurgence
The public schools also have moved in private and semi-private directions to meet the demand of parents for independence and excellence. Although charter schools still are part of the public-school system, they commonly involve more parental involvement. Indeed, some are set up by groups of parents. Many charters also assist independent homeschools.
“In 1992, California became the second state in the nation to adopt public charter school legislation,” according to the state Department of Education. “As of the beginning of the 2021–22 school year, more than 1,300 charter schools and seven all-charter districts are operating in California …. Charter schools are located throughout the state in rural, suburban, and urban areas. Student populations are diverse and tend to reflect the student populations of the districts in which the charter schools are located.”
The homeschool movement also has increased greatly and gained renewed impetus by the COVID-19 school lockdowns. Many parents found that they liked teaching their own kids at the dinner table, sometimes after being shocked at what they saw in the Zoom sessions broadcast from their local public schools.
“Parents spent the last two years learning what was – or was not – being taught to their kids in the neighborhood schools during online Zoom classes,” Lance Christenson told me; he is running for superintendent of public instruction in California. “It was worse than they could imagine. The content has become overtly political and salacious and it severely lacks academic rigor. Throw in that California ranks last of all the states in literacy and it makes sense for parents to jump through all the hoops that teachers’ unions put in their way just to get their kids better education opportunities.” And teachers’ unions resisted classroom re-openings.
(Full disclosure: From 2017-20 I served as press secretary to state Sen. John Moorlach, for whom Christensen was chief of staff.)
In 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that its “Household Pulse Survey Shows Significant Increase in Homeschooling Rates in Fall 2020.” It found “11.1 percent of households with school-age children reported homeschooling … an increase of 5.6 percentage points,” doubling the homeschooling total. “It’s clear that in an unprecedented environment, families are seeking solutions that will reliably meet their health and safety needs, their childcare needs and the learning and socio-emotional needs of their children.”
The increase took place “across race groups and ethnicities.” But Black families saw the greatest rise, increasing “by five times, from 3.3 percent to 16.1 percent in the fall.” That’s understandable, as Blacks have most been hurt by failed public school policies in urban districts. Full data from the 2022 Pulse Survey is not available yet. But the Home School Legal Defense Foundation estimates the number of homeschooled students has dropped only 1 percentage point from the “historic high” of 11.1 percent.
At the end of the “Brazil” scene, two enforcers from Central Services actually do show up. Tuttle panics, but Lowry calms him down and goes out to meet them. They insist on fixing the air conditioner until he demands they produce their Form 27B-6. That flummoxes them and they go away, allowing Tuttle to continue fixing Lowry’s problem. Until government starts doing its job – with roads, police and schools – more citizens might rely on real-world Henry Tuttles.
John Seiler is on the editorial board of the Southern California News Group.