This year federal budget cuts have resulted in the unprecedented elimination of the Blue Angels, the cornerstone of this event. This year our op-ed "Let's Overhaul Fleet Week" was published in the independent alt-weekly East Bay Express March 10, 2013 proposing a review of Fleet Week. The essay was originally submitted to the San Francisco Chronicle, consistently a Fleet Week booster; not surprisingly, they rejected it.
The original full essay is below, which had been edited for length before publication in the East Bay Express and was written before the cuts were finalized.
The sequestration knife is double edged. The Navy announced that they might cut funding for the Blue Angels, the PR program that began in 1946 costing around $40 million a year. These military aerobatics have been the cornerstone of San Francisco’s annual Fleet Week, streaking overhead while local dignitaries greet warships parading through the Golden Gate. Let’s take this hit as an opportunity to reclaim this single-minded paean to the U.S. Navy and make it a broader celebration of all the bay’s bounties.
The current incarnation of Fleet Week began in 1981 when then-mayor Dianne Feinstein resurrected San Francisco’s 1908 hosting of President Teddy Roosevelt's "Great White Fleet." Unfortunately, that wasn’t our country’s proudest moment. The Spanish-American and the Philippine-American wars were campaigns of territorial expansion and racist domination. Initially popular, citizens - among them author Mark Twain - soon protested these ventures. Their centennials drew little public attention, for good reason.
The Navy’s presence here is a ghost of what it was before 1990s, when base closures affected thousands of Navy dependent jobs and facilities. Add to that the fact that the Navy has a checkered history of racism (witness the WWII Port Chicago disaster), LGBT intolerance, and a poor environmental track record, and Fleet Week begins to make little sense. Fleet Week boosters tout the economic benefits of this popular event. But sponsorship by the City of San Francisco and the Navy League doesn’t even begin to cover the millions of tax dollars incurred by the Navy, the Coast Guard, and other public agencies to maintain the event. The Blue Angels performances alone cost an estimated $98,000.
In 1993 Fleet Week promoters announced that the event would "redefine itself" to become the "San Francisco Bay Area Fest, a more broadly based celebration of the sea without the exclusive emphasis on the Navy." To date this hasn’t happened., but the loss of the Blue Angels airshow might be our chance. Such an event could encompass all of those that use and enjoy the bay - longshore workers, recreational sailors, fishermen and women, windsurfers, and others. The Blue Angels tour two west coast cities, for markedly different events. Seattle's Seafair features the Angels – as well as hydroplane races, pirate parades, marathons, fishing fleet parades, dragon boat races, and numerous community events. In contrast, Fleet Week is purely a homage to a Navy that once played a major role in the Bay Area but is no longer here. That focus ignores the many other watermen and women of this magnificent region that deserve a broader celebration. The time couldn't be better to reexamine and redefine Fleet Week. Please join the many groups that are working to convert this event and return the bay to the people.
Lincoln Cushing is a Berkeley-based archivist and author. He is the Chair of the California Studies Association and was a long-time organizer of the Bay Area Peace Navy.