Scott Kennedy (Dec. 9, 1948–Nov. 19, 2011) Photo by Matt Fitt.
Right up to the sudden end, Scott Kennedy was a fount of energy and ideas about how to make a better world. Last Friday, Nov. 18—just hours before his death early Saturday, most likely of a heart attack—he spent a long lunch talking with Mark Primack, his old ally on the Santa Cruz City Council.
“I went to talk to him about some problems I was having leading the Homeless Garden Project, and he listened and did a bit of ‘I told you so eight years ago,’ and then he started going down the path of ‘Here’s what you can do. Would you like me to call up this person and set up a meeting?’” Primack recalls. “And now I’ve got these meetings in December.”
He adds, “I felt like I wanted to apologize to the hundreds of people who know him better than I did, because I got his last day.”
The anecdote is vintage Kennedy. Though he’s perhaps best known for co-founding the Resource Center for Nonviolence and for his efforts on behalf of the Palestinians, Kennedy was also an effective local politician with a reputation for a sharp intellect, hard work and straight dealing.
“Whenever Scott decided to get involved with something, he always had an impact,” says Don Lane, a longtime friend of Kennedy’s who served with him on council for a short while. “Some of us sort of dabble in things. Scott rarely dabbled. When he was involved he made something happen.”
While Lane attributes his late friend’s effectiveness to high energy levels and late nights spent working, Primack cites his intellect. “He was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known,” Primack says, adding, “He was confident enough in his own intelligence that he was willing to listen to other people.”
Kennedy was also unafraid to take unpopular positions. During his combined 12 years on the Santa Cruz City Council (1991-1998 and 2000-2004), the socially progressive Kennedy voted for numerous controversial developments, including a factory outlet at Laurel and Chestnut and the Longs on Mission Street, in the belief that post–earthquake Santa Cruz badly needed sales tax revenue if it was to keep offering social services. That conviction, ultimately embraced by other left-leaning councilmembers like Mike Rotkin and Cynthia Mathews, caused a rift in the progressive movement in town in the 1990s.
Yet many of Kennedy's opponents in these battles—including other progressives with a slow-growth orientation—respected him.
“For Scott, the thing was, from his background in nonviolent struggle, you struggle but you don’t disrespect your opponent,” says former mayor Bruce Van Allen. “It’s kind of Gandhian principles. He and I had some pretty deep disagreements, but I never lost respect for him and he and I always dealt with each other in ways that we didn’t have to call each other names or feel the other was acting out of bad will.”
Van Allen says that early on in his career as an activist, Kennedy showed a talent for mobilizing people at the grassroots level—something he would continue to do in his work around Middle Eastern issues, where he led many citizen delegations to the Holy Land.
“The first I know of him in Santa Cruz goes way back to, must be ’69 or ’70, one of the big student mobilizations against the Vietnam War, and he led a sit-in at the post office. And that’s one of the first places he showed up,” says Van Allen. “And at the same time John Laird in that same week led a delegation of students to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress against the war. And that was very indicative of John Laird and the path he would take. And I think around that time Mike Rotkin led a big rally and demonstration on campus, more of the shut-it-down type of action.”
For many of Kennedy’s friends and admirers here locally, including Lane, Kennedy’s legacy is in the hundreds of low-income housing units now standing in Santa Cruz, which Kennedy championed after the earthquake. “Affordable housing rarely has a big constituency because the people who need it are rarely involved in community politics,” says Lane. “I think he was conscious of who isn’t necessarily being heard but who deserves to be heard. You can see that in terms of affordable housing or in terms of Palestinians.”
Says housing activist (and sometime Santa Cruz Weekly contributor) Paul Wagner, “He specialized in equality in land use, whether in Santa Cruz or in Israel.” Kennedy’s efforts on behalf of the disenfranchised here and abroad, says Wagner, and his willingness to stand up to the power structure were extremely unusual. “He was more like Jesus than anyone I’ve ever met,” says Wagner.
In the days following Kennedy’s passing, such reflections on his character haven't been unusual among his friends.
“I was talking to someone about Scott today,” says Primack, “and I realized that really in this world to be compassionate, you have to be brave. It requires bravery to reach out to an adversary, and Scott excelled at both those things. He was brave enough that he could be compassionate.
“I’ve got a reputation for being an indepenent person in town, but I’d gladly follow Scott.”
Check this site for word of Scott Kennedy’s memorial.