Under the image of a stern serviceman in uniform, the sign in the window of the U.S. Marine Corps recruiting station extols the traits of America’s armed forces: “Smart. Tough. Elite.”
This famously liberal town recently added its own descriptor: Unwanted.
In a move reminiscent of Berkeley’s 1960s antiwar protests, the City Council ignited a national firestorm last month by issuing a strongly worded declaration that blasted military recruiting techniques and labeled the Marine Corps as “uninvited and unwelcome intruders.” One council member said U.S. troops were responsible for “horrible karma,” and Mayor Tom Bates offered to help the Marines evacuate.
The return fire was swift. Several Republican senators sponsored a bill to reroute $2.3 million in federal funding from Berkeley to the Marines. In the last 10 days, city officials have received 26,000 e-mails, mostly from irate people who called the declaration irresponsible. Several council members have received death threats.
Many critics said that although they were opposed to the war in Iraq, they believed the council had crossed the line, going beyond protesting the nation’s foreign policy to demonizing men and women in uniform.
“The e-mails are running 15 to 1 in favor of the Marines,” said Councilman Gordon Wozniak, one of the dissenters in the 6-3 vote on the declaration. “They’ve run the gamut from being very thoughtful to dismissing Berkeley citizens as liberal scum.”
In recent days, Berkeley officials have backpedaled and Bates issued a public apology. Tonight, the council will consider a motion to remove the criticism about recruiting and express the community’s support for U.S. troops fighting abroad.
Though the council’s newest resolution is expected to pass, the city is bracing for a showdown between antiwar activists and pro-military groups who plan to picket at City Hall.
The group Code Pink, which calls itself a women-initiated peace movement to end the Iraq war, planned to hold a 24-hour vigil at City Hall from 7 p.m. Monday to the start of tonight’s council meeting. Code Pink members have picketed the downtown Marine Corps recruiting station for months, and the City Council recently voted to give the group a free parking space in front of it.
“We’re not looking for a fight, and we expect the police to be there to help keep the peace,” Rae Abileah, a national organizer for Code Pink, said about the group’s vigil. “The right-wing groups are trying to make this into an issue of whether you are for or against the Marines. It’s not about that. It’s about the war in Iraq and the deceitful tactics by military recruiters.”
Mary Pearson, deputy executive director of Move America Forward, which she identified as the largest U.S. troop support network, said those in support of the troops would rally at City Hall at 5 a.m.
“Our troops are here for our protection. If there was any earthquake, these people in Berkeley would be the first ones crying, begging for their help,” she said. “For someone to try a stunt such as this -- no, not on our watch.”
Berkeley’s declaration, introduced before the city’s Peace and Justice Commission, accused the United States of repeatedly “launching illegal, immoral and unprovoked wars of aggression” and said “the Bush administration launched the most recent of those wars in Iraq and is threatening the possibility of war in Iran.”
“Military recruiters are salespeople known to lie to and seduce minors and young adults into contracting themselves into military service with false promises regarding jobs, job training, education and other benefits,” it added.
Wozniak termed the commission a “rogue” group whose members hid the declaration among hundreds of pages given to council members. “It was inappropriate language,” he said. “I don’t think many of the council members even read it.”
While softening the language of the declaration, the new proposal does not retract three related items approved by the council, Wozniak said. One calls for residents to impede the work of any military recruiting station in the city. Another asks the city attorney to investigate whether the Marine Corps violates a city law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. A third provides Code Pink with the parking place outside the recruitment center and issues the group a sound permit for its protests.
A U.S. Marine Corps spokeswoman in Quantico, Va., said Berkeley’s actions would have no effect on recruitment.
“It’s business as usual. We aren’t planning to move that office,” Gunnery Sgt. Pauline Franklin said Monday. “We’ve been recruiting qualified men and women for 232 years. That’s not going to stop now.”
In retaliation for the declaration, however, seven Republican members of Congress are moving forward with their bill to strip Berkeley of $2.3 million in federal funds earmarked for school lunches, ferry service, local disability organizations and public safety.
In Washington, one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Ted Poe (R- Texas), fumed on the House floor recently that the city had a “ ‘60s peacenik, hippie mentality that world peace can occur by sitting around smoking dope and banging on the tambourine.”
Others said Berkeley had insulted Americans.
“No matter what your thoughts on the war, most people believe you should support and defend our military and families,” said Wesley Denton, a spokesman for Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
In the California Legislature, Assemblyman Guy Houston (R-Livermore) has threatened to sponsor a bill withholding $3.3 million in state road funds intended for Berkeley.
Some say the City Council went too far, even for Berkeley.
“You’d think the council would stick to city matters. It’s OK to speak out as an individual, but when you do so as an institution, you jeopardize a lot of things -- from federal money to the reputation of your community,” said Bruce Cain, a political scientist at UC Berkeley.
“The politicians are speaking for people who elected them on a different basis. They didn’t run on a foreign policy platform, but on city issues. It’s not fair to citizens for them to speak without a mandate.”
On Monday, the recruiting station was closed, but it wasn’t clear whether the controversy had caused the closure. One local businessman said the protests had already hurt those around the building.
“We’re ground zero,” he said, asking that his name and that of his business not be used. “No matter who is right or wrong, customers are staying away.”
On the street, Berkeley residents had mixed feelings about the standoff.
“This is Berkeley. Whoever yells the loudest usually gets their way,” resident Sara Nickerson said as she walked past the empty recruitment center.
Business owner Joe Roberts agreed. “The council people don’t see their domain as the city, they see themselves as judge and jury to the world. This is the Kingdom of Berkeley. This is what politicians do here: stir up needless trouble.”
For his part, Wozniak said he hoped the demonstrations would be peaceful. “The reaction’s been unfortunate,” he said. “Much of it has been posturing by the Republicans on behalf of their constituents, much like our council was pushing for the antiwar folks.”