The Military vs. Berkeley

Berkeley, Calif., was, once again, a city divided. On one side: a sea of Stars and Stripes, waved by supporters of a downtown U.S. Marine Corps recruiting center who sang the national anthem and "God Bless America." On the other, placard-toting protesters of the center's activities, whose signs bore such messages as WHEN DO MARINES LIE? WHEN THEY MOVE THEIR LIPS and PROUD TO BE FROM BERKELEY (FOR ONCE). In the middle were some three dozen riot police, called out to help keep things civil.

That scene, which played out Tuesday in the Bay Area, was the culimination of tensions that had been building for the last two weeks. The Berkeley City Council had passed a resolution calling the employees at a local Marine recruiting center "uninvited and unwelcome intruders." The council had also issued parking permits for antiwar protesters from the organization Code Pink for four hours each week. In the intervening days, protesters on both sides of the issue have flocked to this bastion of antiwar liberalism to make their views known.

Miriam Tidwell, a Columbus, Ga., resident, flew in Tuesday morning to urge the council members to rescind their letter to the Marines. "[The council's] action degrades the soldiers," she said. "I'm here because of my fear of this kind of thing spreading." Next to Tidwell were former Marines in leather Semper Fidelis jackets waving flags, the mothers and wives of Marines currently serving in Iraq holding pictures of their loved ones and other pro-Marines demonstrators decked out in red, white and blue.

Across the street, the anti-Marines protesters had literally set up camp, tents and all. "We don't hate the troops," said World Can't Wait organizer Stephanie Tang, drawing a distinction between the war itself and the individual soldiers fighting overseas. "We support troops who don't give in, who refuse to fight in an immoral war." Kids rode by on bicycles, while aging hippies strummed guitars. "Let [the pro-Marines demonstrators] go somewhere else to spread the message of hate and war," said Dave Siegel, a San Francisco progressive. "This is Berkeley. This is not the place to do it."

At the city council meeting, Mayor Tom Bates called the resolution the council passed two weeks prior "one of the most controversial issues in the history of our city." And after more than three hours of public testimony and debate--accompanied by shouts and cheers from outside--the council reached a decision, refusing to issue a public apology but voting 7 to 2 to revise the language in its letter to the Marines to state the council's support of both the right of the Marines to set up a recruiting center in Berkeley and the rights of the residents to assemble in either protest or support.

NEWSWEEK's Miyoko Ohtake spoke with famed California antiwar activist Tom Hayden about the Berkeley resolution and its ripple effects. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How do these events in Berkeley fit into the bigger picture of America and the war in Iraq?
Tom Hayden: Clearly, public opinion against the war has not been enough to end it. People are dying every day and therefore, many people are trying to use people power to pressure the pillars of the policy. One of the pillars is the constant need for more troops, so there are campaigns known as counter-recruitment campaigns. But this one has lit a spark like none of the others. I think it's a good thing.

Why has this demonstration lit that spark?
Because I'm not aware of any city councils or mayors that have taken a stand saying military recruiters are not welcome and setting aside space for protesters at the door of the recruiting center. I don't think the military is used to being treated that way.

Is this the start of a new kind of activism where people who agree in fundamental ways still find strong disagreements?
Things have spread from Berkeley in the past. It's very important to ending the war that the public have a chance to debate the military recruiters on campuses or in cities. Because I don't think that our young people are hearing enough about Iraq before they get caught up in it. I think absolutely that this [having a city-sanctioned place for people to protest] should be adopted in other parts of the United States.

Does the vigorous [debate] we're seeing in Berkeley resemble the ones you led in your antiwar advocacy four decades ago?
What you're talking about [in Berkeley] is a few parking spaces for protesters for four hours a week. This is not quite on the scale of the Sproul Hall demonstrations of 40 years ago.

Do you think this movement of activism, regardless of how long it lasts, will affect the presidential race?
It will marginally. The candidates are only halfway through 50 states and going a mile a minute, and there's almost no time to focus on anything but their standard message.

But is there an advantage in saying anything about the antiwar movement and these specific protests?
I'm sure the Democrat candidates would give you 30 seconds and say, "This needs to be worked out so recruitment can take place and freedom of speech can be protected. Next question." They're going to stay with their script. They're not changing much in the middle of this. Not because of the circus in Berkeley.