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Berkeley students put pro-war, right-wing mob on defensive

Courage to Resist. February 19, 2008

For months, the anti-war women’s group CodePink staged near-daily protests outside of a Marine recruiting station in downtown Berkeley, California. These gatherings became a part of the local landscape. However, vigil-as-usual ended when the Berkeley City Council voted to officially endorse these ongoing protests and to send a letter to the Marine recruiters asking them to leave town. Right-wing radio rallied their listeners to “punish” the city, and anti-military recruiting advocates rallied to defend the council’s actions.

National right-wing groups such as Move America Forward and their media outlets attacked the council vote. U.S. Senator Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) and five other Republican senators moved to introduce the “Semper Fi Act” that would cut off over $2 million in federal funds to Berkeley, including a public school lunch program. A Republican State Assemblyman pledged to try to deny Berkeley over $3 million in state funds for road repairs. While these moves have little chance of succeeding, they effectively placed the council on notice that "the powers that be" were not happy.

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Courage to Resist joins 24-hour vigil. Photo Jeff Paterson

A showdown of epic proportions (even for Berkeley) ensued around Berkeley City Hall February 12. With out-of-town pro-war individuals descending on Berkeley to intimidate the City Council for its anti-war position, Courage to Resist joined CodePink, ANSWER Coalition, World Can’t Wait, Veterans for Peace and other community groups to mobilize over a thousand people to support the council’s opposition to the Iraq War and military recruiting—and continue the struggle to oppose military recruiting in our community. Knowing that pro-war, pro-recruiting people intended to begin their rally before dawn, anti-war groups set up a 24-hour encampment on the City Hall lawn beginning the night before.

Beginning at 5:00 am sharp, the two sides squared off against each other with opposing arguments, chants and signage. Anti-war, pro-impeachment, anti-torture, and GI resistance pickets on one side; slogans such as “waterboard liberals”, "try burning this (U.S. flag) asshole", and “free speech for Marines” on the other.

Pro-war supporters had to clarify that they were not actually advocating for an expansion of GI rights, but only that Marine recruiters and commanders should have limitless “free speech” to recruit and advocate for endless war and occupation. Indeed, the Pentagon purchases $6 billion of “free speech” advertising on military recruiting annually!

These supporters of “the troops AND THEIR MISSIONS” travelled from as far away as Georgia and Colorado to force a retreat by the council. Their numbers grew to a few hundred by the end of the day. However, it was hundreds of Berkeley High students that left their campus down the street to courageously and defiantly surround and hound the pro-war mobilization that really set the tone and put the right-wing mobilization on the defensive.

Throughout the day and into the evening, groups of anti-war, anti-recruiting students loudly debated intimidating-looking motorcycle clubbers, right-war ideologs, and a handful of young Republicans—often with riot police moving in to push back the students.

Photos below by Jeff Paterson for Courage to Resist

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The council’s initial resolution

A couple of weeks earlier on January 29 the Berkeley City Council passed a resolution that stated “the U.S. has a history of launching illegal, immoral and unprovoked wars of aggression and the Bush Administration launched the most recent of those wars in Iraq and is threatening to do the same in Iran. These wars have produced catastrophic loss of human life, both civilian and military, as well as physically maiming and deforming and psychologically destroying countless numbers of civilians and military personnel.” It’s pretty hard to argue with those facts, and at first few folks paid much notice.

Indeed, the council has a long history of taking progressive stands. For example, the council has also gone on record in support of Iraq War resister Lt. Ehren Watada, and has called for impeachment proceedings against President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

However, it was a proposed letter to be sent from the city to the Marine Commandant declaring that the recruiting station “is not welcome in the city, and if recruiters choose to stay, they do so as uninvited and unwelcome intruders” that sparked the right-wing mobilization.

The right-wing demanded an apology (for a letter that had not yet been sent), and that the council back off from its opposition to the Iraq War and military recruiting—specifically its official support of CodePink’s ongoing protests.

Photos below by Lori Hurlebaus for Courage to Resist

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Council backs off, stands firm

As the council meeting dragged on past midnight, hundreds continued the standoff on the lawn outside while listening to the meeting over loud speakers. After sitting through five hours of other City Council agenda items, both sides presented arguments to the council.

A pro-recruiting supporter identified himself as a former Marine claimed to speak on behalf of all Marines, past and present. The next speaker was Paul Cox, a Veterans for Peace activist, Vietnam War veteran, and former Marine. Paul addressed the council to express his support for their counter-recruiting stand.

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Courage to Resist organizer Jeff Paterson. Photo Lori Hurlebaus

Next, Courage to Resist organizer Jeff Paterson addressed the council:

“I’m here tonight as a four year veteran of the United States Marine Corps … in order to express my gratitude for the council’s actions in support of the truly grassroots community effort to counter military recruiting.…The council’s anti-recruiting stand is very much in line with your October 23, 2007 reaffirmation of Berkeley as a sanctuary city for conscientious objectors and war resisters. Thank you. There’s a lot of talk about supporting the troops, but we need to support the troops with the courage to resist illegal war and occupation.”

Outcome

In the end, the city council decided not to send the controversial “unwelcome intruders” letter. This was later trumpeted by the mainstream press as a clear retreat by the council. However, many anti-war activists who regularly interact with military service persons were uncomfortable with the language—or at least how it was framed by the right-wing. Specifically, it did not distinguish enough between the troops, and those that recruit them based on lies and misrepresentations.

While the council opted not to send the letter, they also voted not to apologize for taking a strong stand against the war and military recruiting—nor did they revoke CodePink’s weekly parking spot and sound permit in front of the recruiting station. "We are really proud of the Berkeley City Council for not buckling under intense pressure from the pro-war ‘swift-boaters,’" declared Medea Benjamin, CodePink co-founder.

The ongoing counter recruitment and anti-war vigils continue in downtown Berkeley in front of the Marine recruiting office.

Many more photos available here hosted by Indybay.org