The protests have turned a small downtown storefront next to a beauty salon into a nationally known flashpoint over U.S. foreign policy. It's forging a new alliance of teenage anti-war demonstrators and grizzled veterans of "Bezerkeley's" Flower Power era, who have been lining up against a smaller but vocal crowd of military backers.
Lately, the lively Berkeley street scene has taken another twist: Military opponents have latched onto the idea of using local ballot initiatives to combat recruiting, chiefly as a way of registering opposition to the war in Iraq.
The anti-war crowd is pushing the idea of using zoning ordinances to restrict recruiters to locations far away from any schools or residential areas, exactly the places, of course, where the potential recruits might be found. They suggest the approach may spread beyond the East Bay hills, where much of Berkeley's well-heeled liberal elite resides, and at least one other Northern California college town has taken up a similar effort.
It all started quietly enough. In fact, when the Marines occupied their new Berkeley digs in January 2007, no one even seemed to notice. The recruiting station had never attracted interest—other than from potential officer candidates—at its prior home in a federal building in nearby Alameda. That's because Alameda, an island enclave next to Oakland, is a decidedly more service-friendly community than Berkeley, and is known for its large numbers of Navy retirees and popular old-time Independence Day parades.
But when the Alameda federal building was being closed, the Marines decided to claim a more strategic location, within walking distance of the UC Berkeley campus and next to a subway stop of the regional system known as BART.
The move would put the recruiters much closer to the Berkeley college students, the primary targets of the outreach. It also would set the Marines on a collision course with Berkeley's activist traditions—a reputation buttressed most recently by an ongoing, 15-month-old tree-sitting protest against a university stadium-construction project.
The quiet prelude didn't last long. Last fall, members of the feminist-led anti-war group Code Pink began to stage protests on the street outside the recruiting center, drawing supporters from all over the Bay Area unhappy about the Iraq situation.
"We're now five years into it," said Kevin Casey, a 53-year-old Berkeley accountant who was out on the street one recent afternoon. He was standing near a white sheet spread out to display a painted message to passing cars and pedestrians: You don't support the troops when you support the lies that kill them. "I've been marching for five years," Casey said, "and it seemed to me it was time to step it up."
The protests drew the attention of local political figures, leading the Berkeley City Council to vote to send a letter to the Marines in January condemning them as "unwelcome intruders" and asking them to take their operation elsewhere.
The anti-war demonstrators, moreover, were allowed use of a prime parking space in front of the recruiting station, and the usual fees were waived. Emboldened, the protesters grew more insistent. Three were arrested in February when they chained themselves to the door of the facility.
Predictably, all this didn't sit well with conservative radio and TV pundits as news spread across the country of the City Council action. As the blogosphere erupted, even some of the more liberal Bay Area editorial writers joined in thumping the Berkeley pols.
"Berkeley and the Marines—Semper Screwy," read the 10 February headline over a San Francisco Chronicle roundup of some of the 1,300 comments the paper received at its website. Almost none of the comments offered any support for a protest that seemed a direct insult to the Marine Corps more than a statement against war policymakers.
Even some Berkeley peace advocates decided the nine-member City Council had gone off a little half-cocked.
"I supported their intentions, their policy position against the war, but what the City Council did was kind of a political mistake," said Sharon Adams, a Berkeley patent lawyer and Code Pink member. "I think they did that without giving it a lot of thought."
The uproar drew counter-protesters and street conflagrations of a vehemence rarely seen since the Vietnam War era. Two members of the City Council asked that the anti-Marines letter be reconsidered a week after the first vote was held.
As that day approached, partisans on all sides of the Iraq issue decided to make their viewpoints known, especially to one another, creating a raucous all-day series of loud but mostly verbal clashes in a Berkeley park.
"Nothing has really gotten the press or the world's attention about war protests like this has," Lisa Rubens, historian at the Regional Oral History Office at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, told the Chronicle. "There's been this wonderfully out-of-proportion, knee-jerk response. It's clever, inflammatory, and symbolic."
The hullabaloo convinced a majority on the City Council to rescind the letter, leading the city to declare support for service men and women, but still making clear Berkeley officialdom is against the troops being kept any longer in Iraq.
The rollback didn't end the free-parking deal, however. Nor did it satisfy the pro-military forces: Nothing short of a formal apology, it seemed, would quiet those raining shame down on Berkeley's left-leaning municipal head. Residents of Walnut Creek and other nearby conservative communities began calling for boycotts of Berkeley businesses, and congressional forces proposed to withdraw federal grants to the city as well as to the university, although UC officials protested that they had nothing to do with the protest.
Prospects for the punish-Berkeley movement were unclear by early March, but the daily protests outside the recruiting center showed signs of becoming as much a part of the city's ambiance as the whiff of pot smoke in the parks.
Patrons of the beauty salon next door to the recruiting center must now endure a steady drone of sloganeering and horn-honking protest supporters outside while getting their hair styled.
Ponytails and Paunches
Veteran protesters with graying ponytails and middle-aged paunches seem determined to carry on as long as it takes.
Nancy Keiler, 64, said she lives in San Francisco and plans to show up at least once a week. She identified herself as "an anarchist, and a socialist, so figure that out."
She said the politics of the ongoing Berkeley street protest posed no contradictions for her.
"I want to stop the war," she said. "I want to stop babies from being killed in Iraq."
Adams, the lawyer, said it really wasn't a blanket condemnation of the armed forces, from her standpoint. She said the Berkeley protests should be seen as simply the latest expression of public frustration with the course of events in the Middle East.
"We don't hate the military," she insisted.
"No," Keiler agreed. "We want them to stop killing people in Iraq."
The ranks of AARP-eligible protesters have been bolstered by a new generation of mostly high-school-age demonstrators, many who identify themselves as members of a group called "The World Can't Wait."
Besides being about a block from the edge of the UC Berkeley campus, the Marines office also is a short walk from Berkeley High School, evidently a "World Can't Wait" stronghold.
The teenagers tend to show up at street actions with their faces covered by bandanas, possibly because some may be playing hooky from school. When interviewed, some gave names that may or may not be real.
Chants and Angry Slogans
On one recent day in February, the youngsters came and went in groups of five or ten, yelling unprintable slogans, looking angry and banging on parking meter poles, but doing no real damage. Police stood watch over the front door of the recruiting station to deter any further attempts to block entry. The protesters took up a chant: "Marines out of Berkeley! Marines out of Iraq! Shut down the station! Bring the soldiers back!"
One of the chanters, who identified himself as Max Veezy, 17, but was vague as to how to spell his last name, said he was coming out to show opposition to military recruiting methods, which he characterized as "misleading." He scoffed at promises of careers and adventures in a Marine uniform.
"They're trying to recruit kids to ruin their lives," he said.
Olivia Dolorier, 16, identified herself as a Berkeley High student interested in ridding the neighborhood of military outreach.
"I'm here because I'm against the Marine recruiting center being so close to a high school," she said.
But she didn't want anyone to think she was anti-American, or even anti-military.
"I believe you can be patriotic without supporting the war," she said.
She also was anxious to dispel some of the stereotypes being spread around the country by news coverage focusing on some of the zanier elements.
"People seem to think we are all disrespecting our troops but that's not what I am doing here," she said. "I think it's important for kids at Berkeley High School to learn how to protest correctly. I respect the troops. But I am completely against the war."
A contrary viewpoint was being advanced a few yards down the sidewalk.
Mary Cunningham, 64, a retired rancher from the Southern California town of Tehachapi, said she was outraged by the anti-military message she saw in the news coverage of the Berkeley protests. So she decided to have a sign printed—"Thank you for being Semper Fi"—and drove up to spend some time making clear her support for the Marine Corps.
"We are at war," she said. "The world is a very scary place right now and we really need our military."
The anti-war protesters politely, if loudly, ignored her. But she attracted quite a few allies, including a crowd of college students on their way to morning classes. Later, Fernando Navarro, a 36-year-old heavy-equipment operator who had been working nearby stopped to cheer her on.
"The military has a right to recruit," he said.
He had to talk above the anti-war chants. He dismissed the protesters as ingrates who failed to appreciate what he said it takes to keep the Free Speech Movement from succumbing to the terrorist threat.
"The irony is these young men (in uniform) are fighting to protect their baloney," he said, gesturing to his ideological critics nearby.
Then he gave Cunningham one more vote of support before heading home for the day.
"You're gutsy, man," he told her.
"This isn't normal for me," she said, adding that she was only planning to devote a single day to her one-woman anti-protest protest. She had already made plans to donate her sign to someone else sharing her pro-military views.
As for the Marines, they said in a statement that the protestors are acting "well within their rights" as Americans. The demonstrations, moreover, have "not impacted" recruiting efforts and there are no plans to move the office.
Ballot Box Battle Looms
The next phase of the battle appears likely to take the form of a local ballot initiative, which Adams has drafted and already has begun circulating in Berkeley. Supporters hope to pass an ordinance that would force military recruiting stations to obtain a special use permit to locate within 600 feet of a residential district, public park, health clinic, library, or school.
Odds of a Marine recruiting center obtaining such a permit seem about as slim as Senator John McCain winning Berkeley's vote for President in the fall election. Adams, the Code Pink member, said she was optimistic enough signatures will be gathered to qualify the initiative for the November ballot.
At the same time, peace activists in Arcata, in coastal Humboldt County in Northern California, have begun collecting signatures for what they are calling the "Arcata Youth Protection Act," which prohibits military recruiting of anyone under the age of 18.
Advocates have begun urging their counterparts in other communities to get to work on similar measures, although they recognized it may be difficult to move fast enough to meet ballot deadlines in time for the large voter turnout expected this fall.
It's also questionable whether anti-recruiting protests will do much to dissuade many young people so inclined from joining the military.
In Berkeley, even while the protesters were gathered outside the Marine center, Max St. Pierre, 17, a Berkeley High student, showed up with three friends, pointedly ignoring the chants to make his way inside to inquire about signing up.
He was handed some pamphlets and told he would need to attend college first before being eligible for Officer Candidate School, assuming he made it through a couple of preliminary programs. He and his pals left with souvenir T-shirts emblazoned with the words "honor" and "courage."
"The protest means nothing to me," St. Pierre said, pulling the shirt on, leaving no doubt where he stood as he made his way through the throng on the sidewalk. "I think it's obnoxious."