Berkeley vs. the Marine Corps

Antiwar protesters and flag-waving veterans converge on Berkeley in dispute over Marine recruiting.

Published February 12, 2008 11:37PM (EST)

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Separated by more than 50 police in riot gear, about 500 antiwar and pro-military protesters squared off on a plaza across the street from the old Berkeley City Hall today over the right of the Marine Corps to recruit in this liberal enclave.

Two weeks ago, the Berkeley City Council wrote a letter to the Marine Corps informing the Marines that they're "unwelcome intruders," and should abandon their recruiting center, which is one block from UC-Berkeley, an action that sparked outrage and umbrage on the right, turning it into something of a cause célèbre. The City Council received more than 24,000 e-mails about that letter to the Marines and will consider tonight whether to revoke it.

Veterans, mothers of Marines and other troop supporters from around the state, organized by Move America Forward, came to Berkeley today to protest the council's action. They were met by antiwar protesters organized by Code Pink, including more than 100 Berkeley High students reveling in the controversy while skipping lunch or class.

On the plaza, patriotic music blasted from an enormous stereo speaker, while a woman wearing a white sweatshirt that read "Code Pink are the real traitors" and was decorated with a hammer and sickle sang along and waved an American flag. Signs read: "Berkeley City Council. The Few. The Proud. The Insane." And "Got Freedom? Thank a Veteran. God Bless America." When a prop plane trailing a banner that read "Semper Fidelis" flew overhead, a cry went up from the flag-waving veterans.

The red, white and blue crowd faced off with dozens of Berkeley High students, who conducted mock die-ins, waved signs that read "Recruiters Out Now" and "Iraq: Get out. Iraq: Stay out. Bush Cheney Drive Out," and made the peace sign. Students screamed into megaphones and chanted "Rise up!" and "Fight back!" Many of the students wore black and white T-shirts with a picture of the earth on fire that read "The World Can't Wait. Drive Out the Bush Regime," as well as bright orange bandannas expressing the same. Two girls explained that adult organizers had given them the paraphernalia for free, as long as they agreed to wear it.

"It's not right for the citizens of America to let people go into war and kill innocent people," said Lily King, 14, a freshman at Berkeley High with braces on her teeth. "I know my history. I know what war does to people." Gesturing to the mass of her peers protesting around her, she said: "We're the future. We're going to be running this country someday."

With long brown hair hanging past his shoulders, Raphael Vieira, 15, carried a cardboard sign that read: "All we are saying is give peace a chance," decorated with a heart and a peace sign. "The military is lying to people, and sending people to war for money," he said.

Unsurprisingly, that sentiment did not move the oldsters on the other side. Ben Marianno, 67, from Vacaville, who served in the Marine Corps for six years, wore an American flag shirt and carried a huge American flag. He said it was a "sad day" to see so many young people out protesting the Marines. "Too many men died with their blood on the ground so these people could do what they are doing today. The youngsters here don't know what allegiance is. Nobody wants war, but sometimes you have to fight for freedom."

John Schuller, 59, from Redding, Calif., carrying an American flag, said he's a veteran of the Air Force who served for 22 years. Wearing a baseball cap that reads "Air Force Global Hawk" and a blue suit, Schuller said: "Berkeley is supposed to be the home of free speech. I guess that doesn't apply to the Marine Corps." Toward the teens on the other side, Schuller took a paternalistic tone: "I think that this is a good experience for them. None of us think like we did when we were 14 or 15. I'm sure I was not any smarter then than they are."

Jim Van Sant, a Navy veteran, who'd been in the ROTC program at UC-Berkeley in his youth, said that he'd come out today because "this is a freedom of speech issue. The Marine Corps has a right to express their views and have a legitimate place in any city in the United States." But he had to hand it to antiwar types for their made-for-TV recruitment of high school students: "I think it's a tactic to create a video opportunity for veterans out to defend the free speech of the Marines to be in a confrontation with children. So, whoever got them here is a clever tactician."

Wearing a pink Code Pink T-shirt, Annemarie, 46, of Berkeley, who wouldn't give her last name, rejected the veterans' free speech argument. "The First Amendment was not about protecting the Marines right to recruit. It was written to protect citizens' right to speak out. It was not written to protect the government, and that's what the military is." Holding her 1-month-old daughter, Kalieska, in a sling, she said that she resented people from outside Berkeley coming here to tell the City Council what to do, but applauded the Berkeley High students: "They are the ones affected by this the most. They have the most to lose."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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