As Usual, Berkeley Dances to a Different Drum

It's a tradition dating back to the Vietnam era: talk of war in America is always accompanied by anti-war protests. The undisputed capital of presenting "the other side" of the debate with demonstrative dissent is Berkeley, Calif.

But the first attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor — and the worst act of terrorism in history — has left the residents of this famously independent-minded city divided over what "the other side" is, and whether it makes sense to support it.

"Berkeley will always be a liberal city and it will always be a place where you hear debate, where you will hear dissent and both sides of an issue," Mayor Shirley Dean, often viewed as a conservative by some of her more left-wing constituents, said. "That's one of the great things about Berkeley. It's also one of the challenges about Berkeley."

A couple of well-publicized incidents and the city's history have already fixed in some minds an image of the Northern California community as a troupe of leftist hippies banging peace drums and smoking funny little pipes. The Wall Street Journal Web site includes a daily roundup of stories entitled "Berkeley's Useless Idiots."

On Tuesday night, the city council narrowly passed a resolution that urged the government to end the military actions in Afghanistan. The vote split along ideological lines. The council's five-member leftist majority voted for the resolution. The four centrist members abstained.

Councilwoman Dona Spring said she presented the resolution to spare civilians. She also said the military campaign will breed terrorism and instability in the Middle East.

The resolution jibes with a string of other local events since the terrorist attacks.

Of course, no one could be surprised that there have been several protests since the attacks, mostly a mish-mash of anti-war, anti-racism rallies full of Vietnam-era chants like "One, two, three, four, we don't want your racist war." One event about three weeks ago drew an estimated 5,000 people, dwarfing a pro-military rally of a few hundred last week.

A recent poll in the Daily Californian, the University of California at Berkeley's student newspaper, found that 68 percent of the campus opposed military action, with 31 percent either supporting it or not certain. This number is out of step with the rest of America. A recent Newsweek poll revealed that 89 percent of people support military action, with only 11 percent opposed to or unsure about it.

"In New York, what people experienced [on Sept. 11], the people in Afghanistan are experiencing right now because of what's happening right now," 24-year-old rally organizer and graduate student Ronald Cruz said. "It's just a matter of time before this gets larger as there's more education and understanding and the war expands. The anti-war movement will grow and the U.S. government will be under scrutiny by students in fits and starts and then by the American public as a whole."

Although the protests in Berkeley are hardly notable, other incidents have re-established the community's reputation for being on the fringe.

During the flag-waving days after Sept. 11, the fire chief ordered firefighters to remove large flags from their trucks, both for safety reasons and for a demonstration in which officials feared anti-war protestors would tear them down, Assistant Fire Chief David Orth said.

Newspapers and television shows jumped on the demonstration angle as an example of Berkeley doing its same old song and dance. In fact the flags were interfering with driving and firefighting and were replaced by smaller ones two days later. But by then the flag flap had done its damage.

It didn't help matters when Congress voted to allow President Bush to use force in response to the attacks and the only dissenting member was Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, Berkeley and neighboring Oakland's congresswoman.

Then there's the now-infamous cartoon in the Daily Cal.

Artist Darrin Bell depicted turbaned, bearded hijackers about to face infernal punishment in Hell. Calling it a racist caricature, student groups staged a sit-in at the newspaper's offices, and the student-body senate worked to pass a bill hiking up the paper's rent unless it printed a front-page apology and the artist and editorial staff attended sensitivity training.

The Daily Cal refused, and after a national uproar and cries of censorship, the senate instead passed a castrated bill that still suggested the training and apology, but didn't raise the rent.

"I guess in Berkeley people always want to say they value free speech and are the home of the free-speech movement, but it always seems people stop following that as soon as you say something they disagree with," Daily Cal editor-in-chief Janny Hu said.

The shenanigans carried over to City Hall, where city councilwoman Spring ruffled feathers for telling the Daily Cal that the U.S. that was a terrorist nation.

Spring said she was misquoted.

"My stance was that, to the Afghan people, the U.S. bombing seems like a terrorist attack," she said in a telephone interview. "I'm not taking the position that the U.S. is a terrorist nation. ... But the U.S. shouldn't just use bombing as a way to resolve our differences with other nations."

News organizations leapt on the story as the final proof that Berkeley is out of touch with the new world order, and Mayor Dean was once again left shaking her head. It's not fair to describe her city as a bunch of loonies on the fringe, she insists.

"It is hurting Berkeley, it makes it harder to compete for federal and state monies, it makes our job harder," Dean said. "I want it to be seen as a rational community. We are liberal, we do debate, but we have our heads screwed on straight here."