For City, a Tradition of Voting on National Issues

Marine Center Dispute Only The Latest Council Vote to Attract National Attention

Photo: Anti-Marine activists shout at police and Marine supporters at a protest in front of City Hall in February.
Nathan Yan/File
Anti-Marine activists shout at police and Marine supporters at a protest in front of City Hall in February.

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Photo: Police clean up after a 1972 protest against a City Council vote on the Vietnam War.   

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The Marine recruiting center controversy has made Berkeley one of the most discussed cities in the nation this year, but to former members of the City Council, it is just another notch on their belt.

This most recent instance of the council taking a controversial stance on a national issue culminated on Feb. 13 when 2,000 people protested outside of the City Council meeting and the council decided to rescind, but not apologize for, a letter that would have called Marine recruiters in the city "uninvited and unwelcome intruders."

"We think they are isolated incidents, but nothing in politics just stands there," Councilmember Betty Olds said.

The council also felt a national backlash in October 2001 when it voted to condemn the bombing in Afghanistan after 9/11. Berkeley was the first city in the country to oppose it, said Shirley Dean, mayor from 1994 to 2002.

That decision, just like the council's recent vote against the Marine recruiting center, generated thousands of e-mails and phone calls, she said.

"It was very difficult, clearly, to have to deal with the level of anger," she said. "It was before people were angry about the Iraq war, ... it was closer to 9/11, and there was a lot of stand-up-for-America kind of things."

Polly Armstrong, a member of the City Council from 1994 to 2002 who abstained from taking stances on international issues during her tenure, said the council was "tone-deaf" because 9/11 was still fresh in people's minds. Armstrong argued that local concerns needed to be addressed first.

"What I used to say was, after solving all Berkeley problems, we can slide over to El Cerrito and Oakland to help them," she said. "But we don't need to take on the world."

Because the resolution against the bombing was considered a broader policy issue, the response was not as large as the one over the Marine recruiting center. The bombing controversy petered out after about three weeks and was not revisited again, Dean said.

"There were no statements against the troops but statements about America not to take action. I guess one of the better terms is that it wasn't personalized," she said.

Dean said the council has a history of being the first to take positions on issues outside of Berkeley but said the focus needs to remain on local issues.

"I would not rule out taking part in national matters because that's kind of a Berkeley tradition," she said. "However, I do believe that the priorities and vast majority of time has to be spent on local issues, because nobody else does that for the citizens except the council."

But other past officials say taking positions on international matters for the first time sets the stage for other jurisdictions to follow.

"Our domestic policies are dictated by foreign policies. We can't look at one or the other when in fact our tax dollars get misdirected somewhere else that local people are paying," said Gus Newport, mayor from 1979-1986.

In 1979, Berkeley became the first city in the country to divest from South Africa to protest against its system of apartheid. In 1980, the U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted divestment as well, beginning a national movement to divest from the country.

Newport said that in the South Africa case, Berkeley set the stage as the first city to make a stand and also drew similar attention from what he called the right-wing media, much like the Marine recruiting center and the condemnation of the bombing in Afghanistan had.

Berkeley has come under fire for being the first to take the road usually not taken but is known worldwide as a place with a rich history of activism, including the hippie movement against the Vietnam War that established Berkeley's reputation in the 1960s and '70s.

Ying Lee, council member from 1973-1977, said the Vietnam War led to more community activism because of the draft. Although activism has continued, the City Council then had a progressive minority, leading to greater conflicts between the citizens and the council.

On May 9, 1972, a resolution was proposed to allocate $1,000 in reparations to a bombed hospital in Vietnam. It failed to pass after only two council members voted for it. Because of the intense opposition, the meeting was held at the Berkeley Community Theater, where 3,000 people filled the room and the council sat onstage, she said.

"The crowd streamed out of the auditorium angry and frustrated, and trashing began immediately. A large bonfire was set in nearby Provo Park," The Daily Californian reported on May 10, 1972.

Lee's activism continues to this day as she works with anti-war group Code Pink to push for a regulation requiring the center to be placed 600 feet away from educational, recreational or religious institutions.

Tackling international issues has been a fundamental part of Berkeley politics for more than 35 years.

The controversy often arises not from the fact that it takes stances on international issues, but from public disagreement with the council's position, said Charles Wollenberg, a Berkeley City College history professor who has published a book on the history of Berkeley.

Lee said because social movements happen in dynamic ways, no one can predict what will spark next or the amount of reaction stances will garner.

"It's a tough task to try to come out on the right side, according to conscious, political values, according to everything you are as a person, and what is demanded by you by different populations," she said.


Jane Shin covers city government. Contact her at [email protected]

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