Showdown at Berkeley

A showdown between anti-war activists who last month defaced a Marine recruiting office and flag-carrying patriots took over a street in Berkeley on Wednesday with noise levels that reached a half-mile away at the University of California in town.

Berkeley police officers kept the Code Pink contingent of about 150 separated from the group of about 500 led by Move America Forward, the nation’s largest pro-troop organization. The incidents of abhorrent behavior were rare, but included an anti-war demonstrator trying to knife a pro-troop supporter and two code Pink followers burning flags.

A group of Code Pink protesters surrounded a woman and pushed her around after she said that her brother and other family members were protecting the United States in Iraq. The young woman shook with fear and wept.

“It makes me sick,” said Megan, whose last name is withheld to protect her from harassment. “Code Pink is out here every week protesting in front of the Marine center. These people (Marines) are just trying to do their jobs.”

There were no arrests, and numerous police officers stood watch, including Berkeley Police Chief Doug Hambleton at one point.  "As long as people stay peaceful, we’re as happy as we can be," Hambleton told the San Francisco Chronicle.  Melanie Morgan, chairman of Move America Forward, led the counter-protest to let Code Pink and other anti-war groups know that Americans do not approve of their antics that hurt the troops and their mission.

“I was thrilled to have so many patriotic people from all across the San Francisco Bay Area and California turn out to embarrass the people who have slandered our troops,” Morgan said. “Over 500 individuals — mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters and their friends and supporters proved that, just because you can lie about our heroic men and women, doesn’t make the lie palatable or even close to the truth.

“We will make sure that the truth is always known when it comes to people who will lay their lives down for even those who slander them,” said Morgan.

The large crowd supporting the troops and their mission included veterans, Blue Star parents, or those whose children are serving in the military; Gold Star parents, or those who have lost a child in war; civilians and members of Move America Forward, Gathering of Eagles and other pro-troops groups.

Medea Benjamin, the socialist founder of Code Pink, led her group in Berkeley, dancing in pink striped pants and singing. The Code Pink crowd used bullhorns, upside-down American flags, chanting and yelling to show their displeasure with the war in Iraq and the Bush Administration. Their signs had sayings such as “Make levees not war,” and “F… Bush.”

“I feel very strongly that what we are doing in Iraq is very misguided,” said Pat Maginnis, a member of the National Organization of Women and an anti-war protester.

The clash of protesters resulted from Code Pink vandalizing the Berkeley Marine recruitment center on Sept. 26. The group hung signs on the center calling the Marines “assassins” and scrawled words calling the Marines “liars” and “traitors.”

Marine Capt. Richard Lund, who served two tours of duty in Iraq, wrote an open letter to Code Pink that appeared in the Berkely campus newspaper, “Daily Planet.” The Marine center was closed on Wednesday during the protests, but his letter was pasted on a window for everybody to read.

“While the protest that you staged in front of my office on Wednesday, Sept. 26, was an exercise of your constitutional rights, the messages that you left behind were insulting, untrue, and ultimately misdirected,” Lund wrote. “. . . scrawled across the doorway to my office, you wrote, “Recruiters are Traitors.” Please explain this one. How exactly am I a traitor? Was I a traitor when I joined the Marine Corps all those years ago? Is every Marine, therefore, a traitor? Was I a traitor during my two stints in Iraq? Was I a traitor when I was delivering humanitarian aid to the victims of the tsunami in Sumatra? Or do you only consider me a traitor while I am on this job?”

Capt. Lund recruits college students and college graduates for Marine officer school. His entire letter is at the Berkeley Daily Planet.

Rae Abileah, local groups coordinator for Code Pink, has protested in front of several recruiting centers and likes to educate potential recruits before the sign up.

“I think it’s important to (stand at) recruit centers to teach people about their rights,” Abileah said, adding that unscrupulous recruiters have promised cash bonuses and expedited citizenship just to lure recruits.

She also complained that some of the folks on the other side of the debate have been violent in earlier confrontations, destroying Code Pink’s signs.

Several Code Pink protesters refused to give their names or talk about their reason for defacing the Marine office. But Code Pink’s calendar shows a concerted campaign to drive the recruitment office out of Berkeley, the birthplace of the free speech movement. One Code Pink protester held a sign that said, “No military predators in our town.”
“A lot of good men have spilled their blood so Code Pink can do this,” veteran Jim Kelly said.

Bryan Welden of Walnut Creek, a member of the Lafayette Flag Brigade, had another take on why the crowd of troop supporters outnumbered the anti-war protesters.
“We need to show our Armed Forces that we stand directly behind them. We need to show the media that all of us are not Code Pinkos. And we need to show the Bay Area that we all need to support our troops.”