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Berkeley: The War at Home

With Nicholas Olczak

Nicholas Olczak
Photos by Luke Thomas

By Nicholas Olczak

February 14, 2008

The musty glow of many lights hangs in the mist around Berkeley City Hall, the denser beams of spotlights cutting through. Sturdy riot police are interspersed along the road in front, their thick arms holding batons across their chests, stern faces staring from beneath helmets. I step off the curb and one of them growls at me to get back, followed by the next one along.

We pass a row of clean white television vans parked on the corner, satellites like strange statues on their roofs. Crossing the road, the glowing white facade of the hall loom authoritively over us. But is it just a façade? Today the real authority which this building holds is being challenged.

A fenced catwalk licks out from the front steps, more muscular police posed here like grotesque models in a military inspired show. Their visors are pushed up – hard eyes watching the crowds around them dispassionately. This gangway physically separates the two sites of the argument.

The area on the left is like a small section from a 60’s music festival. The grass is boggy from restlessly tramping feet, grubby abandoned placards on the floor. Small tents are pitched, their domes draped in pink banners about the anti-war group Code Pink. A mixed crowd stumbles around them – talking, handing out flyers, dancing and singing.

There’s an old man in a bright blue suit, waving a placard with neat writing saying ‘I can’t afford a real sign.’ A couple of dreadlocked teenagers carry around a stereo and Dylan’s mellow voice crackles into the busy area. A few kids with skateboards wander around curiously, one of them picking up a discarded placard and waving it with excitement.

The right side feels more subdued. Here tidily dressed people, some with military jackets and hats, press forwards towards the steps so that there seems a lot less of them than the sprawling peace activists. Some are waving flags, while others hold Placards neatly painted in blue, red and white. ‘God Bless America’ and ‘Berkeley Council is a National disgrace’. This group appears less energetic, less sure what they are supposed to be doing on a protest like this.

They are all young, even more so than the peace activists. At this demonstration, and at the Obama rally I attended last week, I have been struck by how young people have been moved to express themselves. They are at the centre of these events, the ones who could grow into Obama’s rule, the ones most likely to go to Iraq.

A man suddenly surges over, calling out ‘Where’s the right wing?” He pushed forward into the crowd, shouting loudly all the time. You’re all fascists he shouts. Most of the crowd back away, but a sturdy man faces up to him. “Fuck You!” He shouts, pushing his broad face forward and staring at the other with hardened, savage eyes. “No, fuck you!” The smaller man snaps back, stepping forward and rising up a little more stiffly. They look fiercely at each other and I’m sure they’re going to fight, waiting for a fist to swing and smack flesh. But then the smaller man shuffles away, mumbling to himself.

These two are here for the conflict, but it seems like most of the demonstrators are more serious. They are just people who really believe in their perspective, enough to trek out on this cold night to stand up for it. Watching the two sides – I feel that really it is two different Americas that are set against each other here.

On one side you have the hippyish peace- protestors, taking the libertarian but not the consumer part of the American dream, dissatisfied with the nation, tracing a lineage back to the glory of the 60’s when America was awash with fellow travelers. On the other you have working and middle class American, probably living in the suburbs somewhere, keeping to their neighborly circles, enjoying moderate comforts that the dream might provide, unconcerned about freedom.

As the hearing starts almost all the action outside stops and more placards are thrown down. People turn to face the hall and listen intently to what is happening inside. This small provincial conflict has taken on a much greater symbolism. The legitimacy of the Navy to invade Berkeley acts as a synecdoche for the legitimacy of America to invade Iraq.

Like that faraway war, our information on the battle inside the hall is limited, crackling out of speakers so that it’s hard to get a real sense of the drama inside. A group of older, tattered protestors retreat into their tent, pulling thick blankets around them and cradling radios to their ears.

The meeting reaches the public lobbying section. A member of Code Pink speaks in a slurred, forceful voice. “Our babies, our eighteen to twenty-six year olds, they're dying out there – you have to know that!” There are cheers from the group of demonstrators gathered outside who collectively will their representative on. “We’ve got to enter the hole with them.” Another spattering of applause. “You must have soul!”

Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin

“Yeah, soul!” a man in the crowd whoops, swaying from side to side, eyes glazed with the excitement of protesting. But I wonder if something as airy as soul can really be enough to transcend the earthliness of national politics, the different machinations and tensions.

Behind us the riot police are changing over. A new squad march down the channel between the two lines, standing in a regimented huddle. On a command they step forward and the troops they replace step back. Feet apart, bodies solid, the new guards settle into their position – blocks of unfeeling stone that create a necessary wall between people.

“This is fucking fascism.” A man in the crowd yells. People turn round to watch as the replaced police march out – chanting left, right, left right – their long line moving off along the murky street. I can’t help thinking of images from Nazi films I’ve seen.

Inside the hall a mother of a soldier comes to the podium, talking about the picture of her son that she holds. He was shot in Iraq, but he fought for a noble cause, one that all American’s should defend. I sense she is struggling to understand how people can think differently, how people can make her son’s death seem purposeless. Her voice, deepened by the speakers, is flushed with emotion. I picture her inside the hall, holding back sad, proud tears.

“Your son died ‘cause he was stoopid,” shouts a young African girl bitterly, her braided hair pulled back to expose a glowing face. Hatred for this pro-war mentality stiffens her whole body as she listens intently to the speeches. There is so much passion amongst these peace activists, but much of it feels misdirected, like a burning blaze from which sparks leap in all directions.

As we leave, I clamber over a placard sunk into the muddy grass. Its message – Recruiters Out Of Berkeley – is torn smeared with dark brown footsteps. Later that evening Berkeley Council decide to take back their ‘get out’ letter and the clustered hopes of the peace activists are broken and walked over too.







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