National Guard major general calls Berkeley his home
Major General Paul D. Monroe, head of the California National Guard, has no time for Berkeley-bashers.
“I get all these e-mails from people I’ve served with in the past, trashing Berkeley,” he said over breakfast Saturday. “These people say, ‘Why don’t you move out of there?’”
“I tell them, “Because it’s my home!’”
With his 44 years of service in the armed forces, Monroe has so many former colleagues that defending the city from their barbs could nearly be a full-time job.
But when Gov. Gray Davis appointed him Adjutant General in April 1999, he said, he stopped replying. He’s busy enough as it is, especially in the last few months.
He was able to spend the Thanksgiving holiday at home, however, and on Saturday he met with the Daily Planet to praise the city where he was born and has lived most of his life, to talk about the Guard’s current activities. He remembered what he called “the Guard’s darkest day” – May 20, 1969, when he was present as a Guard helicopter rained tear gas onto demonstrators in Sproul Plaza.
It was a generous gesture, as Monroe has very little free time to spare these days.
As Adjutant General, he commands more than 23,000 Californian citizen-soldiers – around 19,000 U.S. Army reservists and around 4,000 that are affiliated with the Air Force. Monroe is the first African American commander of the California National Guard. He reports to Davis, the Guard’s commander-in-chief, and works with the regular military when they call up – or “federalize” – his troops.
Since Sept. 11, of course, Monroe has been scrambling around the state, deploying troops to guard airports and bridges. He has sent 1,400 of his air reservists to the Air Force, which commands the air defense patrols around the state.
All this is in addition to the Guard’s normal workload. On Friday, the air division conducted a search-and-rescue operation for a small airplane that crashed in a remote corner of northeastern California. The plane was found, but all five people on board had died in the crash.
“I don’t know whether I’m coming or going these days,” Monroe said.
Monroe joined the California National Guard after a stint in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. After leaving the Corps, he had sent his resume out to several private firms. But few firms were interested in hiring an African American engineer in 1961, Monroe said, and eventually he followed a friend’s suggestion and joined the Guard.
His first post was at the Presidio, where he worked as a clerk. He later took a job with the Guard’s General Services Administration in Sacramento, where he could pursue additional studies.
By 1969, he was a captain and assistant operations officer in the 159th Infantry Division, which Gov. Ronald Reagan called into Berkeley during the confrontation over People’s Park.
On May 20, Monroe said he was stationed on the university campus, where demonstrators were rallying at Sproul Plaza. He said he heard over the tactical radio system that the helicopter would drop tear gas onto the crowd to disperse it. Guardsmen and police were ordered to block exits from the plaza, a decision that baffled and angered Monroe.
When the gas was dropped, no one could escape.
“We violated all the tenets of crowd control when we did that,” he said.
Monroe said that normally, during crowd-control operations, the first thing that is done is to issue a warning to the crowd. The next step is a show of force – police or military line up and get out their batons. Force should only be used if those methods are unsuccessful.
And there should always be definite escape routes, Monroe said.
“What we should have done is warn the crowd,” he said. “We should have told them that that helicopter up there is going to drop tear gas on them if they don’t disperse.
“Some of us knew it was a mistake to begin with, but right after it happened everyone knew it was a mistake.”
Monroe said that the tear gas spread all over campus, up into restaurants in the Student Union building. His wife, who at the time was a teacher at nearby Emerson Elementary, told him later that the gas had drifted over to their school.
The aftermath of that day is still felt in the Guard and in Berkeley, according to Monroe.
“To this day, the Berkeley Police Department can’t get a helicopter, because citizens remember how we used ours that day,” he said.
Berkeley people are ‘delightful’
There is a clause in the deed on Monroe’s house in northeast Berkeley, he said, that stipulates that the house shall never be sold to “Negros, Orientals or Mexicans.” When he bought the place in the ’60s, he knew that he could be taken to court and forced to surrender his home at any time.
But that never happened. Instead, he said, the neighbors showed up to welcome him into the community and invite him and his family to the weekly neighborhood volleyball game and barbecue.
“You take the good with the bad, and in Berkeley it’s always been mostly good,” he said. “The people here are delightful.”
His faith isn’t shaken by things like the City Council’s recent stance on the war in Afghanistan.
“When I first heard about that, I reacted the same way everyone else did,” he said. “But then I found out that [the resolution] just said that the city was asking for the war to be ended as soon as possible.
“I don’t disagree with that. I don’t like war either.
“One thing that people don’t realize is that Berkeley city employees who are mobilized as members of the Guard get their full salary for a year. The city doesn’t have to do that. Bigger cities aren’t doing it.”
Monroe’s son, Paul D. Monroe III, is one of the beneficiaries of this policy. The younger Monroe, the information technology manager for the Berkeley Unified School District, is also a Guardsman. He was “federalized” several weeks ago, and is currently serving at an army base in Southern California.
“I saw [Mayor] Shirley Dean at a conference with Gov. Davis,” Monroe said. “She told me that she was just sorry that [the salary] couldn’t be more.”
It was just one simple gesture, Monroe said, but for him it was a reminder of the warmth he felt for his home town.
“I love it here,” he said. “I don’t say that to people very often, because I want to keep it a secret. I don’t want everyone else in the state moving here.”