Sept. 11, 2001 Berkeley residents awoke to find that the country they believed impenetrable had been attacked. Mayor Shirley Dean was among those who stared in shock and disbelief as the TV news played and replayed the brutal assault on the twin towers and the Pentagon. The vision of planes crashing into buildings and people hurling themselves from windows high above Manhattan seemed unreal, more like a made-for-TV drama. “At first you don’t believe it,” Dean said.
Soon reality set in. An enemy had penetrated U.S. soil and killed thousands. For some the dead included family and friends. To most of us the dead were strangers; but the media quickly acquainted us with their identities.
One was Mark Bingham, the openly gay 31-year-old former UC Berkeley rugby player. The Associated Press reported that Bingham and others allegedly fought off the terrorists, causing United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco to crash outside Pittsburgh, thus preventing the assailants from reaching a target.
To ease their grief, people in Berkeley and across the nation turned to loved ones, places of worship and public memorials such as the ceremony held on the night of the attacks at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park.
“I felt so helpless at home and wanted to be with other people, to have a community to share this tragedy with,” said Nadja Lazansky, who with her 9-year-old daughter
was among some 300 people attending the vigil. “It was very uplifting and personally I feel better,” she said that night.
The event brought together public officials and leaders from many faiths – Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Catholic and Buddhist. Prayers and speakers warned against a rush to retaliate.
“There will be turbulent days ahead and whatever action is taken it has to be with humanity,” Marvis Peoples of the Liberty Hill Baptist Church said. “You can’t fight evil with evil.”
City out of sync
Such thoughts proved to be out of step with the national mood.
On Sept. 11 The Associated Press reported a senior administration official saying that President George W. Bush was considering a range of military options targeting Osama bin Laden and perhaps Afghanistan.
“We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them,” the president said.
His rhetoric in the following months became increasingly militaristic: “Every nation now must oppose this enemy, or be, in turn, its target,” he said in an October speech.
“Those who hate all civilization and culture and progress, those who embrace death to cause the death of the innocent, cannot be ignored, cannot be appeased. They must be fought.” The reaction in Berkeley in the weeks following Sept. 11 and the bombing of Afghanistan was predictable. In the city where pacifist Lew Hill had founded KPFA radio a half-century earlier, where professors had refused to sign a loyalty oath avowing they were not communists, where the Free Speech Movement was born and the anti-Vietnam War movement was powerful, it came as no surprise that the local response to the war against terrorism would be against a military solution. “Our grief is not a call to war,” became the mantra.
And while Bush asserted that the attack was the result of foreigners’ hatred of American freedoms, others said the United States was hated because its policies hurt poorer nations.
Councilmember Linda Maio was among those who searched for more complex answers: “We need to ask how the perpetrators could have reached such levels of hatred and frustration that they would plan such acts and give their lives,” she wrote. “Such anger can only have been constructed over time, through a combination of historical events resulting in a deep sense of threat and sustained exclusion. Our nation's response has everything to do with whether we reinforce this alienation and thus provide the soil, seeds, and nutrients for future cycles of revenge and violence. Or whether it changes.”
And so the memorial vigils of the first weeks gave way to anti-war demonstrations in which thousands of protesters turned out on campus, in town and across the bay in San Francisco.
At every rally, however, protesters faced pro-war demonstrators, many aligned with UC Berkeley’s Young Republicans. Tony Banks, then a sophomore, was among the counterdemonstrators at an October rally.
“No country is perfect,” he said, “and there are things in the U.S. I disagree with, but now is not the time for that because there was a strike against our country and we need to unite as a people.”
The war against terrorism has been, in fact, far different from Vietnam and demonstrations in its opposition proved to be much smaller. Not only was there no draft to enrage young people, there were few casualties among U.S. troops. Body bags returning have not become an issue. And, as Banks and others pointed out, this time U.S. soil had been violated.
So even in this counterculture city, flags sprung up. Most bore the standard stars and stripes but many were altered to include a peace symbol.
Meanwhile, the fire department quietly hung large U.S. flags on its trucks. Berkeley firefighters felt a strong connection with the New York firefighters who suffered. The flags were a clear message of their solidarity.
To the city, however, the flags were potential targets. Because the city manager feared that demonstrators at a campus anti-war rally would vandalize the flags and the trucks, he ordered their temporary removal.
The message, it seems, was poorly communicated to the firefighters, who grew furious and took their anger to the media. This would prove to be the first of many Berkeley stories over the next year that the national media would pick up on.
Michael Barone of USNEWS.com (the on-line magazine for U.S. News and World Report) posted this: “Berkeley is a city whose government banned pictures of flags on its fire trucks on the theory that they would provoke hate crimes.”
Boot to the Skull Productions, which claims to be “America’s hottest conservative website” posted this: “What is up with this town? … I find it hard to believe that any red-blooded American firefighter would refuse to fly the flag. … I am looking forward to when we start dropping some bombs on the terrorists who helped plan this tragedy. But if there are any left over, can we drop them on Berkeley? Believe me we will come out ahead if we do.”
The city issued statements and held press conferences defending its actions, but in the minds of the nation, the wacky, politically correct Berkeley had banned the flags for political reasons.
Lee stands alone
The Sept. 15 vote by U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D, who represents Berkeley and Oakland, to oppose the resolution to authorize the president to use force, drew similar fire from across the nation. Sept. 27, Conservative pundit David Horowitz blasted her vote in a piece posted on the Web site Americans for a Republican Majority:
“Representative Barbara Lee, democrat of Berkeley, was the only member of Congress who refused to defend her country under attack. ... Barbara Lee is not an anti-war activist, she is an anti-American communist who supports America's enemies and has actively collaborated with them in their wars against this nation,” the site said.
Less vitriolic, Mayor Shirley Dean also took issue with Lee’s vote: “It appears as if this country is taking its time to establish who did this and those people need to be brought to justice,” she told the Daily Planet. “I don’t think we should be bombing the heck out of another country and I don’t think that’s on the table. But terrorism has got to be stopped.”
Still, letters pouring into the Daily Planet from local residents expressed overwhelming support for Lee’s vote: “During these past tumultuous weeks much of the country has been whipped into a pro-vengeance, pro-war fervor. Lee’s vote does not undermine justice for the victims and their families, rather she is asserting that Congress should retain its right to check Bush’s power and maintain limits on the military’s actions,” Berkeley resident Stephanie Don wrote.
While threats against her life meant Lee had to surround herself with federal security agents, more than 3,000 people turned out in mid-October to a “thank you” event honoring her in Oakland; the city of Santa Cruz proclaimed Barbara Lee Day; despite Dean’s initial concerns, the Berkeley City Council voted a unanimous commendation for the congresswoman’s “courageous” vote. And in the March Democratic primary, Lee took 85 percent of the vote.
Council resolution takes heat
The media also made hay with Berkeley’s resolution to “ask our representatives to help break the cycle of violence, bringing the bombing to a conclusion as soon as possible, avoiding actions that can endanger the lives of innocent people in Afghanistan, and minimizing the risk to American military personnel.”
The resolution had been watered down from its original call to elected officials “to take whatever action they can to cease the bombing of Afghanistan and to seek a legal, nonmilitary resolution.”
The resolution passed a divided council vote of 5-0-4 with centrists Mayor Shirley Dean, and councilmembers Miriam Hawley, Polly Armstrong and Betty Olds abstaining and the five progressive councilmembers voting in favor of the measure.
E-mails directed to the mayor and council from around the country ran strongly in opposition to the resolution. (Measured in inches, there were about 3 inches of e-mails in opposition, to 1 inch in support.) Councilmember Linda Maio counted 600 in opposition.
“I hope the Islamic fundamentalists direct their next attack against your community,” wrote Scott Wright in an Oct. 24 e-mail.
“It’s sad to think that the only reason you are able to express your opinion is the fact that many people fought and died for your right to be wrong,” wrote Rick Lester of Minneapolis.
Then came the campaign to boycott the city’s businesses, raising the ire of the local business community. “I too will be joining the boycott of your city,” wrote Maria Raso of Santa Barbara. “I will not spend money in a city that does not support our federal government.”
Others wrote to support Berkeley, promising to go out of their way to buy in Berkeley to thwart the boycott.
And while John Gullickson’s e-mail stated simply: “You people disgust me,” Pamela Michael of Berkeley wrote: “Such courageous and principled actions on the part of our elected officials are one of the reasons I’m proud to live in this community.”
Michael Losonisky of Fort Collins, Colo., said: “You should know how much it means to many of us that we are not alone in our vision of peace and a better United States with an enlightened foreign policy.”
Maio attributed the strong nationwide reaction to media distortion. She said that a statement on the mayor’s Web site characterizing the council resolution as one “condemning U.S. anti-terrorist activity in Afghanistan,” helped fuel the nation’s emotions.
The councilmember pointed to a Contra Costa Times-UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies survey that showed 59 percent of Berkeley residents expressing support for the resolution once they had been told what it said.
Amidst the horror and confusion of the events of Sept. 11, Maio said she looked for something positive to come from the grief.
“Let us have the wisdom and strength … to seize the opportunity to construct a better future for ourselves and, indeed, the world,” she said.
And in fact, while the federal government has moved to restrict some individual freedoms, local citizens and the city have been working to increase tolerance and to prepare for the possibility of a future attack.
(These steps will be examined in a story on Wednesday.)