Berkeley veterans are promising to press forward with the city’s annual Veteran’s Day commemoration without the support of one of Berkeley’s most famous veterans.
On Monday Country Joe McDonald, chairperson of the Veterans Day Commemoration Committee and writer of numerous anti-war songs, abruptly canceled the event scheduled for Nov. 11 after committee members rejected his choice for a keynote speaker, Bill Mitchell.
Mitchell, a veteran and the father of a soldier killed last year while serving in Iraq, is a co-founder along with Cindy Sheehan of Gold Star Parents for Peace.
While veterans on the committee say they have nothing against Mitchell or his politics, they want the commemoration to be politically neutral.
“This is a time to honor our comrades who served this country,” said Ed Harper, adjutant of Disabled American Veterans Chapter 25. “It’s a memorial. It shouldn’t be about the war.”
Harper, who said he would demonstrate against the Iraq War any day but Veterans Day, maintained his view was seconded by the long-standing committee members other than McDonald, including DAV member Nathaniel Harrison, residents Tim and Linda Perry and Martin Snapp, a Berkeley-based reporter for the Knight Ridder corporate newspapers whose report on the controversy appeared in the Contra Costa Times, the San Jose Mercury News and the East Bay Daily News. Harper charged that when McDonald rejoined the committee as chair earlier this year he brought in several anti-war members seeking to politicize the event.
McDonald was backed on the committee by Hal Carlstad, who joined the committee earlier this year.
McDonald countered that the committee’s position amounted to censorship, which shouldn’t be tolerated at a city-sponsored event.
“It’s a slippery slope to ask a Gold Star father and military veteran to censor his remarks,” McDonald said. “The event should be a day for veterans to say what they feel.”
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates is planning to meet with McDonald and the Veterans Day committee next week to salvage the event, said his Senior Aide Julie Sinai.
Committee members said the event will go on with or without McDonald.
“I don’t know how he could cancel it,” said Tim Perry. “It wasn’t his event to cancel. Now he’s thrown everything into confusion.”
Harper said McDonald had e-mailed event participants, including the Cal Band, that the event was canceled.
McDonald said a Veterans Day commemoration would be impossible without the support of the entire committee.
“Otherwise it’s just a private party,” he said. “It’s not the event we’ve been doing.”
Berkeley has held Veterans Day Commemoration’s at Civic Center Park since 2002. The half-hour event, which usually draws about 200 spectators, had typically featured politically neutral speakers, Harper said. Last year’s keynote was delivered by a retired brigadier general.
The committee had approved two other speakers proposed by McDonald: Councilmember Dona Spring and Michael Blecker, the executive director of Swords to Ploughshares, an organization assisting homeless and low-income veterans.
Spring said if the event goes forward she would speak and “do whatever they want me to do.”
Blecker, who did not return phone calls for this story, criticized the Iraq War in a recent address to Bay Area United Against War.
Mitchell, contacted at his home near San Luis Obispo, said the committee’s concerns were misplaced.
“I’m not sure what I would have said, but I’m an intelligent enough guy not to give a raging anti-war speech at a Veterans Day rally,” he said. “It wouldn’t be appropriate.”
Mitchell faulted the committee for not contacting him about the speech.
“I mostly talk about my son and try to get people to see that people are dying in the war,” said Mitchell, adding that he would still be willing to deliver the keynote speech, but only if the committee placed no conditions on what he could say.
Berkeley is one of the few East Bay cities that holds annual Veterans Day commemorations. Alameda County’s biggest event this year will be in the city of Alameda. That city rotates commemorations on a five year cycle with Oakland, San Leandro, Hayward and Fremont.