Public Comment

Commentary: Aid, Sanctuary for War Resisters Could Be Political Asset for Mayoral Candidates

By George Coates
Tuesday September 19, 2006

When Tom Bates ran for mayor of Berkeley four years ago my daughter Gracie and I occasionally volunteered at the Bates campaign office to work the phones. It was tedious work but Bates was running for mayor on a promise to improve education and Gracie would be attending Berkeley High School soon so it seemed like a good way to introduce a 12-year-old to local politics and civic affairs. 

Now Bates is up for re-election at a time when many high school-age students are learning that the U.S. military is monitoring their MySpace pages and targeting potential recruits. The plight of soldiers like Lt. Erhen Watada, the first commissioned officer to go AWOL from duty in Iraq, has also triggered fears that a national draft could be reinstated if the number of volunteer enlistments continue to decline as the war threatens to widen. 

Progressive Berkeley City Councilmember Dona Spring’s effort to pass a resolution in support of Lt. Watada is important because if it succeeds the city will have deepened its stance against the war and candidates for mayor will have heard the message: Sanctuary for war resisters is a local issue that no serious candidate for mayor can evade.  

But how do the four candidates running for the mayor’s office differ in terms of what each promises to do to aid Berkeley residents who find themselves in a situation like Lt. Watada who is facing the possibility of a seven-year prison term for refusing to serve in Iraq? 

In the mid 1960s, long-shot progressive candidates running for local office discovered they could defeat entrenched incumbents by linking their campaigns to the growing anti-Vietnam war movement. The three challengers trying to unseat Tom Bates fit the description of long-shot candidates, at the moment, but any one of them could leap frog ahead of the pack to win the race by generating a plan to aid resident war resisters. The massive amount of negative press likely to follow in the conservative mainstream media will win the candidate precious name recognition and the respect and trust of Berkeley voters eager to register their dissent for the war. 

All candidates running for local office should be developing plans to help our local war resisters. Zelda Bronstein said she would consider it and Bates said he could think of at least three churches in Berkeley that might offer sanctuary for draft resisters. 

After the Watada resolution is passed it will be interesting to see how the contending candidates for mayor propose to demonstrate their resolve. If Bronstein’s sanctuary plan implies that it is a soldier’s duty to disobey an illegal order, Fox News will be quick to demonize her as a traitor worse than Cindy Sheehan. If Zachary RunningWolf’s policy requires the police to arrest military recruiters it will enflame the right wing spin machine into branding him more treasonous than Ward Churchill. If Christian Pecaut advances an ordinance banning the ROTC from teaching students how to commit war crimes, Bret Hume will report the story as a fifth column attack inspired by Michael Moore. Worse things can happen to a candidate for mayor of Berkeley than to be compared to Cindy Sheehan, Ward Churchill or Michael Moore on network TV. Wouldn’t Cindy Sheehan be the next mayor of Berkeley were her name on the ballot? 

If Tom Bates sits still for too long on this issue a relatively unknown candidate, willing to be cursed as an enemy combatant on major network television, could very quickly overtake the incumbent mayor in name recognition in his own home town. 

But Bates can preempt his opponents by directing the city attorney to assist in the legal defense of any Berkeley High graduates in the military who choose to go AWOL. He can direct the city manager to help arrange sanctuary for residents who may need it. Bates can borrow the UC Greek Theater for a candidates debate to consider contending plans for helping Berkeley residents honorably refusing to serve in an illegal war. 

If the mayor moves quickly to identify his candidacy with a courageous grassroots movement to refuse local participation in an illegal war, Tom Bates can earn much more than a second term. He can also earn our respect for restoring a long and honorable reputation for acting locally to change the world. 


Berkeley resident George Coates blogs at