Berkeley is hunkering down for what is expected to be its largest and most raucous protest in years as hundreds of demonstrators from near and far pour into town for Tuesday night's City Council showdown over a Marine Corps recruiting station downtown.
Protesters from all sides of the debate over the Iraq war - from the anti-war Code Pink to groups supporting the troops and the war - have promised to spend the day in front of old City Hall, drumming, singing, chanting and exchanging barbs with bullhorns.
"Nothing has really gotten the press or the world's attention about war protests like this has," said Lisa Rubens, historian at the Regional Oral History Office at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library. "There's been this wonderfully out-of-proportion, knee-jerk response. It's clever, inflammatory and symbolic."
The council, at the request of members Betty Olds and Laurie Capitelli, is scheduled to decide tonight whether to revoke a letter it approved two weeks ago telling the Marines they are "unwelcome intruders" and should leave their post, which is one block from the UC Berkeley campus.
Some groups protesting the council's earlier action want it to go further - by apologizing to the Marines and revoking permits to allow Code Pink a parking space outside the recruiting station on Shattuck Square and the use of a bullhorn at its weekly protests there.
Anticipating big and rowdy crowds, the city is advising staff members who work at Maudelle Shirek City Hall to leave by 3 p.m. and keep public meetings to a minimum. The city also is setting up barricades so staff can get in and out of the building safely and is beefing up police, fire and paramedic services throughout the day.
Code Pink activists got an early start on the demonstration by camping out Monday night on the lawn at City Hall. About 60 activists, including a few of the tree-sitters from UC Berkeley's Oak Grove, danced, sang, listened to jazz and drank carrot juice as they pitched their tents for the night.
"This is a great gift to us to be able to ignite a national debate," said Medea Benjamin, Code Pink spokeswoman. "We're drawing a line in the sand on Shattuck Avenue and saying the war stops here."
Berkeley has hosted big and rowdy war protests for decades, but today's activities are the first anyone can remember that are drawing demonstrators from multiple and extreme sides of an issue. Code Pink, which once organized a breast-feeding playgroup at the Marines station, will share the City Hall lawn with AM radio hosts, the American Legion and outraged veterans from across the nation.
"It's an indication that the '60s are not completely dead in Berkeley," said Charles Wollenberg, chair of social sciences at Berkeley City College and author of "Berkeley: A City in History." "The tragedy is that the issue of the war seems to have gotten lost. The issue instead has become Berkeley itself, and I don't think that's what the City Council had in mind."
Councilwoman Linda Maio, who led the charge to tell the Marines they weren't welcome in town, agreed.
"We did not expect it to explode like this," she said, adding that the council received more than 24,000 e-mails on the topic. "But we'll take the heat and the attacks. Even though we're under a lot of pressure, I think it's fair to say this war is a misuse of our young people. And we'll stand up for that."
This is hardly the first time Berkeleyans have taken on the U.S. military.
A similar protest occurred in 1959, when UC Berkeley students protested the mandatory ROTC classes on campus. As a result of the demonstrations, the military classes were no longer required for all male students. The victory emboldened students to conduct one of the nation's first Vietnam War teach-ins, and by the late 1960s Berkeley had become a center of campus anti-war activism.
One regular at Berkeley demonstrations who will be noticeably absent from today's rallies is Country Joe McDonald, a Navy veteran and Vietnam-era peace activist famous for singing his "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" at Woodstock in 1969. He says he will sit this one out.
The issue has very little to do with the Marines and a lot to do with political grandstanding and NIMBYism, McDonald said.
"The council said the Marines can't recruit here, they should recruit somewhere else," he said. "And if there's a problem, we still want you to help us. It's astounding. It allows everyone to make fun of Berkeley again."
He said protesters on both sides are driven by "civilian guilt."
"Most people yell and scream about this issue because they're trying to show how patriotic they are," he said. "At this rate, Berkeley's going to be a damn noisy place."
Council to meet on Marines letter
The Berkeley City Council meets at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Maudelle Shirek City Hall, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley. An overflow crowd is expected for discussion of the Marines recruiting center, which is expected to begin about 9 p.m. For those who don't get inside, the city will broadcast audio from the meeting from loudspeakers outside City Hall. See the agenda at links.sfgate.com/ZCJX.
E-mail Carolyn Jones at email@example.com.
© 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle