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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: Attack reaction shows big change at Berkeley

October 16, 2001

Thousands of anti-war protestors marched the other day in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, demanding there be no major retaliation for the Sept. 11 terror attacks on America. But there were no similarly sizeable protests at the University of California's flagship Berkeley campus.

The war against international terror declared by President Bush may take years of effort and loss, as he warns, and it promises to be a new kind of war. For sure, it's drawing a completely different kind of response at Berkeley than the war in Vietnam or any subsequent smaller American military involvement.

So far not a single American flag has been burned at Berkeley, long the nation's foremost symbol of student protest. That's partly because Berkeley now has a somewhat different mix of students.

Yes, there are protests against massive retaliation and against new restrictions on immigration, but they've largely been drowned out by much larger gatherings supporting both the terror victims and Bush's early steps toward a response.


Only about 100 protesters sat in outside the newspaper office when the student paper, the Daily Californian, carried a cartoon depicting two turbaned Arabs in a huge hand about to deposit them into the fires of Hell while they're telling each other "We made it to Paradise! Now we will meet Allah, and be fed grapes and be serviced by 70 virgin women, and …."

"If the Daily Cal had printed any cartoon showing Ho Chi Minh entering hell back in the Vietnam era, they might have been burned down, and there surely would have been a huge demonstration against it on Sproul Plaza," said Gloria Effort, a 1969 Berkeley grad. "There's a huge change."

In fact, by far the largest campus gathering since the attacks was a Sept. 17 memorial service for the victims that drew 12,000 students, none evincing the least bit of joy at the deaths. The night of the attacks, about 500 students staged a spontaneous candlelight vigil in Sproul Plaza.

Meanwhile, the largest anti-retaliation protest drew 2,500 students out of the campus total of more than 32,000. It was followed the next day by an equally large "Rally for America."

Yes, the city of Berkeley drew national outrage when fire chiefs ordered large American flags removed from fire engines last week for fear they might be ripped off the trucks by demonstrating students. But no such demonstrations materialized and some students even wrote letters to local newspapers objecting to furling the fire truck flags.

Even the largest campus anti-war rally to date, addressed by Michael Nagler, chairman of the school's Peace and Conflict Studies program, called not for no response, but for diplomatic action to bring responsible parties to justice.

"We're mostly heartsick and extremely frightened because we know the retaliation will be counterproductive," said Nagler, a graduate student at Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement days of the 1960s. "Retaliation will only recycle the violence."

Some longtime professors who remember the fervor of the Vietnam years are not surprised at today's lack of similar strong feelings among most students.

They note that Berkeley is no longer the mostly-white college it was 35 years ago, but now has a majority of minorities, with Asian-American students a huge student-body component. The school has more engineering students today and fewer humanities students than in the 1960s and early '70s.

"One reason you got so much anti-war fervor then is that Vietnam never attacked America," said Thomas Barnes, 71, a professor of military history.

"We now see that we have an enemy who has attacked us. Some of us weren't sure of that during Vietnam. Also, these students aren't in revolt against anything, not their parents, or sex or drugs. It's a very different time."

Yes, this is still Berkeley, and there will be teach-ins and demonstrations. There is a Berkeley Stop the War Coalition. But students who carry large American flags on campus are not hassled. When Gleb Brichko, a 22-year-old Russian immigrant who recently became an American citizen, carried a flag to his classes in late September, he reported that "Two people came up to me and said, ‘Don't you know we burn the flag in Berkeley?' But my feeling is that if you don't support the country, you should get out."

"This is 2001, not 1968," said one student at a pro-U.S. rally on Sproul Plaza. "It's completely different."

So, too, may be the University of California, Berkeley.

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