No One Left to Confront

Bay Area antiwar activists would love to challenge the American war machine -- if only they could find it.

The Bay Area antiwar movement finally struck a nerve on Monday. Instead of wandering around Market Street and hoping their efforts would get a few minutes on CNN, or blockading the Bay Bridge in order to act out their issues with their parents, protesters finally confronted an institution that actually has something to do with the war. The shipping firm American President Lines has a hefty contract to ship war matériel to the Middle East, and activists tried to blockade its terminals early in the morning. Police claimed that some in the crowd threw a few rocks and bolts in their direction, but there’s no doubt what happened next: the cops opened fire on five hundred people, spraying rubber bullets and wooden dowels into the crowd. As the projectiles injured a dozen protesters and six dockworkers, the incident made headlines across the country. Finally, the nation paid attention to the Bay Area.

Monday’s affair marked a welcome if unexpectedly violent departure from the mostly ineffectual demonstrations of the last few months. Saturday’s antiwar march through downtown Oakland may have been pleasant and funky, but no one outside the Bay Area noticed. Indeed, for all the fun and color of the affair — the retro Maoist-styled Filipino contingent, for example, or the ILWU’s tap dancers against the war — there was a certain languor to marching around and trying to convince ourselves that we had the slightest chance of changing the Middle East’s bloody destiny.

In fact, nothing contributes to a sense of helplessness more than walking in circles and chanting to one another, when the people who have the power to stop the war are thousands of miles away, buoyed by hawkish think-tankers and the anxious boosterism of military families. Over the last thirteen years, the Bay Area has so thoroughly detached itself from the national defense establishment, we have so successfully wiped out any local military presence, that we have no one left to confront. We’ve got no Army base to picket, no draft board to hassle, no naval air station at which to get arrested. Because the military doesn’t use the Bay Area to stage operations anymore, it doesn’t have to care what we think. And it’s all thanks to Ron Dellums, the peace movement’s own congressional darling.

Cast your mind back to the improbably giddy days of 1992. The Cold War was over. History itself had ended. A fat pot of money freed up by the closing of obsolete military bases around the country was going to feed social programs starved by twelve years of Republican rule. And Ron Dellums, the East Bay’s congressman and the most ardent dove in Washington, was going to oversee it all in his new post as chair of the House Armed Services Committee.

Within months, Dellums discovered the downside of this “peace dividend.” The Defense Department released its list of recommended base closures, and Alameda County was to be wiped clean of major military installations. The Alameda Naval Air Station, the Oakland Army Base, the Oakland Naval Hospital, the Fleet Industrial Supply Center — all of these would be shuttered, taking with them 10,000 blue-collar jobs and $400 million in annual revenue. The news infuriated Dellums, who insisted that Pentagon holdovers from the Bush administration were targeting the East Bay as payback for years of pacifism. But in the end, he reluctantly voted to end the East Bay’s military presence, hoping that civilian use of the sites would ultimately mean more money and jobs. “While there would be economic turbulence in the short run, he felt the long-range potential — embodied for example by the port’s use of the Fleet Industrial Supply Center — would have more economic benefit to the community than military use,” says Lee Halterman, Dellums’ former general counsel.

In fact, closing the East Bay’s bases has hardly netted a windfall. Their conversion to civilian use has been hamstrung by years of disastrous bickering between community members, port officials, and Navy bigwigs. The Oak Knoll hospital remains an empty shell, and the plan for civilian use of West Oakland’s Army base has gone through a host of absurd permutations. But perhaps the most unexpected outcome of purging the East Bay of its military population is this: Antiwar activists have run out of targets of opportunity.

Once upon a time, thousands of Vietnam War protesters descended upon the downtown Oakland draft induction center, shutting the facility down in a week of mayhem. Activists tried to block troop transport trains hauling draftees to boot camp, picketed the Berkeley draft boards, and gathered at the Alameda Naval Air Station for mass arrests. “There were constant small, little actions,” says Ying Lee, a Vietnam War activist and former member of the Berkeley City Council. “We did a lot of civil disobedience not only in front of the draft board, but also going to Alameda and Concord to demonstrate.” Nowdays, antiwar protesters have no such options. Although the Concord Naval Weapons Station still exists, demonstrators can’t confront military officers at the Alameda base or in West Oakland any longer. There is no face of the American war machine left to confront, and protest organizers haven’t figured out how to focus their opposition.

That’s why you see nihilistic tantrums like the recent attempts to shut down the San Francisco financial district. Organizers with Direct Action Against the War, a loosely knit umbrella group that coordinated the actions in the war’s first two days, claimed that they intended to stop “business as usual” and force people to acknowledge the stark reality in Iraq. But that is at best an inarticulate primal scream that cost one of the most antiwar cities in America an estimated $900,000 a day in police overtime. During the first Gulf War, twelve years ago, I was among the roving mobs that looted army recruiting centers, laid siege to the federal building, and trashed a few Market Street porno shops for good measure. But as people first hit upon the idea of shutting down the Bay Bridge, I began to wonder what the point was. Provoking traffic jams for their own sake not only didn’t seem legitimate but had the disastrous potential to piss off tens of thousands of people who opposed the war in the first place. Now, trying to take the bridge is a requisite of any large-scale demonstration, even as it invariably angers commuters who agree with the protest’s goal. And that brings up the second dilemma of the local antiwar movement: Not only is there no military establishment left to confront, there’s no one in the Bay Area left to convince.

Take the city of Alameda, for example. Twenty years ago, with the massive Naval Air Station undergirding its economy, Alameda was a bastion of blue-collar Reagan Democrat populism, a little slice of flag-waving Middle America. Now that the base is gone, the city’s martial identity has fled with it, catalyzing a larger cultural and economic transformation. The blue-collar civilian defense workers and retirees are long gone, replaced by Silicon Valley tech workers who tend to be young, diverse, and liberal. Alameda has gone from parochial to cosmopolitan, from Mayberry to Baghdad-by-the-Bay.

In 1984, current Alameda Vice Mayor Tony Daysog was president of the Encinal High School student council. Officials with the Naval Air Station offered to mount a mothballed Navy jet on the lawn in front of the school, and Daysog thought nothing of it.

Now, an Encinal High School teacher is leading a campaign to haul the jet off school property, arguing that military hardware has no place in an institution dedicated to children and learning. This, Daysog claims, is a shining example of how Alameda has changed. “Alameda was a small island, blue-collar in nature, where everybody comfortably knew everyone,” he says. “There was a greater appreciation then for the military, because it was such a profound part of our lives when I grew up. … Now we have major biotech and high tech companies like Wind River — economically, we have certainly grown up. And socially that’s true as well. For example, questions of gay and lesbian issues aren’t much of a hot-button issue anymore. It used to be such a big deal every June, when the Gay Pride Month would come up.”

According to Mayor Beverly Johnson, whose family has lived in the city for five generations, Alameda’s traditional antitax populism has been overwhelmed by a wave of liberal sentiment. Contemporary Alamedans, she says, have yet to meet a tax they didn’t like: property taxes for the schools, the library, and a whopping $372 parcel tax to keep their city-owned hospital afloat. Alameda has single-payer health care, it has municipalized its power grid — in some ways, it’s more liberal than Berkeley. And when the city council was asked to approve a motion asking Bush not to pursue the war in Iraq, it passed without a single opposing vote.

Alameda is hardly alone in its new enchantment with liberalism. Fueled by the same white-collar, infotech work force replacing the old blue-collar factory workers, a highbrow progressive sentiment has taken root in the East Bay suburbs, and virtually none of the traditional “heartland” military boosters are left. That’s put the antiwar movement in an awkward position. Nationally, Middle America provides the bedrock of support for the war, and ending it would mean changing the minds of white, churchgoing flag-wavers who don’t trust cities and watch Fox News. But there’s no outpost of Middle America left in the Bay Area.

In the last few weeks, antiwar activists have begun to refine their targets. Monday’s action at the port was the most dramatic so far, but protesters have long been brainstorming ways to challenge local participants in the war effort. They’ve hit the San Francisco offices of Bechtel, the engineering firm that is bidding on reconstruction contracts in Iraq, and the Carlyle Group, an investment company with money in the defense industry. They intend to hit ChevronTexaco on April 14. And of course, the giant Sunnyvale defense company Lockheed Martin will see action sooner or later. But even these targets are several links down the chain of responsibility for this war. Aside from Lockheed, none of these institutions are directly involved in killing people on the banks of the Tigris River. But thanks to Ron Dellums, a dedicated anti-war movement, and twenty years of gentrification, they’re all we’ve got left.

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