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Right in Their Face: College Republicans Rally in Berkeley

A band of flag-waving demonstrators defiantly boosts Bush and war in the bastion of the left.

April 27, 2003|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — Borrowing a page from this city's radical traditions, a boisterous band of 200 college Republicans demonstrated Saturday in the bastion of American liberalism, staging a pro-Bush administration rally on the UC Berkeley campus and leading a flag-waving procession down Telegraph Avenue.

As street vendors and merchants looked on in disbelief, delegates attending a state college Republican convention here marched two blocks to People's Park, site of a widely publicized protest incident in 1969, where they chanted "Bush! Bush! Bush!" and sang "America the Beautiful."

By Berkeley standards, it was a minuscule procession played out on a balmy Saturday afternoon on a mostly deserted campus. But to the hardy corps of young Republicans, uniting under the theme "Behind Enemy Lines," it was a highly symbolic event. Even grizzled political warriors said they were impressed by participants' moxie. Longtime Berkeley professors said it represented a political drift to the right at California's pioneer state university.

"I never dreamed in my lifetime that I would see this," said a buoyant Shawn Steel, former state Republican Party chairman from Rolling Hills.

Steel described the three-day convention attended by 285 delegates from 25 state campuses as "the latest manifestation of how the campuses of California are changing, particularly here at Berkeley." Campuses represented included UCLA, USC, UC Santa Barbara and most of the important state institutions.

Adopting tactics perfected during the 1964 Free Speech movement and countless demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, the growing band of campus conservatives hoped for a confrontation with what they view as the dominant leftist political orthodoxy of UC Berkeley and other campuses.

A rally on the storied steps of Sproul Hall Saturday afternoon provided the perfect setting. GOP speakers, standing where Free Speech leader Mario Savio and antiwar activist Tom Hayden once held forth, praised President Bush and the war effort in Iraq as students waved American flags and carried placards reading "Give War a Chance" and "Bomb France."

Predictably, this provoked a hostile reaction from activists in nearly permanent residence at Sproul Plaza, some of whom heckled the demonstrators.

When a Berkeley resident Matthew Strickland, 33, an electrician, ridiculed their efforts, several collegians descended on him to engage him in debate, asking him if he opposed American troops in Iraq.

"When we get attacked," explained Steve Sexton, a UC Berkeley political science student from Davis, Calif., "it makes us look good by comparison." As press coordinator of the convention, Sexton promoted the event as the biggest Republican presence on campus since 1969 when then-Gov. Ronald Reagan dispatched National Guard troops to the campus to quell demonstrations over People's Park.

In recent years, the Berkeley college Republican chapter has thrived on this image of an embattled minority bravely battling against the liberal establishment. Once only a few dozen in number, the chapter now boasts more than 500 members and is one of the biggest student organizations on campus.

The conservative students publish their own irreverent and cleverly written campus magazine, California Patriot, edited by Sexton, which roasts the campus administration in much the same way that leftist campus magazines did in the '60s. The cover of a recent issue, for example, was a cartoon depicting Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl, who publicly opposed the Iraq war, holding a sign asking: "What would France Do?"

To emphasize opposition to affirmative action, the Berkeley campus GOP chapter, following the example of their colleagues at UCLA, staged a mock bake sale at which students were charged different prices for chocolate chip cookies on the basis of their race. Just as they hoped, this provoked a reaction from other Berkeley students who stood around the bakery goods table chanting "Racists! Racists! Racists!"

Instead of retreating from such debates, the new campus Republican strategy is to take them head on.

In opening the convention on Friday, a Berkeley political science major, Michael Davidson, 23, whose parents live in Fort Worth, Texas, and Orange County, urged the assembled students to "be Republicans, be dignified, engage in debate and have some fun with the Berkeley weirdos."

Andrea Irvin, 20, a sophomore economics and business major from Thousand Oaks, said she discovered almost as soon as she arrived at the Berkeley campus that she "did not fit in with most of my peers." But Irvin said she quickly found a home in the campus Republican chapter.

"I love it here now," said Irvin, a candidate for GOP campus leadership. "I am so much more intellectually sound for having come to Berkeley, a place where you have to defend your beliefs every day."

Despite the student claims of political persecution, however, senior faculty members here say the student population is not nearly as political or liberal as it once was.

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