By  on February 27, 2008

Fashion retailers in Berkeley, Calif., might be caught in the middle of a campaign to boycott the city and its businesses because of an attempt to shut a U.S. Marine Corps recruiting office to protest the Iraq war.

The city council in Berkeley, a hub of political activism, triggered the uproar last month when it passed a resolution describing the Marines as "uninvited and unwelcome intruders" and voted to look into ways of closing the recruiting station. The council has given a coalition led by the antiwar group Code Pink use of a parking space to picket the Marines' office, leading to confrontations with supporters of the military and the war.

Now a conservative organization, Move America Forward, is set to launch the boycott this week along with a cable TV advertising campaign. The group wants the council to rescind its resolution and apologize.

In response, antiwar forces called for a national "Buycott" of Berkeley, urging consumers, businesses and travelers to support the city.

All of this is testing the patience of fashion merchants, who otherwise embrace Berkeley's activist ethos.

"It's not the right platform to affect change like that," said John Kiskaddon, co-owner of Harper Greer, a plus-size store and wholesale line on Berkeley's 4th Street, a fashion row of independent boutiques and cafes.

"I'm certainly not for the war, but the recruiting office should still be allowed to be there," said Susan Trefethen, owner of Molly b., with two stores on 4th and Vine streets, carrying a mix of labels such as Osaka from Germany, French designer Sara Pacini and designer Krista Larsen from Vermont.

The issue "hurts Berkeley more than it helps," Trefethen said. "But I doubt my customers would stop coming."

Berkeley's activism is part of its DNA, ranging from the free speech and anti-Vietnam war movements of the Sixties to banning Styrofoam.

Leslie Sobelson, manager and buyer for Berkeley-based sportswear retailer and wholesaler Bryn Walker, which has two of its 11 stores in the city, said the Marines should stay. "I am totally opposed to the military, but if they take out the Marines' right to be there, my right to do something might be taken away."Robert Reich, who was the labor secretary in the Clinton administration and is a public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said he didn't expect the boycott to be effective.

"When there's money to be made in Berkeley, businesses will continue to invest, regardless of how kooky the city council may be," Reich said.

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