Peace & Justice Commission to Obama: Apologize

Berkeley’s Peace & Justice Commission wants the city to send a letter to President Obama, demanding he take off the name “Geronimo” from the operation that killed Bin Laden.

Goyathlay, who was named Geronimo by Mexicans in the 19th century

Berkeley’s Peace and Justice commission wants President Obama to write a letter to the Apache people apologizing for using the name of Native American Indian leader Geronimo in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The name of the action should be changed from “Operation Geronimo,” to “Operation Bin Laden,” according to the commission, which has forwarded its recommendation to the Berkeley City Council for consideration on Oct. 25. Equating the famed Indian leader with America’s most-wanted terrorist is insulting, according to Commissioner Wendy Kenin, who introduced the resolution.

“The use of the name Geronimo for the country’s most wanted terrorist is offensive, particularly to Native Americans and negatively impacts the identity and social position of Native American youth,” reads part of the resolution the commission wants the city council to adopt.

The Peace and Justice commission also want the council to adopt a measure “honoring the life of Goyathlay (Geronimo’s given name), his extraordinary bravery, and his commitment to the defense of his homeland,” and recommend that his autobiography be taught in schools.


But the commission itself was split on whether or not to send this item to the city council. Three commissioners abstained, including two – Ari Rabkin and Thyme Siegel — who expressed concern that the resolution would be caricatured or misinterpreted by the media, according to minutes taken at a June 6 commission meeting.

They are not the only ones worried that the resolution may be lampooned. City Council member Linda Maio wants the commission to more carefully consider and word its resolutions.

“The basic sentiment of honoring indigenous tribes … is one thing,” said Maio. “This goes on to direct Obama to cease using the title “Operation Geronimo.” Beneath this is an important message but how you express this is everything. To throw this out there and assume everyone is on the same wave length [isn’t strategic]. The last thing you want to do is throw something out there that hasn’t been well thought out. It adds to the reputation of Berkeley that we don’t consider things enough.”

Conservative pundits, along with the mainstream media, have often poked fun at measures originating at the Peace and Justice Commission. In December, the commission wanted the city council to consider honoring Bradley Manning as a hero. Manning is widely presumed to be the person who released thousands of secret documents to WikiLeaks. The council declined to take action.


In 2008, Berkeley was bombarded with media attention when the council called Marine recruiters on Shattuck Avenue “unwanted intruders,” and gave the protest group Code Pink a dedicated parking spot in front of their offices. The council later toned down the language of the measure after state and federal lawmakers threatened to withdraw fiscal support for Berkeley.

But many of Berkeley’s stances that seem ridiculous end up being adopted by the broader American population, according to Charles Wollenberg, a historian and the author of Berkeley: A City in History. The Free Speech Movement began in Berkeley in the early 1960s and spread throughout the nation, he pointed out. In 1964, Berkeley students held some of the first protests against the Vietnam War. Berkeley was one of the first cities to call for divestment from the apartheid regime in South Africa. It also was the first to ban the use of Styrofoam cups.

Maio said she supports the sentiments of the Peace and Justice Commission.

“I don’t have any problems with the values expressed that may or may not be in the mainstream at this particular time,” she said. “But if it is “flaky” it is not going to do any good. How it is expressed is everything.”

Kenin, who has served on the Peace and Justice Commission since 2008, said Berkeley’s stance on controversial issues has helped raise international awareness on a number of them, including the detention of Bradley Manning, and now, she hopes, on Operation Geronimo.

“It’s a huge service and the rest of the country – at least the progressive community – really respects the city of Berkeley for not being afraid to raise the issue,” she said. “It doesn’t just roll over. Berkeley is willing to challenge (the status quo) even if it is controversial.”


After Bin Laden was killed in May, and the government announced that the operation to track and kill him was named Geronimo, numerous Native American groups complained about the association with the revered warrior and terrorist.

Terry Rambler, the tribal chairman of the San Carlos Apache tribe, wrote the president on May 6 expressing his concern:

“Dear President Obama:

On behalf of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, we vehemently object and oppose the designation of the name of our Apache leader, Geronimo, as a military euphemism for an evil man, Osama bin Laden, by the United States. The San Carlos Apache Tribal Council has thoughtfully and carefully consulted on this extremely sensitive issue and respectfully requests that you do the following:

(1)  Immediately issue a formal apology for equating the name of Geronimo with Osama bin Laden as part of the military exercise;
(2) Immediately issue an Executive Order, as Commander in Chief, that the name “Geronimo” never be used disparagingly and in association with a known enemy of the United States.”

Kenin learned about these concerns and was prompted to act, she said. She has been concerned for years about the relocation of Native Americans and their mistreatment by the U.S. government. One of the many reasons Goyathlay is so important to the Apache people is that he evaded the federal government for 30 years and actively resisted its attempts to dominate, she said. The Apache are still fighting plans to relocate them and the theft of the name of their ancestor, she said.

The City Council will also consider a resolution on Oct. 25th supporting the closure of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba and calling for justice for 40 prisoners who have been cleared but are still being held at the facility. If Congress lifts its ban on prohibiting those cleared detainees to relocate in the United States, the resolution calls for offering one of them sanctuary in Berkeley. The council rejected a similar measure in February. This measure, however, focuses more on closing the base than offering refuge to the cleared detainees, according to George Lippman, chair of the Peace and Justice Commission.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@berkeleyside.com.