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Vermont's "town meeting revolt"
Voting NO on war and occupation

March 11, 2005 | Page 12

ERIK WALLENBERG reports on antiwar resolutions that passed in communities across Vermont.

IN A historic vote on March 1, 49 cities and towns across Vermont voted their opposition to the war and occupation of Iraq. In the one in five Vermont communities where antiwar resolutions were put to a vote last week, the resolutions lost in only three towns, tied in one and were tabled in another four.

Organizers were thrilled by their success. Five percent of a town's voters had to sign a petition to have the resolutions considered on March 1, the state's annual town meeting day.

The Christian Science Monitor called the result "a town-meeting revolt over the Iraq war." "[M]any say the state's town meeting resolutions--the most widespread referendums about Iraq to date--foreshadow grassroots initiatives emerging around the country," the newspaper said.

Among the 50 states, Vermont has one of the highest per capita rates of residents deployed in Iraq--and deaths and casualties suffered--so the resolutions touched a nerve. Antiwar activists petitioning and leafleting for the resolutions met many relatives of military personnel who were against the war and wanted the troops home now.

The drive to get resolutions considered was spearheaded by Ben Scotch, former head of the Vermont ACLU. The model resolution drawn up by Scotch called on Vermont's governor--a pro-war Republican who headed up George Bush's re-election campaign in the state--to reconsider deployment of the state's National Guard members, and called for U.S. troops to be withdrawn from Iraq "consistently with the mandate of international humanitarian law."

But the resolution's language varied on each town's ballot. In Burlington, Marshfield and Hinesburg, the resolutions made a much stronger statement against the war and called for U.S. troops out of Iraq now.

The Burlington resolution stated, "we support the men and women serving in the United States Armed Forces in Iraq and believe that the best way to support them is to bring them home now." That resolution passed by a 2-to-1 margin, winning in all seven of Burlington's wards, including two that are historically conservative.

Overall, these town meeting votes should demonstrate to the antiwar movement that there is a majority antiwar sentiment to be tapped--not only in traditionally liberal cities and towns, but also in rural areas usually dismissed as too conservative.

Some in the antiwar movement thought it too radical to call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. However, the resolutions in Burlington and elsewhere that took up this call passed overwhelmingly. As Colleen McLaughlin of the Burlington Anti-War Coalition (BAWC) and Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) said, "Burlington's resolution did not compromise, and its win is significant nationally."

The struggle to pass the antiwar resolution in Burlington has some important lessons for our movement. BAWC decided last December to focus on putting the war and occupation up for a vote by Burlington residents--after a fall of silence during the election season, where the main choice was between two pro-war candidates.

BAWC members viewed Scotch's resolution as progressive and applauded his initiative in getting it on ballots across Vermont. But they decided that his version was legalistic and not consistently antiwar (part of the language called for the National Guard to be used to quell domestic insurrections or against domestic terror attacks).

BAWC voted unanimously to put forward its own resolution--and decided on a "two-pronged" strategy to get it on the ballot: petitioning to gain the more than 1,500 signatures needed for ballot access, and lobbying the City Council, which has the authority to put referendums on the ballot. After 1,200 signatures were gathered, BAWC and its supporters went to the City Council to ask that the council vote to put the referendum on the ballot.

Some City Council members tried to amend the resolution by changing "out now" to "as soon as possible." But BAWC members made it clear that this wasn't acceptable, considering that George W. Bush says troops should be withdrawn "as soon as possible." The City Council eventually voted 12 to 1 to put the resolution on the ballot.

The campaign for a "yes" vote included a panel discussion with members from MFSO, BAWC and U.S. Labor Against the War. Activists arranged a debate between pro-war and antiwar forces, but the pro-war side declined to send anyone! At the event, Vermont's congressional delegation sent representatives who refused to "officially" support the "out now" measure. But BAWC members created a flyer making the case for immediate withdrawal, and distributed it throughout the city.

Now, Vermont activists are hoping to use the momentum from their referendum victory to build a wider base for the antiwar movement. BAWC is planning a March 20 rally against the war, and Students Against War at the University of Vermont know that they have backing from the community when they confront military recruiters at the university's career fair on March 8.

As BAWC member Peter Spitzform said, "Our experience gathering signatures to get the resolution on the ballot, with nearly every Burlington resident willing to sign, combined with the overwhelming victory of the 'out now' language should give our side tremendous confidence."

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