Sanctuary city for war resisters

December 8, 2008

PORTLAND. Ore.--A number of activists from the PDX Peace Coalition went before the Portland City Council on December 3 to advocate for an ordinance that would make the city a sanctuary for military resisters who have decided to go AWOL rather than fight in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

In tear-filled testimony, Megan Brooker from Military Families Speak Out spoke about her brother, who was recently "stop-lossed" for his third tour in Iraq. "His contract is up. It's expired. He no longer wants to be there. But the military is the one job where you get arrested if you choose to quit," she told the city council.

The number of soldiers forced to remain in the Army involuntarily under the military's "stop-loss" program has risen sharply since 2007. The "stop-loss" policy is a backdoor draft. Once soldiers have completed the enlistment period they agreed to, they should be allowed to return home. In fact, the military is the only job in which the employer is allowed to break contractual obligations and force their employees to work for longer than they've agreed to.

What you can do

Find out more about the campaign to make Portland a sanctuary city for AWOL soldiers at the PDX Peace Web site, or contact the coalition at [email protected].

Yet despite this, some members of the Portland City Council have publicly expressed their opposition to the sanctuary city ordinance. Commissioner Randy Leonard, who introduced the council's 2006 resolution against the war, told the Oregonian, "I think it's a mistake to be in Iraq for a variety of reasons...but to call for anarchy in the ranks and declare Portland as a free zone would be illegal."

First of all, who is calling for "anarchy in the ranks"? In March 2007, the Army estimated about 22,500 soldiers had deserted since fiscal year 2000, and the number has likely grown significantly since then. We are asking that Portland not relegate these soldiers to the margins of society. AWOL soldiers live in constant fear knowing that if a policeman stops them they could be turned into the military and forced to spend years in prison. Furthermore, they can't go to the police for protection or to report a crime.

Secondly, declaring Portland a sanctuary for war resisters would make the laws of Portland at odds with the federal laws regarding war resisters. But this wouldn't be the first time the city's laws conflicted with federal laws, and calling the ordinance "illegal" is simply misleading.

But instead of calling out commissioner Leonard's hypocrisy, media pundits, like the Oregonian's Mary Pitman Kitch, have commended the city council for "great political restraint" in regards to the "wrong-headed" sanctuary city proposal. Kitch's snarky Oregonian editorial sarcastically asks, "And, oh by the way, we do have a volunteer service, remember?"

The sad truth is that we don't. Not only do we have a backdoor draft through the military's "stop-loss" policies, but we also have a poverty draft that targets low-income youth with few prospects for education and good jobs. As Time magazine reported in 2005,

the Army is rolling out more than $1 billion in bonuses and benefits this year to induce young Americans to enlist and to entice those already in uniform to extend their service. There are premiums to be pocketed for signing up for certain jobs--infantry, military police, transportation--as well as for agreeing to ship out quickly to train, and then, probably, go to Iraq.

In addition, the Army, the Guard and the Reserves have been steadily increasing their full-time recruiting staff since the beginning of the war. These recruiters fan out to low-income high schools across the country looking for people who have difficulty finding a job or coming up with money for college--and lure them with the promise of college tuition, job training, and adventure.

On top of all this, the National Guard has recently unleashed their "pumped up" recruitment advertisements placed in movie theaters and on the internet which feature rock stars Kid Rock and 3 Doors Down trying to sell young people on the excitements of being a "citizen soldier." In a society that spends $13,000 recruiting each person to the military compared to the $1,115 that is spent on education per student, can we really claim that we have an "all-volunteer" Army?

BOTH THE city commissioners who oppose making Portland a sanctuary city for GI resisters and the media personalities that have backed them up, have tried to make a distinction between "legal" and "honorable" dissent, like electing a new president to change policies, and supposedly "illegal" protest, like providing sanctuary for soldiers who are often the most damaged by the effects of war.

Yet even President-elect Barack Obama acknowledged in his victory speech "Change doesn't come from Washington. Change comes to Washington." This is why Kelly Campbell of the American Friends Service Committee in Portland told the Oregonian that "the message from the Obama campaign was not to just sit and wait for change to come."

She continued, "We should consider what vision we bring and what changes we can make to our country." It is now clear that some city council members have a very different vision of "change" than the antiwar movement and the vast majority of Portlanders that support us.

Sympathetic Portlanders should join PDX Peace and help step up the sanctuary city campaign with petitions, marches, rallies and sit-ins until the city of Portland commits itself to providing a sanctuary for AWOL soldiers.

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