We won’t let the F-35 take off

July 22, 2013

Thomas Grace and Paul Fleckenstein report on the movement to oppose the F-35 bomber--one of the military's biggest boondoggles--from coming to Vermont.

VERMONT, THAT seemingly progressive New England state, is no exception when it comes to the arrogance and self-serving attitude of the richest and most powerful--nor to the fact that the neoliberal priorities of that 1 Percent inspire people to resist.

The Vermont Air National Guard, the state's Congressional delegation and leading business forces are campaigning to win the basing of Lockheed Martin's new F-35 warplane at Burlington International Airport.

But this has been met with a growing grassroots movement to stop the basing that has gained national attention. The Stop the F-35 Coalition opposing the basing has been gaining ground. Over the past few months, that struggle has broadened to include many more groups and wider demands for social justice, democracy and a change in national budget priorities, away from war spending and toward human rights and needs.

Nearly 300 people, most from neighborhoods near the airport, marched on the offices of Vermont's congressional delegation on July 13. But there were several important events in the week leading up to the march and rally against the F-35.

Vermonters rally against plans to base the F-35 at Burlington International Airport
Vermonters rally against plans to base the F-35 at Burlington International Airport (Thomas Grace)

THE WEEK kicked off with an electric public hearing in South Burlington, a suburban town surrounding the airport and Air Guard base. The City Council's anti-F-35 majority was voted out in the last election with just over 25 percent voter turnout. Area real estate and business owners expected to gain from the pork-barrel spending linked to the F-35 basing and gave huge financial backing to the winning candidates favoring the warplane.

But at the City Council meeting, majority opposition to the basing was clear. Despite this, with the casual dismissal of that majority in the room and community, the chairwoman called for the vote to overturn a May 2012 decision to oppose the basing. Much to the disappointment of the chair and F-35 boosters, the raucous crowd refused to allow that vote to be overturned without hisses and jeers directed at "yea" votes, and cheers of support for council member Roseanne Greco's "Hell, no" vote.

That was a glimmer of real democracy, which was about to be unleashed in Chittenden County over the upcoming week.

Despite the setback, on Tuesday night, over 100 people came out the hear from health care workers, nurses, doctors and teachers about the damage these planes will do, especially to the cognitive development of youth growing up within the most heavily impacted zones.

The following day, more than 70 people turned out to a Winooski City Council meeting. Winooski, sitting at the end of the runway, is the most diverse and among the lowest-income communities in Vermont. Over half of its residents live so close to the Burlington Airport that their homes will be in a zone considered "unsuitable for residential use," as stated by the Air Force in its F-35 environmental impact statement. Many of these homes will also be in the high-risk crash zone.

Days before, the Winooski City Council opened up space for public comment and heard from a community opposed to the basing by a four-to-one margin. The Council was then going to vote on whether or not to support Burlington being a contender for the current round of basing decisions.

The long and diligent community organizing, much of it carried out by those who live and work in the affected communities, was on display in Winooski. Councilor Sally Tipson, on the record quite extensively as a proponent of the F-35, nonetheless raised the concern that the cost to produce each plane was about 20 times the city's annual budget.

The mayor, too, has outlined his backing of the F-35 and the basing of it in Vermont. But despite their support for the planes, town officials carried out the will of the overwhelming majority of Winooski residents who oppose the basing by voting unanimously against Burlington's consideration in this round of basing.

With opponents energized, the week's actions culminated in a rally and march under the banner "No F-35! People before Planes." The action brought together a dozen local and national social justice, environmental and community organizations, from 350VT, Codepink, and USAction/True Majority to the Stop the F-35 Coalition, Save Our Skies, Vermont Workers Center, and the Burlington International Socialist Organization.

THIS FIRST-ever march on the congressional delegation offices turned out nearly 300 people to challenge the misguided and dangerous policies of the state¹s Democratic Party establishment.

South Burlington resident Carmine Sargent, who has lived near the airport for decades, spoke clearly to why the local 1 percent is backing the basing, and how we can resist their agenda. "I am part of the 99 percent, who lives in an area causing developers to see dollar signs in their eyes. Because of this movement people are speaking up! While developers reap the benefits, we must continue to speak out, to rally and to protest!"

Perhaps most significant about this demonstration were its targets: Democratic Mayor Miro Weinburger, Rep. Peter Welch and Sen. Patrick Leahy, and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders. They all support the F-35 so deeply that they have refused public discussion, let alone debate, on the matter. At each of their offices, demonstrators stopped for speeches from representatives of the different sponsoring organizations, and whenever their names were mentioned, the speaker was drowned out in boos.

In front of the office of the progressive Sen. Sanders--who is, for many, the most surprising F-35 booster--Peter Deng, a member of the sizable refugee community in the flight path, spoke about the terror the currently based F-16s bring to a community that has already fled war zones to seek out a more peaceful life. The prospect of even louder war machines, he said, would make the region unlivable for this community.

Notable also was the presence of a group of students from the University of Vermont carrying a banner "Put the planet before the Pentagon--We want climate justice."

Bringing younger voices into the movement against the F-35 has been a challenge since the movement's beginning. The fact that the U.S. armed forces is the greatest consumer of fossil fuels, the greatest polluter and the greatest defender of the carbon-based status quo resonated with students who have been a part of the campaign to divest from fossil fuels that has been building around the country.

Tristin Adie, a chief steward at the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Healthcare Professionals, tied the local struggle to the need to fight for broader demands that challenge the priorities of the 1 Percent:

We have a government that will spend $1.5 trillion on this program at the same time they are cutting food stamps and cutting money for Medicaid and Medicare. How dare they talk about $1.5 trillion! We need money for clean accessible water, clean accessible and healthy food. We need accessible health care, a better way of life and a life with dignity.

Every day we hear about further attacks on our communities like the defunding of public education, courts and legislatures upholding racism and sexism and the environmental catastrophe unfolding before our eyes.

However, these attacks are not acts of chance beyond understanding or control. In cases like the basing of the F-35, it is the tiny minority at the top making a decision in its own interest. They're going to try to exclude and marginalize voices that challenge them.

The feeling is palpable among opponents of the basing that the movement can take on those who support the project. It was encouraging to hear one refrain more that any other over the past week: "We can win this one!"

The battle to protect our communities from destruction at the hands of our local 1 Percent will not be easy. Opponents of the F-35s must continue and expand our efforts to educate, agitate and deepen the movement's roots in airport communities, unions, environmental groups, and social justice and other community organizations.

F-35 boosters won't listen to reason, but they will have to listen to popular organization and pressure from below.

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