Democracy 1, War Machine 0

March 14, 2018

Paul Fleckenstein reports on last week's referendum in Burlington, Vermont, that told the politicians to oppose local basing of the Pentagon's notorious F-35 warplane.

VOTERS IN Burlington, Vermont, last week approved a referendum directing local officials to oppose the basing of the F-35 warplane at the Vermont Air National Guard Station in Burlington.

While majority opposition to the basing has been clear in neighboring towns, the referendum marked the first time the issue has been put to a popular vote. "This is a huge victory for democracy," said organizer Jimmy Leas, "All the congressional delegation, the entire political establishment of Vermont was addressed by this electorate today that, with 55 percent of the vote, said 'Yes,' we want to cancel the F-35."

The seven-year grassroots campaign against the basing has withstood many setbacks, including imperious maneuvering by the liberal majority of the Burlington City Council to kill a resolution to prevent the basing in 2013. The Air Force subsequently announced its decision to base the F-35 in Burlington.

The current Air Guard fleet of F-16 bombers already creates hazardous noise conditions for several schools and thousands of residents. Using federal buyout funds, local government has already demolished 200 working-class homes near the airport as a result of the extreme military aircraft noise--the land has been re-dedicated to commercial uses with plans for a hotel and other businesses underway.

Activists march against the basing of F-35 warplanes in Vermont
Activists march against the basing of F-35 warplanes in Vermont

The F-35 is four times louder than the F-16 and will expand the federally designated "unsuitable for residential use" noise zone to include nearly 7,000 people. Three-quarters of homes in Winooski, the most ethnically diverse working-class city in Vermont, will be in the extreme noise zone with the F-35.

"I spent my life savings on a small ranch house in Winooski, where there was no real estate noise disclosure," recounts Jean Saysani. Saysani says that after the Air Guard brought in new equipment--"upgraded" F-16s--with no public notification or oversight," I learned that my home was now unfit for residential use. I was livid."

Neighborhood impacts have been at the heart of the opposition, which successfully marshaled research on the health and cognitive impacts on children and adults to win majority opinion against the bombers. The opposition group Save Our Skies campaigned around demands for a quieter aircraft that would keep the Guard flying, create more jobs and not harm the elderly and children.

Postcards from Save Our Skies mailed to Burlington voters showed F-35 and bombed houses counterposed to the quieter option of C-130 transport planes, troop supplies and humanitarian aid.

THE VERMONT Air Guard has a long history of participation the disastrous and criminal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the F-35 will bring more of the same.

Noam Chomsky personally weighed in to sway voters, and Burlington police arrested three anti-basing organizers for broadcasting a jet engine recording from giant speakers at decibel levels equivalent to the F-35 flying overhead in Burlington's downtown.

The F-35 is the most expensive weapon of mass destruction ever developed--enriching military industrial complex to the tune of an estimated $1.5 trillion over the coming decades. The gross misallocation of resources to war and destruction has also animated the anti-basing campaign.

The victory in Burlington was an extraordinary accomplishment given the pro-basing forces lined up on the other side.

The entire Vermont political establishment backs the basing, now expected to take place in 2019. This includes the former Democratic governor and current Republican Gov. Phil Scott, the entire Vermont congressional delegation, and the entire Democratic and Republican Party apparatuses.

Prominent progressives, like City Council President Jane Knodell, all the business and commercial councils and trade groups, most major media and the Vermont Guard itself--whose leadership receive at-will access to media and advertising--support basing. As F-35 opponents correctly noted, this is a David versus Goliath fight.

The business press reported on the "mascot" importance of a state-of-the-art weapon of mass destruction in Burlington to attract private and public sector investment to Vermont. Lots of money is at stake, including the potential for commercial real estate development in the expanding areas of residential clearance around Burlington's airport.

But while the military-industrial complex was able to rely on its loyal politicians in both parties, it wasn't able to win ordinary people this time around.

VERMONT'S SENIOR Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy is nicknamed Paddy War Bucks for his success in feeding the trough of Vermont military-industrial complex.

The Vermont Digger exposed Leahy's backroom operations to fudge numbers, and use his Senate seniority to force the basing decision by the Air Force toward Burlington, despite its short runway and larger environmental impacts than the Air Force recognized.

Leahy initially denied involvement, but the Digger reporter caught him lying about this in an interview, and he was forced to backtrack.

Like every other Democratic leader, Leahy has refused to meet with opponents who have turned out in the thousands to organizing meetings, city council hearings in multiple cities, marches and rallies and even a 100-person protest at Leahy's Senate office. Yet somehow, the senator claims that he has only heard from two or three opponents.

Vermont's more famous senator, Bernie Sanders, has played a reprehensible role as well.

F-35 boosters ran full-page newspaper ads in the days leading up to vote with Sanders' photo and a recent quote aimed at pacifying the opposition: "The reality is, the F-35 is here... it is very important for the existence of Vermont National Guard."

This assertion depends on the fictitious claim that the Air Force would close down the Vermont Air Guard if the F-35s were based elsewhere, an assertion refuted by multiple statements from the Air Force. Sanders' military boosterism is disheartening to many Vermont progressives--but also a reality check on the nature of the Democratic Party with whom he closely works.

The scuttlebutt from insiders close to the senator is that he will never change his position on the F-35 due to considerations of another presidential campaign.

But Sanders has a longer history of adapting to the Democratic Party's support for U.S. imperialism--which undermines his role as the country's most well known socialist--dating back to his election to Congress in 1991 as an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

In the case of his backing of the F-35, Sanders' support for militarism not only harms people being bombed around the world, but also the working-class and immigrant communities in Vermont that he's known to champion.

The anti-F-35 campaign has exposed the basing plan in all of its waste, corruption and environmental and social damage.

After the referendum vote, Burlington activist Julie Macuga concluded, "Our legislators are going to have to listen to us. This is something that we don't want to harm us and our neighbors. Most of the population that voted them into office is saying, 'You need to do something about this.'"

This expresses the clarity and important legitimizing effect of the victory. But the state's political, economic and military establishment, never concerned with democracy and ever concerned with profits, will be determined to forge ahead regardless.

The political composition of the City Council that passed the basing in 2013 is essentially unchanged. The challenge will be to continue to build on this brilliant win at the ballot box to make it impossible for Vermont's ruling class to proceed with the basing as planned.

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