Antiwar protesters gather in a military town
April 2, 2004 | Page 4
LOU PLUMMER is a member of Military Families Speak Out and the Bring Them Home Now campaign and an organizer of last month's antiwar demonstration in his hometown of Fayetteville, N.C., home of the U.S. military's Fort Bragg. He sent the following report on the demonstration to Socialist Worker and other media outlets.
ON THE day after his nineteenth birthday in 1966, my father received his commission as an officer in the same North Carolina National Guard unit that took his father to Europe in World War Two. By 1969, having left the Guard, Dad was in Vietnam with the Fourth Infantry Division for the first of his two tours there. After he returned, our family moved into officers' quarters at Fort Bragg, conveniently located near our hometown, Fayetteville, N.C. I idolized my warrior father and told him that I wanted to be like him, camping out, eating C-rations and killing Viet Cong, not an uncommon feeling among seven-year-old military kids.
Fayetteville, home to Fort Bragg, one of the three largest military bases in the U.S., is the quintessential military town, then and now. In the early 1970s, a bus affectionately named the Vomit Comet ferried soldiers from Fort Bragg to Hay Street, a seedy strip of topless bars and pawnshops. Every effort was made by Hay Street merchants to separate basic infantry training graduates from the last paychecks they would receive before departing for Vietnam.
Not all of Fayetteville's citizens were predatory, however. In 1969, Dean Holland became the first soldier at Fort Bragg to receive conscientious objector status after receiving help from North Carolina's Quaker community. With Holland's leadership on the ground in Fayetteville, Quaker congregations from across the state raised money to open a GI counseling center in Fayetteville.
The center, Quaker House, was a catalyst for the growing GI resistance developing in the military at the time. With the help of angry young war veterans, the Quaker House staff helped organize a rally in a nearby park featuring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. The rally drew 4,000 protesters, including over 1,000 GIs, many of whom attended wearing hats and wigs in an attempt to avoid detection by military police. Four days after the rally, Quaker House was firebombed in a case that was never solved.
Undeterred, Quaker House reopened. It remains open to this day, a part of the GI Rights Network. Over 50,000 members of the military have received counseling on discharge and other issues from its tireless workers. In recent years, Quaker House has also been at the hub of an antiwar movement in Fayetteville driven by vets and members of military families.
The impact of antiwar organizing in a military town is hard to measure. Fort Bragg is home of the 82nd Airborne and the Army's Special Operations Command. Those institutions have loud voices and impact the community in many ways, economically and socially. The going can be difficult for progressive voices, particularly those of antiwar and peace activists.
In Fayetteville, a small grassroots group formed soon after September 11th. Rarely are more than a dozen organizers present at business meetings, although occasionally 50 to 100 people attend its various events. When the group conducted a series of vigils during the opening weeks of the invasion of Iraq, counter-demonstrators routinely outnumbered and out-shouted the peaceniks.
As time passed and the body count from Iraq grew steadily higher, the counter-demonstrations ceased. More and more passersby, including troops in uniform, began offering honks of support. More thumbs-up signs were seen. The wives and parents of service members began to appear at the protests. Several veterans made and held their own signs for the weekly one-hour vigils.
This involvement by military families and active duty soldiers is not easy to come by, and for good reason. My son, an active duty sailor assigned to the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, was prosecuted for disloyalty by the Navy for speaking to a reporter at one of the demonstrations he attended while home on leave, a development that received national and international attention.
SP4 Jeremy Hinzman, a paratrooper assigned to the 82nd Airborne, attended meetings regularly both before and after deploying to Afghanistan. In January, Hinzman left Fayetteville with his wife and son to apply for refugee status in Canada after his application for conscientious objector status was denied and his unit received orders for Iraq.
As the war and occupation of Iraq dragged on, connections were made with a broader network of peace activists, most significantly Military Families Speak Out and the Bring Them Home Now! campaign. The support from these two groups was notable for their ability to redirect requests for help (usually in the form of email messages) from Fort Bragg families back to activists on the ground in Fayetteville. Newcomers to Fort Bragg, and there is a steady stream of them, are often at a loss on how to make connections with local people. It is easier for them to find the web site of a national organization than it is for them to know how to contact smaller groups. One can't exactly look up the listings for "Peace and Justice" in the Yellow Pages.
Few military family members have any experience in organizing. Fortunately, a few of the civilian members of Fayetteville Peace With Justice are veterans of the civil rights, anti-nuclear and women's rights movements. Their experience and connections with members of other grassroots groups helped develop relationships with a loose network of like-minded people across the state.
As happened during the Vietnam War, Quakers and other peace activists partnered with vets and military families in Fayetteville and elsewhere to plan a rally in the same park where Fonda and Sutherland appeared 34 years ago. The demonstration on March 20 drew over a thousand people.
The crowd marched from an assembly point on Hay Street to the rally site. The marchers passed the Airborne and Special Operations Museum and Freedom Park, where memorials to the local war dead stand. For the local activists, it was a stark reminder of the historic importance of what we were doing.
Veterans from several states led the march, including former Marine Michael Hoffman, who last year was marching through Iraq during the invasion. Members of military families, including the wives and parents of soldiers from Fort Bragg also helped guide the procession. Because of threats made on the archconservative Web site FreeRepublic.com, there was a significant police presence, especially as the crowd passed a small area where approximately 50 counter-demonstrators stood.
It took the crowd nearly 30 minutes to pass through a security checkpoint where handbags and coolers were searched. The temperatures were in the high sixties, the sun was shining, and a festival atmosphere quickly developed. Some were attracted to the "peace truck," a project of the group Public Assembly. Much work had been done to have the truck present and presentable, since earlier in the week, the truck was heavily vandalized and its peace murals covered in red paint.
Patrick McCann, of Veterans for Peace in Washington, DC took the stage to lead the crowd in a chant done in the style of a military cadence:
One year ago this very day
Sound Off: One, Two
The crowd settled in for a variety of speakers and cultural performers. People of color, women and immigrants all serve in the military. They all also served the peace movement as they told their deeply personal stories on Saturday. A visibly nervous Beth Pratt, whose husband is serving as a truck driver with a unit from Fort Bragg stationed in Iraq brought many in the crowd to tears as she eloquently explained how she never watches the news or reads the newspaper for fear of reports on military casualties. "It's hard living without your best friend," Pratt said as she explained that after returning from Iraq, her husband was certain to be re-deployed soon afterwards.
Other well-known activists such as Nancy Lessin, cofounder of Military Families Speak Out, and David Potorti of September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows appeared throughout the afternoon. Cultural performers such as Fruit of Labor, Hip Hop Against Racist War, and Vietnam Veteran singer-songwriter Ralph Baldwin offered entertaining respites from the heavy emotion conveyed by the speakers.
Among the speakers was the aunt of Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia, a Florida National Guardsman who served in Iraq. Once he got back, he refused to return. Instead, he turned himself in to the military on Monday, March 15 along with a 40-page Conscientious Objector application. Mejia was invited to speak at the Fayetteville demonstration, but Major Gen. William G. Webster Jr. did not allow Mejia to leave Fort Stewart to address the Fayetteville gathering. So his family came and read a statement on his behalf that reiterated his position opposing the war and thanked everyone for their support.
Near the end of the nearly three-hour program, Elaine Johnson, from Cordova, S.C., whose son Darius was killed in Iraq on November 2, gave an especially riveting description of her anguish.
Longtime activist Dennis O'Neil, a member of the national coordinating committee for Bring Them Home Now! traveled from New York for the event. O' Neil said, " I've been doing this a long time, and I've been to more marches than I can count, but today is one of the best and most inspiring events I've ever attended."
As the crowd left the park, organizers were already making plans for continued support of the movement in Fayetteville. All those who participated in the march and rally understand the crucial role that veterans and GIs played in the struggle against the Vietnam War. They also understand that the alliances that need to be forged between the broader antiwar movement and military personnel and families will not be built overnight.
It took a long time and a lot of senseless killing during Vietnam for elements of the left, members of the faith community, vets and military families to combine their strengths. Today, only a year after the invasion of Iraq, those groups are already working together. They are making an impact. Their voices are being heard. The antiwar movement has returned to Fayetteville.