Putting F35 Warplanes Before People

Nearly 500 people marched into the Burlington, Vt., City Council meeting on October 28 to testify for or against the basing of the boondoggle F-35 warplane at Burlington International Airport.

The City Council planned to hear testimony before voting on two resolutions initiated by the Stop the F-35 Coalition that would bar the plane. One would have banned the plane outright — the other would have imposed noise and crash rate regulations that would have effectively kept the plane out as well.

The movement against the warplane had reached such a critical mass that just two weeks ago, activists were optimistic they would actually win. But Vermont’s political establishment and the military-industrial complex responded by dishonoring the democratic process to ensure that the basing of the F-35 would proceed against the will of the people here.

The state’s capitalist class, military brass, the city’s bureaucrats and their political representatives  –  mainly in the Democratic Party — used every dirty trick in the book. In the week before the City Council meeting, City Attorney Eileen Blackwood issued a highly prejudicial legal opinion that effectively stated Burlington’s elected government has no control over the military’s use of the airport.

The Vermont National Guard and its corporate allies and boosters then engaged in a campaign of disinformation, claiming that barring the F-35 would effectively dissolve the unit — a bald-faced lie. These forces paid for TV slots during the World Series and full-page ads in the local newspaper. Some 200 Guard members were ordered to pack the City Council meeting, many dressed in full military regalia, and testify that voting to stop the F-35 was an attack on Guard families.

The local version of the Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Burlington Industrial Council, went into full swing as well, claiming that if the F-35 were barred, it would wreck the region’s economy. F-35 supporter and airport director Gene Richards — who has advised residents who don’t like the current F-16 warplanes ruining their neighborhoods with deafening noise to move to rural Vermont — claimed that banning the F-35 would put the viability of the airport in jeopardy.

Richards testified that it was inadvisable for the city to impose any noise and crash rate regulations to protect the health and safety of citizens because they might threaten commercial air traffic — a proposition unsubstantiated by any evidence.

To ensure that the disinformation campaign would go unchallenged, City Council President Joan Shannon violated even the semblance of democratic norms for the discussion at the public forum before the Council’s vote. She stipulated that those who had spoken at previous Council meetings would be called on last. As a result, none of the activists and experts from the Stop the F-35 Coalition got the chance to speak.

Even worse, she specifically invited the city attorney and airport director to answer the Council’s questions — and would not call on the Coalition’s legal council or its experts on airport policy. The city’s “experts” told the Council that it had no right to regulate its airport’s military or commercial traffic, effectively revealing Burlington to be under a military and corporate dictatorship.

Despite this misinformed and rigged forum, nearly 200 anti-F-35 activists turned out to try to make their voices heard. Unfazed by the heavy military presence, they marched into the City Council chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, the F-35 has got to go.”

Dozens of Vermonters bravely and brilliantly testified against the basing of a weapon of mass destruction at our airport, a decision that will likely displace thousands of working-class people from their homes, lower residents’ home values, and threaten untold health and safety consequences for residents from ear-piercing noise and the heightened crash risk of this $1.5 trillion boondoggle bomber. United Academics, the faculty union at the University of Vermont, passed a resolution calling on the City Council to protect the interests of residents in the F-35 vote.

But all this was callously disregarded by the Council’s Democratic Party majority, which followed the example of party leaders. To add insult to injury, one spectator got a picture of two Council members during the hearing who were supposed to be listening to testimony — and instead were watching the World Series game.

The state’s entire congressional delegation — Rep. Peter Welch and Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders — have refused to meet with activists. They all support the F-35, and Leahy himself personally intervened in the Air Force basing process to make sure the bomber would come to Vermont.

Gov. Peter Shumlin and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, also Democratic Party leaders, likewise refused to meet with the Stop the F-35 Coalition. The party establishment no doubt joined the capitalists and military brass in lobbying to make sure their fellow Democrats, who form a majority on the City Council, would vote against the anti-basing resolutions. Unsurprisingly, the Democrats toed the party’s line.

Three brave Council members from Vermont’s Progressive Party –Rachel Siegel, Vince Brennan and Max Tracy — voted for the resolutions. Shockingly, however, one Progressive Party member and an economist at the University of Vermont, Jane Knodell, broke ranks and voted with the Democrats. She parroted the disinformation campaign organized by F-35 supporters and even joined the Democrats in blocking a non-binding, symbolic resolution encouraging the Air Force to bypass Burlington in the first round of basing decisions.

Thus, Vermont’s ruling class got its bureaucrats and political stooges to do its bidding, overriding the democratic process and putting the lives and livelihoods of working-class Vermonters at risk. This opens the door to big real estate magnates who hope to cash in by driving people from their homes around the airport and opening commercial ventures in their place.

So much for the once vaunted “People’s Republic of Burlington.” It has now become a dictatorship of the 1 Percent, like the rest of the country. But activists in the Stop the F-35 Coalition remain unfazed. They called a planning meeting and are devising new strategies to continue the struggle to put people before warplanes

Ashley Smith is a writer and activist from Burlington, Vermont. He writes frequently for Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Review. He can be reached at ashley05401@yahoo.com. Read other articles by Ashley.