Direct Action at Boeing Plant in St. Charles, Mo. on March 23rd By James Benkard March 27, 2003
On Sunday, March 23, I joined 250 demonstrators in a nonviolent protest and direct action at the Boeing plant in St. Charles, Missouri. The St. Charles factory produces Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) kits.
According to Boeing, the JDAM is “a guidance kit that converts existing unguided free-fall bombs into accurately guided ‘smart’ weapons. The JDAM kit consists of a new tail section that contains an Internal Navigation System [INS]/Global Positioning System [GPS].” Boeing and the Air Force are using JDAMs to fit ordnance, some of which is 30 years old, to make bombs more accurate. The JDAM kits were “originally designed for 2,000-pound MK-84 and BLU-109 warheads,” and “have also been developed for 1,000-pound MK-83 and BLU-110 warheads.” Boeing has tested JDAMs for 500-pound bombs and will make them available next year.
Reportedly, the INS/GPS systems make these bombs 98% accurate: impervious to bad weather, smoke, or sandstorms, as is currently the complication in Baghdad. JDAM kits cost $20,000 each, far less than laser-guided missiles. This low cost makes JDAMs an attractive way for the Air Force literally to unload their stockpile of older bombs on other countries, the current one being Iraq.
The JDAM program is one of the most profitable running today. USA Today covered the program in their “Money” section on Monday, March 24. “From September 2001 to October 2002, the JDAM program generated more than $1 billion worth of contracts,” said Boeing spokesman Robert Algarotti. Arms specialists describe JDAMs as “definitely the signature weapon of modern warfare” and perhaps “the most successful munitions program of this generation.” Boeing is the world’s second-largest weapons manufacturer, with $54 billion in 2002 revenue.
JDAM-equipped bombs debuted in the war on Serbia in 1999. One of them hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade: a human error, not JDAM’s, the Pentagon assures us. During the Afghanistan campaign of 2001-2002, 4,600 of the 12,000 bombs the US dropped were fitted with JDAMs. This depleted the Air Force’s stockpile, leading to a big contract with Boeing in December 2001. USA Today reported that “the Air Force originally ordered about 87,000 kits but has since expanded its contract to more than 230,000.” At the St. Charles plant, it appears they can’t make them fast enough. According to demonstration organizers, the factory has been manufacturing JDAMs round-the-clock for three years.
It was against this backdrop that we gathered on Saturday in downtown St. Louis. Midwest Regional Resistance and Voices in the Wilderness organized. Voices representatives joined some from the Anathoth Farm in Luck, Wisconsin to come in the “Omran Bus.” The bus is named after the Iraqi boy Omran Harbi Jawair, killed on May 17, 2000 by a bomb dropped in southern Iraq near his village of Najaf. The Omran bus has toured since 2000, telling tragic stories of the victims of sanctions, bombing and Saddam Hussein. A sign in the window reads: “Start seeing Iraqi children.”
We formulated a plan for Sunday. People wearing white suits emblazoned with “CWIT” (Citizens Weapons Inspection Team) would lead. They would request to enter the Boeing plant. We had a half-dozen coffins and mock victims, would wear black and emulate a funeral procession. Some volunteered to refuse to move from the plant’s gates in case they did not allow us inside. This act would likely result in arrest.
Mike Miles, Jeff Guntzel and Stephanie Schaudel from Voices related to us the human cost of American policy in Iraq. Each passed on stories about the generosity and heroism of the Iraqis. Miles read a letter from a high school boy who lived near Baghdad he had met. The boy was energetic and interested in Americans. He ended with a plea and a question: “Please write back soon” and “Do you think we’re a bad people?”
Miles told the story of Voices’ trip to Omran’s village in early 2001. They met Falah, Omran’s 30-year old brother, and his mother, who was grieving to the extent that she could hardly speak. The Voices delegation explained to them the Omran bus’ mission, and showed them photographs of it. Omran’s mother was moved to tears and eventually gave them her only picture of her dead son. Falah said that “your visit today changes everything,” because up until that point they did not know that Americans had feelings.
Guntzel spent February in Baghdad. He talked of a kind shoeshine boy and his helpful cab driver. Guntzel related the surrealism he was experiencing of not knowing whether these simple folk were alive now. During his stay, he went bowling and began with three gutter balls. A man stepped forward and gave him tips. This was a former national champion of Iraq. Another man helped. He was the current national champion. One of the men went behind the counter to get something. He came out with an autographed medallion, a replica of his championship medal, and gave it to Jeff. Guntzel remains amazed by this act of generosity.
Schaudel led a discussion on Iraq and global politics that 50 of us had in the sanctuary of the church. She analyzed the current situation in Iraq by placing it within a global context. She talked about Voices’ Iraq Peace Team, which currently has 25 people in Iraq “to witness, understand and expose the situation of both the civilian population of Iraq and highlight the importance of facilities such as water purification plants that are critical to daily life.”
Among the Iraq Peace Team is Kathy Kelly. She wrote from Baghdad on March 25: “Most of us are angry, very angry.and yet I believe that we can channel our anger, our disappointment, our frustration and our rage into the kind of energy that will champion nonviolent resistance to the works of war, and an ever deepening desire for the works of mercy.”
On Sunday in St. Charles, 250 of us set out for the plant. We were met by 50 policemen, many in riot gear, and 60 pro-war demonstrators. It was difficult not to respond to the insults they threw at us. Organizer Bill Ramsey was quoted in Monday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “We’re not going to argue with people. We’re going to find people who agree with us and build, so Bush doesn’t take the American public for granted.” We conducted two “die-ins.” I was grateful for the police’s presence, since were they not there, the chances of us being attacked would have risen greatly.
An objective of the protest was to shut down the shift change at the plant. Organizers said that the plant has been operating continuously for three years. One organizer said he believed Boeing called off their shifts for that day to avert a showdown. A police sergeant talking to the media during the protest did report that no shifts were planned for the day. Other protesters who were familiar with the plant related to me that there were other exits, which could be used to move workers in and out.
The media were clearly interested and sometimes engaged. They collected enough pictures and interviews to furnish an hour-long documentary. Of course, such a documentary will not be made, as only a few pictures and sound bytes that document rebellion against the status quo ever make it into the mainstream media. The information progressives present is like salmon swimming against a river of corporate ownership. Because of this framework, mainstream reporters do not have much space to present our views. Yet it is a mistake for us to disqualify help from them from our efforts. The institutions that employ them are not friendly, but the reporters might be.
After most of the protesters had left, Boeing opened the gates. Fourteen activists, most in CWIT suits, refused to move unless they could enter and were arrested. The Post-Dispatch reported that four women and nine men were booked for trespassing and released. One 16-year old boy was “turned over to juvenile authorities.”
As what is happening in Iraq unfolds with greater horror, it is important to keep in mind both the material beginnings and endings of the American military. On our soil, we saw in St. Charles a branch of the military-industrial complex that is humming along at peak efficiency, and will continue to do so unless people demand otherwise. The St. Charles plant is an integral part of the machinery that ends up killing and maiming people, mostly innocent civilians. It is a well-documented fact that most casualties in modern war are civilians.
Jeff Guntzel described the people of Iraq as “just like us:” they want safety, jobs, schools, and a better life for their children. However the mainstream coverage of what is happening in Iraq omits the stories and tragedies of these people; we have a responsibility to make them real to us and others. When these people become real, most people’s consciences come alive.
Another distressing introduction into the lexicon of mainstream coverage in Iraq is the reporting of “terrorist” suicide bombings. Apparently some Iraqis are using this technique, and one attack killed a journalist. Would suicide attacks to repel an invading force in New York or Washington be described as “terrorist?” Is America headed, and prepared, for treating Iraqis as the Israelis have treated the Palestinians for years?
Arundhati Roy observed at a speech in 2002: “But then suicide bombing is an act of individual despair, not a revolutionary tactic. Although Palestinian attacks strike terror into Israeli citizens, they provide the perfect cover for the Israeli government’s daily incursions into Palestinian territory, the perfect excuse for old-fashioned, nineteenth-century colonialism, dressed up as a new fashioned, twenty-first century ‘war’.”
I found the weekend an empowering and enlightening experience. To paraphrase Howard Zinn, the power at the top of our system is hollow, and this becomes obvious when people mobilize and express their concerns and dissent. Despite the Boeing gates, policemen, and abusive counter-protesters, we stayed firm and made our point. And there is no more powerful solidarity, and no more instant or moving friendships, than those forged in the quest for peace and justice.
James Benkard is an actor, music publicist and activist in Lawrence, Kansas. He can be reached at [email protected]