In the state of Florida, students are strictly prohibited from possessing "any firearm, electric weapon or device, destructive device, or other weapon" on school property (Florida statue 790.115, 2A). However, exceptions are made for "school-sanctioned activities." On August 29, such an exception was made for Representative Gus Bilirakis’s (R-FL) third Annual Military Day & Veterans’ Resource Fair. As in past years, the event was held at East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs.
According to Bilirakis’s press release, Annual Military Day is open to "past, present, and future" veterans and their families and friends. The stated purpose of the event is to provide information on "a myriad of services, benefits, and information for veterans and their families." In an interview, event-planner Elise Gately said that this year’s theme was "honoring our Vietnam Veterans."
Upon entering the fair grounds patrons could hear the recorded sound of machine gun fire ringing out from a jeep armed with a large free-standing gun. The event treated adults and children to a playground of militarism. Armed services representatives showed off a menagerie of military equipment, including Vietnam-era helicopters and armed jeeps, as well as modern Humvees and assorted weaponry. Children were invited to crawl through ground and air craft and examine military memorabilia. The event also included exhibitions such as a military fly-over, color and honor guard presentations, and a drop-in by paratroopers.
Near the event’s entrance about two dozen anti-war activists held signs protesting the content and the location of the event. Activists representing St. Pete for Peace, CODEPINK, and Veterans for Peace held signs such as "ABCs Not WMDs," "Endless War=Recession," "Danger: Helicopters Are Not for Playground Equipment," and "Students: The Recruiter is Not Your Friend." CODEPINK activist Heidi Ferrara held a sign referring to the Florida Statue prohibiting weapons on school campuses. "We’re protesting the use of the public schools for a weapons show," said Ferrara, who hosts the "Overnight Underground" show on WMNF Tampa 88.5 FM.
Ferrara began protesting the annual event last year and says she’s appalled by the use of a public school for the promotion of militarism. "The biggest issue is the use of the schools to glorify these weapons, to glorify the military, to use it as a recruitment tool for children," said Ferrara. "There have been students who have been expelled for even leaving a plastic butter knife in their lunchbox. So it’s completely unacceptable for them to be using this facility to showcase this kind of equipment."
Veteran Mark Frankenberg, 46, held a sign reading "Military Toys Kill Girls and Boys." A first time protester of the annual fair, Frankenberg was equally struck by the hypocrisy of weapons of war being permitted on school grounds. "A child can get expelled from school for having a paper gun and I saw at least five M-60 machine guns over there," said Frankenberg. "I saw some M-16s, I saw some knives, I saw a revolver, and I saw a Gatling gun in front of a helicopter." Frankenberg also questioned the use of taxpayer money to fund the military display. "The Coast Guard took a C130 Hercules and flew it over the school a bunch of times. They dropped Special Forces soldiers by parachute over top of the school. I’m wondering how much money it cost…. I don’t think that’s the right way to be using our tax dollars."
A member of the Tampa Bay chapter of Veterans for Peace, Frankenberg is sensitive to what he sees as a hidden agenda to indoctrinate Americans. A former staff sergeant, Frankenberg said it wasn’t until after his 11 years in the military that he realized he had been fooled. "When I joined the military, I had been taught, I had been indoctrinated for years," he said. "And it was supported by my family. They believed the indoctrination that our boys in uniform were spreading freedom and democracy around the world. And so a lot of guys like me were in the military, sure to make a living, but also fully in the belief that we were supporting freedom and democracy."
A father of three, Mauricio Vasquez said he opposes teaching children to be destructive rather than constructive. "The idea of teaching children about weaponry is very negative to me," said Vasquez, "especially because they also promote the military services. Children need to have an alternative teaching for weaponry." A resident of St. Petersburg, Vasquez held a sign reading "Killing for College Doesn’t Make it Right."
As the Military Fair program wound down, activists faced event-goers. Perhaps a sign of an increasingly war-weary public, while some did not approve, the majority of those leaving the event seemed sympathetic to protestors. Most politely waved and smiled at activists along the exit route.