“A town meeting revolt over the Iraq war” is what The Christian Science Monitor called Vermont’s historic votes for anti-war resolutions in 49 of 57 cities and towns. The resolutions passed not only in traditional liberal strong holds, but also in rural areas usually dismissed as conservative. The votes demonstrated overwhelming anti-war sentiment.
In the state’s largest city, the Burlington Anti-War Coalition (BAWC) proposed a resolution (full text below) that called for bringing the troops home now. It passed with 65.2% of the vote. It won in all the city’s wards, including the two most conservative. In the towns of Marshfield and Hinesburg (one of the more conservative towns in Vermont) voters also considered and passed “Out Now” resolutions by overwhelming margins.
However, only a handful of the anti-war resolutions put forth in Vermont towns included the word “now.” Ben Scotch, former executive director of the Vermont ACLU, sparked the statewide campaign and drafted the resolution used outside Burlington, Marshfield and Hinesburg. That resolution calls for the Vermont Governor to have more control over the state’s National Guard, demands an investigation into the impact on the state of the guard’s large deployment, and advocates the return of the troops in accordance with international humanitarian law.
Both resolutions were universally recognized as victories for the anti-war movement. Nevertheless, the two resolutions flow from different perspectives within the state’s anti-war leadership on public opinion about the war, what demands we should put forward, and what actions we should build.
On one side several leaders thought that calling for an immediate end to the occupation was too radical. They feared the resolution would be defeated in Burlington and elsewhere if it included the word “now.” This position was widely shared among anti-war activists who concluded that in the wake of Bush’s victory in the presidential election, public sentiment had shifted to the right and our task was to reach out to those who disagree with us with more palatable language. They argued for presenting demands that would be acceptable to the Democratic Party which, in their view, was the only viable vehicle for opposing Bush’s occupation.
BAWC respectfully disagreed. In discussions leading up to its internal vote, members argued that an “Out Now” referendum question would attract more popular support, especially among military families who had much to lose from any delay.
As the March 3rd poll in the New York Times demonstrates (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/03/politics/03poll.html), the US is sharply polarized, with half of the population opposed to Bush on everything he stands for, including the occupation of Iraq. Instead of rallying this fifty percent to oppose Bush, the Democrats offer only the mildest criticism, ratify his nominees, support his saber rattling against Syria and Iran, and refuse to call for an immediate end to the occupation of Iraq.
The votes in Burlington, Marshfield and Hinesburg show we do not have to moderate our demands and adapt to the pro-occupation Democrats. They demonstrated that “Out Now” is a demand that can galvanize our side, win majority support, and form the basis of a popular movement to end the occupation and oppose Bush’s future wars.
Winning this vote was surprisingly easy. First, activists participated in a democratic debate inside BAWC, which voted to try to get the “Out Now” referendum question on the ballot for a vote. We then pursued a dual-track strategy of petitioning in the streets and in the City Council.
During the coldest and snowiest days of January, we collected over 1,000 signatures on petitions, and found an overwhelmingly positive response from Burlington voters. While petitioning, we distributed a flier that made the case for “Out Now.”
At the same time, we found allies on the City Council, one of whom, Jane Knodell, agreed to sponsor a motion in the Council to put the resolution on the ballot. At two meetings Democratic and Progressive councilors tried to amend the resolution, objecting specifically to “Out Now” language. They argued that the resolution should read, “Bring the troops home as soon as possible.”
But BAWC and Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) members spoke eloquently during hearings, arguing that since the war was based on lies, not one more American or Iraqi life should be sacrificed to maintain the occupation. The City Council then voted twelve to one to preserve our “Out Now” wording and to place it on the ballot.
As part of the campaign, we helped publicize four public forums that made the case for immediate withdrawal. These included: Colleen McLaughlin and Fernando Suarez del Solar from MFSO; Jerry Colby, President of the National Writers Union and steering committee member of United States Labor Against the War; Anthony Arnove, co-editor with Howard Zinn of Voices of a People’s History; Stephanie Seguino, Chair of the University of Vermont Economics Department; and Elaine Hagopian, Middle East expert and editor of Civil Rights in Peril.
One of the forums was organized by Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle and City Councilor Jane Knodell. They invited representatives from the Vermont Congressional Delegation and speakers on both side of the question to speak at Burlington City Hall. The pro-war speakers declined the invitation, but the Vermont Congressional delegation all sent representatives. We were delighted to hear from Congressman Bernie Sander’s representative that Sanders would vote in favor of the resolution. But he and the representatives for Pat Leahy and Jim Jeffords all made clear that they would not argue for that position in Congress.
These forums politically educated the core of anti-war activists on the case for immediate withdrawal and how little help we could expect from the politicians. We tabled, leafleted, stuffed mailers, and put up posters to help win the vote.
The issue now for Vermont activists is how to transform the “Out Now” sentiment into a revitalized mass movement. Referenda, public forums, petitions, and demonstrations have all been vital means to build campaigns among military families, soldiers, and the general population, and to create a renewed mass movement. Such mass movements scored the major victories of the 1960s, forcing politicians to abolish Jim Crow segregation and end the Vietnam War.
Further campaigns are planned in Burlington. Local campus activists in Students Against War at the University of Vermont are organizing counter-recruitment to stop the military preying on working class students for their war machine. MFSO is organizing a statewide speaking tour of anti-war military families to demand immediate withdrawal. MFSO has also launched a campaign to secure government services for returning soldiers. BAWC is planning a citywide anti-occupation demonstration on March 20th.
Burlington activists hope that our successful referenda will set an example. Particularly needed is a national demonstration that can mobilize hundreds of thousands of people demanding an immediate end to the occupation. The referenda showed that “Out Now” is the right demand and commands enormous popular support. Now we need to make that sentiment visible on a national and global level.
Full Resolution: “Shall the voters of the City of Burlington advise the President and Congress that Burlington and its citizens strongly support the men and women serving in the United States Armed Forces in Iraq and believe that the best way to support them is to bring them home now?”
James Marc Leas is a member of the Burlington Anti-War Coalition and was the 2004 Green Party Candidate for Vermont Attorney General; Colleen McLaughlin is a member of the Vermont Chapter of Military Families Speak Out; and Ashley Smith is a founding member of the Burlington Anti-War Coalition. They can be reached at [email protected].