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Putting Planes Before People: How Democracy Lost to the F-35

Paul Fleckenstein & Ray Gonda, Stop the F-35 Coalition

Burlington, VT

WHENEVER a politician instructs you—as Council President Joan Shannon did at the close of a controversial Burlington City Council meeting—that although we may strongly disagree on this issue remember that “we are all Vermonters”, know that she is playing you for a fool. Because there are clearly two classes of Vermonters—those who wield political and economic power, can stack meetings, issue misinformation at will and call out the military to support their plans (the side that won the City Council vote)—and ordinary people in the majority who suffer the consequences of the establishment’s decisions, and who must campaign and organize for their future, for their rights and for their dignity.

Nearly 500 people marched into the City Council meeting on October 28 to testify for or against the basing of the boondoggle F-35 warplane at Burlington International Airport. Many were from airport neighborhoods threatened by the extreme noise of the jets. 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 warplane 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. The Stop the F35 Coalition had multiple meetings with councilors, and many gave indications of supporting a resolution opposing the basing. 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. Basing opponents were not able to overcome the power of the Democratic Party leadership and the vested business interests (from Council  President Shannon to Senator Leahy’s office) to make councilors toe the line. The other not fully expected ploy was the collusion with the Vermont Air National Guard (VTANG) to militarize the City Council meeting, a clear attempt to intimidate the public.

The state’s business community, 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 and incomplete legal opinion that effectively stated Burlington’s elected government has no control over the military’s use of the airport which the Coalition’s attorney corrected within several days. However some of the councilors still appeared to be confused by what was and what was not legal at the meeting on Oct 28.

The VTANG and its corporate allies and boosters then engaged in a campaign of disinformation, claiming that barring the F-35 would effectively dissolve the unit, whereas the Air Force says the VTANG will continue with another mission if not with the F-35. It is a federal mandate that all states have Air National Guards. These forces paid for TV slots during the World Series and full-page ads in the local newspaper.

Some 200 VTANG members were ordered to pack the City Council meeting, many dressed in full military regalia.  Some testified that voting to stop the F-35 was an attack on Guard families. Others testified on the patriotism and work of VTANG members, implying that a vote against the F-35 basing was an affront to their service and threat to jobs.

The focus on families of those testifying for the F-35 totally excluded any consideration of the impact on the residents and homeowners who pay the bill for VTANG’s combat mission, which has a direct impact on their health, their children’s development and welfare, and property value losses of those who surround the airport.

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 contrary to statements made in the Air Force’s environmental impact statement.

To ensure that the disinformation campaign would go unchallenged, Council President 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 about scientifically established evidence showing the correlation between aircraft noise and health risks for children and seniors.  Nor could property value loss or taxpayer costs be addressed.

Rather, Shannon specifically invited the City Attorney and Airport Director to answer the Council’s questions barring the chance for rebuttal from the Coalition’s legal counsel 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.

F-35 supporter and Airport Director Gene Richards–who had previously advised residents opposed to the deafening noise of these warplanes to move to rural Vermont–claimed that banning the F-35 would put the future 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 the Airport’s commercial attractiveness and expansion plans–a proposition unsubstantiated by any evidence whatsoever and refuted by the opponent’s attorney in a prepared statement which he was not permitted to present at the meeting. Richards, furthermore argued that, were VTANG to lose their combat mission, the Airport would be in danger of losing the Emergency Rescue services provided by VTANG – another distortion refuted by the opponents’ attorney.  One of the sponsors of the resolutions countered that the Burlington International Airport could apply for FAA grants to fund these services, as is done at other U.S. airports.

DESPITE THIS misinformed and rigged forum, 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 possibly displace thousands of working-class people from their homes, lower residents’ home values, and cause untold health and safety consequences for residents due to ear-piercing noise and the heightened crash risk of this $1.5 trillion 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.

To add insult to injury, one photo journalist got a picture of two Council members watching the World Series game during the hearing—when they were supposed to be listening to testimony.

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 warplane 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 big business interests 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.

Three staunch Council members from Vermont’s Progressive Party–Rachel Siegel, Vince Brennan and Max Tracy– argued the case for the resolutions and voted for them.  However, to great surprise, one Progressive Party member, 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 military-industrial complex got its bureaucrats and political followers to do its bidding, overriding the democratic process and putting the lives and welfare of local 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.” Has it now become ruled by the 1{33979494efa9b9c28f844b5c37a1ddedf4bb90a2eb3dac7a83ede58b7eac2e67} like the rest of the country? And when will this spread to the rest of the state?

Activists in the Stop the F-35 Coalition remain unfazed. They are continuing to meet, planning next steps, and expanding the struggle to put people before warplanes. The Air Force is expected to issue a statement on the basing in coming weeks. The basing would not likely occur for 5 years or more. Things are far from over.