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The Devil in New England

 

Police states don’t exist without help and acquiescence. Here in Vermont, where opposition to Washington’s war on residents of the United States has been opposed by librarians, teachers, booksellers, town meetings, and others groups and individuals, there is another current that not only supports the war on the Bill of Rights, but stretches current laws to enforce that war. Most recently, a cop in the small town of Barre-home of some of Vermont’s first labor unions and one of Emma Goldman’s favorite places to speak when she toured the US in the early part of the twentieth century-took it upon himself to do some reconnaissance in the Bush war on the world.

According to the Times-Argus (the daily paper that serves this region of Vermont), office John Mott had heard that one of the history teachers at the local high school was encouraging his students to think critically about the war on Iraq and other controversial actions of the Bush administration. The teacher, Tom Treece, is a pacifist who has made it clear that he opposes the current administration’s warmongering. Although most of the high school’s students don’t seem to have a problem with Treece’s stance and vocal support of it, certain citizens do. Indeed, some of them have gone so far as to form a small citizen’s group called Citizens Advocating Responsible Education (CARE), to oppose Treece’s teaching. An underlying motive of the group is to scuttle the school district’s budget.

For those who don’t live in Vermont, the issue of school budgeting is quite controversial ever since a piece of legislation intended to provide a more equal level of funding to all schools in the state known as Act 60 was passed a few years back. This Act is an attempt to redistribute property tax receipts targeted for education from very wealthy school districts to those districts that exist in perpetual poverty. Of course, those in extremely wealthy districts do not want to share their wealth and have done whatever they can (including refusing to turn over their collected revenues to the state) to prevent this redistribution. The opponents to Act 60 are funded by a who’s who of the Vermont’s right wing-many libertarian in nature and others more traditionally rightist. Of course, the opposition to the act is funded by conservative businessmen and women.

Anyhow, back to Mr. Treece and Mr. Mott. The facts are these. At 1:30 in the morning of April 9, 2003, Officer Mott, in full uniform, convinced a custodian at Spaulding High School in Barre, Vt. To let him in to the high school and enter Treece’s classroom. Mott was on duty at the time and was out of his assigned jurisdiction. Upon entering Treece’s classroom, Mott began photographing a number of student projects concerning the war on Iraq and other aspects of Washington’s current policies. Mott defended his actions in the Times-Argus, stating, “Having spent 30 years in uniform, I was insulted, I’m just taking a stand on what happens in that classroom as a resident and a voter and a taxpayer of this community.” Mott’s recon mission took place the day after he attended a school board meeting where CARE presented their complaints to the board regarding Treece’s instructional approach. CARE’s founders claim that the issue is not free speech. To them, “It’s an issue of balance and it’s an issue of professionalism.”

Mott’s actions were immediately criticized by the school district’s superintendent, who wrote a letter to the Barre Police Chief condemning Mott’s entering the school at that “unusual; hour” by intimidating a custodian and photographing student’s work. She went further, defending Treece’s teaching methods and stating clearly that Treece was a good teacher who wanted his students to think critically. Furthermore, she said, “As a teacher he (Treece) does present all sides of an issue.” Mott dismissed the superintendent’s comments as “tap-dancing” and insisted that he did not intimidate anyone. Instead, he claimed to have “found” an unlocked door through which he entered. Why Mott would consider that explanation as justifiable is beyond many in the town. In a subsequent meeting of the school board, petitions were presented addressing both sides of the issues this incident has raised. CARE’s petition, signed by a couple hundred residents, calls for limits on academic freedom and the appointment of citizens to the school board. A petition in support of Treece that was circulated by some of his current and former students was also submitted. In the discussion that took place, the lines were clearly drawn. According to the Times Argus, one of the opponents of Treece and his class (called Public Issues) said: “The purpose of education is to teach students facts and how to use these facts to compete in the real world.” Academic freedom, continued this speaker, is a waste of time.

The previous teacher of the class, Paul Poirier, rejected this opinion and the attempted character assassination of Treece by certain elements of the community. Poirier explained that there is a difference between “pushing students to think” and form their own opinions and “brainwashing.”

Other speakers condemned the attacks on Treece, which they claimed were based on rumor. One student, who describes himself as a conservative who argues frequently with Treece, relayed the results of an informal poll he took of the school’s junior and senior classes on whether or not Treece provided a balanced perspective in his classes. The poll results showed an overwhelming response of yes, he does. In addition, of the 78 students this student asked to sign a petition in support of Treece, 75 signed. Many others in attendance attended the meeting to express their alarm at Mott’s questionable entry into the school and his taking photos of students’ work. Of those people, most of them found Mott’s lack of repentance over his actions even more disturbing.

Indeed, Mott has expressed no remorse over the forced entry into the school, nor has he expressed any doubt as to his right to use his police uniform to do so. It’s clear that Mott and his supporters have forgotten (if they ever knew) the reasons that certain of our country’s founders insisted on the Bill of Rights before they would approve the constitution. It’s also clear that these folks’ leaders in Washington like things that way. This is why the minds of the young are their battleground. After all, if young people can think critically about their government and its actions, they might want to change it. If young people start asking why their friends are being asked to go to war and why there are military recruiters in their schools and their mailboxes, they might decide to oppose those wars and the liars who try and sweet talk them into fighting them. If young people start questioning why policemen can use their uniform to commit acts that would be illegal for anyone else, they might want to rein in the police.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.

He can be reached at: rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu

 

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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