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Fighting the Pentagon in Rural Florida

JI have just returned from a one-day trip to Perry, Florida to speak to a gathering of concerned citizens who are organizing to stop the placement of a new bombing range in their rural community. It was one of the most inspiring trips that I have ever made.

Perry is up in the Florida panhandle, just south of the capital city of Tallahassee. The region is called the nature coast as Taylor county touches the Gulf of Mexico and has several key rivers that run through its pine tree forests to the gulf. The county has a relatively small population as Florida goes and that is one reason the Pentagon sees it as a good place to put a bombing range.

There is a bombing range already in the region, just further west at Eglin AFB near Ft Walton Beach. I lived there while in high school when my father was stationed at Eglin and I hiked through the middle of the bombing range as an explorer scout. It is one of the largest military bases in the nation but population has grown near the base to the point where the noise from the bombing range has begun to draw complaints. Most recently the Mother of all Bombs (MOAB) was tested at Eglin. The MOAB is the most powerful non-nuclear bomb ever created that creates a mushroom cloud and shockwaves similar to a small nuclear explosion.

Rural Taylor County already has huge problems. The Buckeye paper mill has been contaminating the Fenholloway River that flows into the Gulf. Long ago classified as an industrial river, it is essentially dead and dumps toxic pollution into the Gulf. Groundwater contamination in Perry has long been a result and one local activist, Joy Towles Ezell, has been working to organize people in their company controlled town for years. Joy is a fifth generation Taylor County resident who has now taken on the military over the bombing range.

I met Joy years ago when I worked for the Florida Coalition for Peace & Justice. We tried to support her work around the paper mill and she supported our efforts to alert people when cruise missiles were fired from Navy ships in the Gulf that flew over the panhandle and then crashed into the Eglin bombing range. Before the meeting Tuesday night Joy showed me a letter she wrote to then Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1991 on our behalf protesting the cruise missile tests. Years later when I organized a 700-mile Walk for the Earth from the Everglades to Tallahassee we camped on her land outside of Perry and held a rally at the paper mill. My son had a great time riding one of her prized mules while we were there.

Fifty local residents gathered Tuesday night in the back room at the Chaparral restaurant. The first thing Joy did when we arrived was make two of us go out front and put up on the portable advertising sign the words “Don’t Bomb Nature Coast Meeting 7:00 pm” just below the words “Country Buffet.”

The first speaker was Dr. Ronald Saff from Florida State University in Tallahassee who is an expert on coal fired power plant pollution. In addition to the paper mill and the bombing range, there are also plans to build a coal power plant in Taylor County. The decision has been made to turn the county into a wasteland, a sacrifice area.

Taylor County is your basic southern, rural, conservative place. People vote Republican and they don’t take to outsiders very well. They don’t do radical politics either. That is what made the meeting Tuesday night so special.

These 50 folks who gathered were retired school teachers, good church goers, the local industrial development officer, well dressed, quiet and concerned. One of them, a refined southern woman, Republican and Episcopalian, had been in the group that the Air Force recently flew to Eglin so they could see how nice the bombing range looked. The Taylor County delegation was promised that depleted uranium would not be used in their county. Joy was not invited to go along on the trip.

The Eglin AFB bombing range has been testing depleted Uranium (DU) and since 1973 over 220,000 pounds of DU penetrators were expended there. Cruise missiles that crashed on the Eglin range carried DU as ballast in the nose cones in place of a warhead. After so-called “clean-up” a public health assessment at Eglin estimates that 90-95% of the DU remains in the soil.

People in Taylor County have been told that cruise missiles will be tested over their heads and that the weapons will circle around in Alabama and come back to the proposed bombing range to crash land. The military “needs” the Taylor County range they say because they need to practice flying cruise missiles off ships in the Gulf of Mexico. The Pentagon has been telling the residents that the tests are practice for “missile defense” as part of homeland security. A pro-bombing range group called “Citizens for Homeland Security” has been set up but residents say it is just a couple of those who are involved in the money trail behind the bombing range and the coal plant.

I told the residents that it was time to redefine the term “homeland security.” I asked how secure they were when their water, air and land was becoming so contaminated that they future generations could not live there? I also told them cruise missiles were first-strike, sneak attack weapons that have nothing to do with “defense.” I told them cruise missiles are part of a preemptive military policy that violates international law. I asked them how they’d feel if another country launched sneak attack weapons onto the U.S.?

The local Rotary Club has been offered a gift of $10,000 if they will support the bombing range. The county government has been offered $40 million. Local hunters have been promised continued access to the range so they can hunt deer and wild boar on the land. In spite of all that the local residents are organizing and have forced a non-binding referendum on the question on the November ballot. They think they will win the vote but fear the county will agree to the range anyway.

The folks have yard signs, buttons, bumperstickers and will have a booth at the up-coming forest service “Forest Festival” and draws 20,000 from the region. They keep letters to the editor flowing into their local paper in order to combat new rumors put out by the military.

The meeting ended with Joy calling Vieques, Puerto Rico and getting one of the leaders of their long and successful campaign to close down the military bombing range on their beautiful island. I can’t describe the feeling to listen to Robert Rabin as Joy held the microphone up to her cell phone. I looked around the room at the people as they deeply listened as Robert told the story how the Navy dropped a bomb on a Navy building killing one of their own security guards. A moan went through the room like a knife through the heart. The Taylor County community had been promised by the military that they never have accidents. It was incredible to hear Robert use the word love a dozen times to describe the core of their campaign against the Navy and how they used non-violent civil disobedience. The people just listened and after his 15 minute talk they applauded with great vigor.

There is nothing like life experience to change people. The folks in Taylor County are changing rapidly. One woman, a life long Christian and good Republican, told me she’d never vote for another Republican again. (I couldn’t help but think how stupid the Bush administration is to bring this bombing range issue up right before the November election in a state where EVERY VOTE really counts.)

At the end of the meeting the people asked me two things. What more can we do and do you think we can win? I told them that the people in Vieques won because they became a “pain in the ass” and they had to do the same. I also told them they could not do this alone, that they needed to send folks out around the state to educate others about the issue. I acknowledged two people in the audience from the Florida Coalition for Peace & Justice (John Linnehan from Jacksonville and Bob Tancig from Gainesville. Bob is the new director of the organization. John had picked me up at the Jacksonville airport and drove me to Perry.) They pledged the support of the Florida Coalition.

I urge others to send a message of solidarity to Joy and the folks in Taylor County. They could use some encouragement and some hope. I know they have just given me a bunch of it. You can reach Joy Towles Ezell at hope@gtcom.net

This is how America will change.

BRUCE K. GAGNON is Coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. He can be reached at: globalnet@mindspring.com

 

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Bruce K. Gagnon is coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space based in Brunswick, Maine.

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