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Vermont Versus the War

“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 ashley05401@yahoo.com.

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