By Jorge Mariscal
When Boston College student Joe Previtera decided to protest the war in Iraq, he headed to the one place that keeps the war machine well stocked with fuel – his local recruiting office. Previtera put on a black hood and cape, stood on a box, and attached stereo wires to his hands. The message was clear enough. The recruiters say “money for college,” but the reality of war says “Abu Ghraib.”
No one signed up that day, and Previtera was arrested by Boston police and subsequently charged with two felonies having to do with “making false bomb threats” (charges were later dropped). In his act of grassroots pedagogy, Previtera joined a growing number of activists across the country that are focusing their attention on military recruiting as one of the most important fronts in the struggle against militarism and war. While many people continue to generate fearful predictions about an impending draft, others have realized that the so-called volunteer army is already a form of conscription for those young people with limited economic and educational opportunities.
Over 50 people staged an act of civil disobedience outside a recruiting office near the University of Wisconsin in Madison in November. Four students and a university employee entered the office and delivered their press release, refusing to leave until the recruiting station was turned into a financial aid office. The four protesters were arrested for trespassing.
In their press release, the Madison group called recruitment “a predatory practice” and argued: “the war in Iraq has seen hundreds of thousands of soldiers sent to fight in a needless conflict. A large proportion of these soldiers were recruited from the most disempowered segments of American society – the poor, people of color, high school students. Recruitment often takes the place of financial aid or a decent job, and it is grossly unfair.”
For a two-week period following the protest, a Madison television station conducted a survey on its website. Evidently counter-recruitment activists still have much work to do: 58 percent of the over 900 respondents answered “no” to the question “Are Military Recruiting Methods Unfair or ‘Predatory?” Protest organizers promised they would revisit the recruiting station in the near future.
In Vermont, activists converged on a local National Guard recruitment office. Among the 50 states, Vermont has one of the highest percentages of its population in the Guard, and many have been deployed to Iraq and Kuwait. Organizer Leo Schiff called military recruiting “deceitful and deadly.” In a local newspaper in Montpelier, one letter writer observed that the U.S. Constitution may actually prohibit the use of Guard troops in foreign conflicts, since Article I, Section 8 grants Congress the power “to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions” but not the power to deploy the Guard overseas.
One of the more dramatic protests targeting a recruitment station took place in late November in Philadelphia. Increasingly frustrated by the lack of response from the Office of Housing and Urban Development to the needs of local homeless families, members of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union moved out of the “Bushville” tent city they had established and staged a sit-in at the city’s main Army recruiting station. Carrying signs that read, “Bring the Money Home” and “Billions for War, Still Nothing for the Poor,” they briefly took over the office and issued a list of demands, including affordable housing and domestic-violence shelters. Several homeless families stated that they had relatives fighting in Iraq. The sit-in ended peacefully when fire and police officials arrived, and the homeless families returned to their encampment. “Operation Bring the Money Home” will continue, the KWRU says.
On Jan. 20 in Seattle, hundreds of students walked out of schools to protest the war in Iraq. At Seattle Central Community College, an ethnically diverse group of working-class students surrounded an Army recruiters’ table and tore up enlistment literature, forcing the recruiters to leave the campus.
Counter-recruitment actions at community colleges may be the wave of the future, given the Pentagon’s increased interest in recruiting there. A 2003 study by the Rand Corporation said that “the greatest enlistment potential exists among two-year [college] students and two-year dropouts.”
In related actions, students and faculty at the University of Puerto Rico (Mayagüez and Río Piedras campuses) have sustained a three-year struggle to demilitarize their institutions of higher learning. Born out of the successful struggle by the community of Vieques, Puerto Rico to remove the U.S. Navy bombing range, the University Front for Demilitarization and Education) has led the fight to oust ROTC programs. They have used sit-ins and hunger strikes to block the construction of an Air Force ROTC building, and temporarily took over an Army ROTC office where they painted murals with counter-recruitment themes on several walls.
One of the faculty leaders is mathematics professor Hector Rosario who, as an untenured faculty member, risked his career by participating in a fast at the end of last summer. He was suspended from teaching and will not receive any salary until university officials consider his case this March.
With at least 23 Puerto Ricans from the island killed in Iraq so far and thousands more in the armed forces, the issues of recruitment and war are controversial. But Rosario and his students will not be deterred. As he wrote last February: “Students claim these buildings that were meant … of a country not for the military training of its citizens that will eventually participate in the massacre of children. Not in our name. Not with our resources. Not anymore.”
Jorge Mariscal teaches Chicano Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Reprinted with permission from www.counterpunch.org.