The curtain rose right on schedule last week in the Iraqi theater of operations, and what promises to be the only show in town for the foreseeable future. But while most of us gaped in shock and awe at the front-row view, an uppity group of Vermonters was trying to refocus some of the audience on Latin America, where an equally tragic play has largely escaped critics' attention for more than four decades.
Early last week, antiwar activists from all over New England, including more than 50 from northwestern Vermont, converged on the headquarters of United Technologies Corp. in Hartford, Connecticut, to protest corporate profiteering from the war in Colombia as well as Iraq. United Technolo-gies is the parent company of Sikorsky, maker of the famed Black Hawk military helicopter. In the last year Sikorsky has been spending mucho money trying to convince Congress to include its helicopters in a $1.3 billion military-aid package known as 'Plan Colombia." But activists on the ground in Latin America claim the Colombian military uses U.S. military hardware under the guise of the 'war on drugs" to wage war on its civilian population.
Protesters dressed in clothes stained to look bloody staged a 'die-in" in the building's entrance and demanded that the company's CEO hear the complaints of Colombian nationals living in New York. The Colombians themselves didn't participate in the demonstration, fearing that in the current political climate their immigration status might be compromised. About 14 protesters, including eight Vermonters, were arrested.
Kimberly Ead of Burlington's Peace and Justice Center spent 15 hours in jail. 'This is something that needs to happen," she told Seven Days shortly after her release. 'The only thing that's going to stop the injustices of the U.S. government is people putting their lives on the line and risking themselves for other people all over the world."
Meanwhile, Burlington's own elephant in the living room, defense contractor General Dynamics, has quietly dodged the protestations - if not the attention - of local peace activists since the war in Iraq began. There was barely a peep, for example, after GD announced on March 14 that it had secured a $68.8 million deal to build Hydra-70 rockets for the U.S. Army and Navy. That deal came on top of a $53.8 million contract that began in February. Although the Army had planned to scale back production of the aircraft-mounted rockets, a congressional coalition led by Sen. Patrick Leahy asked that the decision be 'reevaluated." Which poses a thorny question for local antiwar activists: Is there a strategy for opposing defense spending that provides some 500 well-paying jobs for Vermonters?
American presidents have a long and checkered history of declaring war on nouns: Poverty, Drugs and Terrorism. However, no administration has taken the fight to the nation's most entrenched enemy within its borders: racism. So last week Burlington raised a battle cry on its own.
On March 26, some 300 Burlingtonians packed City Hall's Contois Auditorium to kick off an unprecedented community dialogue on race relations. The campaign, sponsored by the year-old Burlington Anti-Racism Coalition, begins with 28 weekly 'study circles" throughout April. It culminates on May 7 with another town meeting to begin compiling a community 'action plan" on race.
Mayor Peter Clavelle nailed the evening's unofficial theme when he said, 'We've got a long, long way to go." For an audience that was about as racially diverse as Burlington gets, that message was obvious. The same, however, cannot be said for some members of the Vermont Legislature. As Rep. Mark Larson (DBurlington) pointed out, during a recent hearing on a House bill that would create a legal definition for racial harassment, one lawmaker dismissed the legislation as 'a bill looking for a problem."
Uh-huh. Tell that to the young African-American girl who was interviewed for the film, Faces of Color: Problems and Solutions. When she complained to her Vermont elementary school teacher about racial taunts from her classmates, she was told to 'just deal with it."
In fact, Vermont's racial tensions are most evident in its public schools. In the past nine years, one in three allegations of discrimination filed with the Vermont Human Rights Commission was against a school. That likely reflects the state's shifting demographics. Although Vermont as a whole is nearly 97 percent white, students of color made up 14.3 percent of the Burlington School District in the 2000-2001 school year. In some city schools, nearly one in three students is a person of color.
Organizers of last week's event admit there is only one specific goal for the study circles: a plan of action that amounts to more than just talk. But even this event revealed some of the deep racial distrust that exists in Burlington. After a man noticed that one study circle is scheduled for police headquarters, he commented, 'You are not going to get any black people into the Burlington Police Department."
A long, long way to go, indeed.