WILLISTON — At 5 feet tall, 15-year-old Jaz Whitney doesn’t look like a threat to the omnipotent U.S. war machine. But when it comes to military matters, appearances can be deceiving.
Last Friday, November 30, Whitney and a pack of other young rabblerousers took to the streets — or rather, the parking lot of Williston’s Maple Tree Place shopping center — in protest of U.S. military recruitment policy. Vocal opponents of the Iraq war, they’re concerned about a section of the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act that forces schools to release student contact info at the request of military recruiters. Though a 2006 Vermont law requires school administrators to inform kids about their right to “opt out” of recruitment, Whitney and others have a beef with the “opt-out” process.
At 2:30 p.m., Whitney convened with fellow Mount Mansfield Union High School classmates and event organizers Phoebe Pritchett and Emily Coon in the shadow of Best Buy. Their plan? To storm an adjacent military “career center.” “A lot of students are opposed to the war,” reflected Coon, 17, a Jericho native who sported a rainbow-colored scarf. “But they don’t have access to the government, so they can’t vote.”
“And if you can’t vote,” added Pritchett, smiling from the folds of a white parka, “you have to organize.”
The military has certainly benefited from organization. In fiscal year 2007, Army recruiters signed up over 80,000 new, active-duty soldiers — a number that doesn’t include recruits for other branches of the armed services. There are five Army recruitment stations in Vermont. The state’s taxpayers have spent $663 million, so far, on the Iraq war. An Army spokesperson in Albany, New York, says that the six Army recruiters from the Williston office regularly visit 22 area high schools.
Matt Howard visits nine of them, but for a different reason. In November, the 26-year-old Iraq vet started working full-time for the American Friends Service Committee as a “youth empowerment and military education” — a.k.a., counter-recruitment — coordinator in area high schools. His hiring appears to reflect a growing concern over military presence in local schools.
Howard, a former Marine who served two tours in Iraq, has made local headlines for his activism as president of the Burlington chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Just before 3 p.m. Friday, he motored his blue coupe, plastered with antiwar bumper stickers, into the Best Buy lot.
“Organizations that wage war based on lies and deceptions will lie and deceive you,” said Howard. “And this war is based on systematic lies coming from the top level of presidential administration . . . to the bottom of the recruitment process.” Since 2003, 3883 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq, 19 of them from Vermont.
After a brief planning meeting outside Best Buy, Howard supplied protestors with antiwar paraphernalia. Chanting “Out of our schools, out of Iraq!” a multi-aged delegation walked a hundred yards to the recruitment center — only to find it closed.
(Three days later, a sergeant at the center would neither confirm nor deny that the facility had been closed in anticipation of the demonstration. “Schedules brought us other places,” said the official, who refused to provide his name for this story. “Do not quote me in your paper!” he warned.)
Undeterred by the locked doors, Friday’s protestors found a replacement target: a nearby Army National Guard recruiting office, which sits across the parking lot from the recruitment center. They walked right in and, once inside, an activist recited names of Iraqi civilian casualties — likely more than 650,000 between 2003 and 2006, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers — through a loudspeaker. At around 4 p.m., Williston police closed the office. Thirteen civilly disobedient protesters chose to remain inside.
Confused by the sudden closing, Pritchett and Coon were locked out, but Jaz Whitney stayed indoors. A few minutes earlier she had said, “I’m really excited to get the voice out there that high school students can make a difference. It’s good to know that we can do things that matter.” A button on her shirt read, “Well-behaved children rarely make history.”
Outside, Pritchett, Coon and others cheered in solidarity. Behind them stood Coon’s 55-year-old dad John, a Colchester High School teacher and union activist. “I led a strike a few years ago for health benefits,” he recalled. “And fortunately — or unfortunately — Emily has taken after me a little bit.”
At Colchester High, Coon continued, “recruiters come in all the time and give out basketballs, dog-tags, pencils — little things to lure people. It ends up luring only those kids who think they have an alternative to their college tuition by joining the military, and that’s sad.” According to an analyst at the National Priorities Project, there were 68,438 new Army recruits in 2006; typically, they came from areas of the country with a median family income of $44,065.
As the younger Coon rallied outside the National Guard office, other protestors voiced concern that the premature office closing had chilled their right to free speech. “We want to make sure that everyone is able to voice their opinion,” Williston Police Chief James Dimmick explained on Monday, likening the event to a “public disturbance.” But “Maple Tree Place is private property . . . and while it’s open to traffic, the ability to voice your First Amendment rights comes with limitations.”
On Friday, four consecutive National Guardsmen refused to speak with a reporter. Army Lieutenant Jeffrey Hastings, however, was willing to talk. “I just came here to join the Guard,” explained Hastings, 25, who returned from Iraq last month and is transitioning to the Guard as part of an 8-year service obligation. “I’m on vacation now, so I don’t really have much to say about this,” he added. “Free speech? Cool.”
Afterwards, event organizers reported seeing Williston Police Detective Michael Lavoie kick Burlington resident Jonathan Leavitt, one of the 13 activists camped inside the office. Chief Dimmick of Williston PD confirmed the incident, but would not verify the identity of the officer, saying the matter is currently under internal investigation. Dimmick downplayed any malicious intent, however. He points out, too, that no formal complaints have yet been filed.
By late Friday afternoon, the National Guard office was packed with as many as 11 reps from the Guard, State Police and Williston Police Department, as well as Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan. Meanwhile, a crowd of more than 50 protestors, reporters and supportive parents gathered outside. Through the windows, they could see protestors being handcuffed and dragged away, one by one, toward another part of the building — the garage, as it turned out.
The last protestor left sitting was Jaz Whitney. “I love you Jaz, whooo!” shouted one blond teenage supporter, her nose pressed to the glass.
“JAZ! JAZ! JAZ!” exclaimed the others.
“You think she’s gonna get arrested, too?” asked a female classmate.
“Is that her dad?” a friend wondered aloud. Whitney’s father, Steve Mojica, was entering the office to consult with the authorities. Protestors quieted down.
“Don’t let him convince you, Jaz!” someone yelled.
The question soon became, would Jaz agree to leave on her own power, or refuse to get up? After consulting with his daughter, Mojica shrugged. Two law-enforcement officials then began to drag Jaz away.
“Omigod, do they have handcuffs?” cried the first onlooker.
“Is she a sophomore?” asked a male friend.
“She’s a badass, that’s what she is,” replied the girl.
All 13 protestors were cited for trespassing, according to Williston police. Whitney and two other minors, aged 16 and 17, were released immediately. Ten others were arrested and driven to the Chittenden County Sheriff’s Department in South Burlington for processing.
What did Whitney have to say about the experience afterwards? “It was nerve-wracking,” she recalled, speaking with Seven Days by phone Sunday evening from her Jericho home. “But I wasn’t going to back down from what I believed in. This is the time to let a voice be heard.
“And this,” she added proudly, “was the best way to do it.”