Anti-war protest targets recruiting center

Thirteen arrested at office in Maple Tree Place

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

A student protest against military recruiting on Friday ended with a noisy occupation of the Vermont National Guard office in Williston and arrests of 13 anti-war demonstrators.

The protest at Maple Tree Place involved about 75 people, including high school and college students as well as demonstrators opposing the Iraq war.

Protesters brandished signs, chanted slogans and shouted through bullhorns during the two-hour demonstration at two recruiting offices in the busy retail center. A few protesters confronted military members. After nearly an hour, police warned protesters that they would be arrested if they did not end their sit-in at the Guard office. Thirteen demonstrators, including three juveniles, were cited for trespassing, said Williston Police Chief Jim Dimmick.

Students at Mount Mansfield Union High School organized the protest, which evolved from efforts to rid their school of recruiters and to prevent the release of student information to the military. Among the organizers was Phoebe Pritchett. She said in an e-mail that she was pleased with how the protest went.

“I think our action was very successful,” she said. “We voiced our discontent with current recruiting practices and the war in Iraq, and no one got recruited at either of the offices while we were there.”

The students had sought advance publicity and contacted other anti-war groups. The organizing effort resulted in a raucous but non-violent war protest, the largest of its kind in recent memory in Williston.

At about 3 p.m. protesters massed near the Best Buy store and marched in formation toward the shopping center’s green. Their initial target was the combined recruiting office for the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines on the east side of the green.

But protesters found a locked door and a darkened office. They satisfied themselves with taping protest signs to the office’s front window and door.

“Education, not occupation,” they chanted in unison, “military out of our school.”

More soon joined the demonstration, which spilled from the sidewalk onto the street. Then someone noticed the National Guard office across the green and protesters began streaming toward it.

About three dozen demonstrators entered the storefront office while others stayed outside. Some plastered more protest signs – most with slogans, one with a graphic photo portraying war dead – on the walls. Others milled about the office or tried to engage military personnel in debate. One man read a list of Iraqis killed in the war.

Police presence was evident from the outset, and it grew to include personnel from the numerous area law enforcement agencies. Eventually, Dimmick told demonstrators they had to leave the Guard office or be arrested.

Some left immediately, and others drifted outside over the next few minutes. Williston Police Sgt. Bart Chamberlain stood guard for a short time before locking the door.

The crowd outside grew more excited, peering through the window and pounding on the plate glass window, which shook but did not break.

Meanwhile, officers inside began writing citations. Dimmick said protesters were then given a chance to leave, but they instead remained seated in a circle. Police dragged them out a rear door and into a waiting van, where most were taken to the Chittenden County Sheriff’s Office for processing. Three juveniles were cited and released.

Differing reasons for the protest

The combination of youthful demonstrators and what Dimmick called “professional protesters” produced a group with diverse views.

South Burlington resident James Leas, for example, identified himself as a member of the National Lawyers Guild. Leas said he wanted to ensure demonstrators’ First Amendment rights were upheld. He confronted Guard members and police, at one point asking Dimmick, “How did you get to be (the military’s) spokesman?”

Matt Howard of Iraq Veterans Against the War said he supported the students’ effort to end military recruitment in high schools. But he was also there to oppose the war.

“I want them out of the schools, I want them out of Iraq,” he said. “This war is based on systematic lies told by everybody from the Bush administration on down to recruitment personnel.”

Many of the students were taking tentative first steps in exercising their free speech rights. A few admitted they were able to attend the protest, which started before classes finished for the day, because they got permission slips from their parents.

Eliza West, 16, of Richmond, said the protest was exciting. She said she would continue demonstrating “until my mother picks me up.”

The students were upset about military recruiting practices, particularly a provision of the No Child Left Behind Act that requires high schools to release the names and phone numbers of students to recruiters. They circulated a petition signed by 171 students and teachers at Mount Mansfield Union asking members of Vermont’s congressional delegation to change the law.

Vermont National Guard spokeswoman Kate Irish declined to comment on the protest. She did say those at the recruiting office were not in a position to address issues raised by the demonstrators.

“They are there to carry out policies that have been enacted, not debate them,” she said.

Word got out about protest plans in the days leading up to the event. Dimmick said police met with organizers in advance to ensure they could exercise their free speech rights without affecting nearby businesses or creating safety hazards. But he said when they occupied the building and became disruptive, police had to act.

“We didn’t want to make arrests,” Dimmick said. “We have a great deal of respect for their First Amendment rights. But with those rights come limits.”

Pritchett saw things differently. She noted in her e-mail that protesters did not damage property or jeopardize anyone’s safety. They simply wanted to make their views heard.

“The point of our action was not for a bunch of people to get arrested,” she said. “The point was to express our discontent with misleading recruiting and the war in Iraq, a cause for which people were willing to accept any consequences to deliver our message."