Vermonters Stand Up To War Profiteer General Dynamics

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Toward Freedom

Vermonters Stand Up To War Profiteer General Dynamics

by
Jonathan Leavitt

Whether Barack Obama or John McCain wins the election,
war profiteer and military contractor General Dynamics will be well
represented in the next administration. That was one of the messages
from a group of peace economy activists speaking at radical bookshop in
Montpelier, Vermont on Monday; John McCain has a General Dynamics
lobbyist, Rob Chamberlin, working for his campaign. And that "voice for
change" Barack Obama? According to the NY Times, James S. Crown, a
board member of General Dynamics, is on Obama's national finance
committee. With these kinds of connections, General Dynamics' war
profiteering will likely continue well into the next presidency - but
not if a group of Vermont peace activists gets its way.

Since the early 1980s, Vermont activists such as
Robin Lloyd, Joseph Gainza, Brian Tokar and Jolen Mulvaney have been
committing acts of civil disobedience at General Dynamics Burlington
design facility and firing range. They climbed fences in order to pour
red paint on GD weapons and placed flowers in the barrels of GD
cannons. Along with 200 others, they occupied the GD firing range,
lying down in front of GD trucks with Gatling guns destined for Ronald
Reagan's dirty wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. "The civil
disobedience doesn't stop when you're in the courtroom. Every word of
becomes part of the public record and is written down beautifully,"
Mulvaney said, her Vermont gubernatorial candidate Anthony Pollina
earrings flashing.

A lot of knowledge and
stories were shared across generations at this activist discussion in
Montpelier. Yet no one needed to explain the particulars of courtroom
civil disobedience to the youngest member of the panel, 19 year old
Rachel Ruggles.

On May 1st of this year, as
Ruggles and Kylie Vanerstrom were finishing their freshmen year at the
University of Vermont, they walked into the lobby of GD armaments and
technical division in Burlington, locked themselves together with eight
others, and refused to leave until the company pledged to give back
$3.6 million in Vermont tax breaks and convert the 500 local employees
to peacetime, "green collar" jobs. Being ignored by GD higher-ups,
dragged out of the armament facility by Burlington police, and roundly
criticized in the local media for their civil disobedience, was only
the beginning. What unfolded afterward was an inspiring display of
righteous indignation, and legal maneuvering by women barely old enough
to remember a time when this country wasn't at war.   

The
ensuing trial shared similarities with the famed Winooski 44 civil
disobedience, which saw the 1984 occupation of state Senator Robert
Stafford's office on the eve of a decisive vote which would allow
weapons to be sent to death squads in Central America. Howard Zinn and
Ramsey Clark took the stand as expert witnesses as the largest civil
disobedience trial in the state's history found the defendants not
guilty by reason of necessity. In plainsong this means the Winooski
44's "crime" was pardoned as they were attempting to prevent the larger
crime of massive civilian deaths in Reagan's dirty wars. The war
profiteer locally testing, assembling and shipping some of the guns to
kill peasants in Central America fourteen years ago was General
Dynamics.

Rachel and Kylie had no Howard
Zinn expert testimony; they represented themselves with legal advice
from Sandy Baird, one of the lawyers who successfully defended the
Winooski 44. When Vermonters think pitched legal battles played out
inside Burlington's Edward J. Costello Courthouse, they usually don't
think of 19 year old women taking on the state of Vermont and the
world's sixth largest arms maker and winning... well, sort of. This is
where it gets complicated.  

No one is confusing GD with a paper tiger, or a company with clean bookkeeping. According to a 2006 Washington Post article,
"Of the large defense contractors, General Dynamics' concentration in
Army programs has given it the most direct benefit from the Iraq war...
Since just before the 2001 terrorist attacks," GD's combat systems
unit's "revenue and profit have tripled."  Just after the May 1st civil
disobedience, Burlington journalist Benjamin Dangl, writing about
Kylie, Rachel, and the rest of the self described "GD 10," stated that
GD had, "$7.8 billion, with $382 million in profits [...] 94% of its
contracts come from the US government."

To
its critics, GD seems to be the embodiment of everything Dwight
Eisenhower cautioned of in his farewell address of the revolving door
of money, people, and power between the military, corporations like GD,
and the government charged with regulating it all. Eisenhower,
ironically a hawkish Republican, called this the "military industrial
complex," and said it would pose an ever increasing threat to our
democracy. 

However, a couple of
powerful Vermonters, who regulate war profiteers on a regular basis,
tend to disagree. VT Congressman Peter Welch, elected on an anti-war
mandate and who, in April 2008, described himself in a VT-based Seven
Days article as a "cop on the beat" in regards to Blackwater and KBR's
defrauding of taxpayers, has a soft spot for GD as a local employer.
Though Kylie was quick to point out "elected officials like Peter Welch
claim to be against the war when they're trying to win people's votes,
but Welch takes campaign contributions [$3,500] from General
Dynamics."  Even Senator Patrick Leahy, author of the "War Profiteering
Prevention Act of 2007," touts the GD contracts he's helped bring home
to the Green Mountain arm of the company all over his website: $900 million, $129 million, $57 million,
to name but a few. Many contracts are Hydra-70 missiles headed for Iraq
and Afghanistan. His Vermont Chief of Staff Chuck Ross says the Senator
believes GD provides, "Good Vermont jobs" and "ensures that our country
has the defense it needs."

When pressed
about this, Rachel fired back at Vermont's anti-war Congressional
delegation, "Jobs and security for who and at what cost? Is that really
the first encounter we want people around the world to have with
Vermont, a smoking village and all around pieces of rockets that say
made in Vermont?" In a 2,300 word Time Magazine
expose on General Dynamics in 1985, journalists explained that "Fleets
of investigators and critics are challenging General Dynamics'
integrity and its fitness to be a pillar of the nation's defense...The
Securities and Exchange Commission is studying whether the company may
have manipulated its stock price, and the Defense Department is looking
into possible national security violations."

In
Rachel and Kylie's eyes, GD, like a Dick Cheney crony, has been
steadily overcharging taxpayers ever since. According to a 2005 Time Magazine
article, GD's CEO has been regularly hauled in front of Congressional
investigations recently to find out "why General Dynamics charged the
Government for such 'overhead' costs as a $14,975 party at a suburban
Washington country club and the babysitting expenses of one of its
officials." The same article states, "the Internal Revenue Service is
reportedly examining whether General Dynamics has been cheating on
taxes," and that the weapons-maker has a history of malfeasance that
includes everything from charges of "improperly billing taxpayers $158
million for overhead costs ranging from billing taxpayers for the
kenneling of an executive's dog, to the purchase of a company
director's kingsize bed." ($158 million can buy a lot of pooch
pampering and so the canine in question even comes with an
appropriately regal, old world name: Fursten.) Even in the age of
Halliburton's fraudulent contracting and overcharging taxpayers, the
wet dog stink coming off GD's practices caused the Navy to recently
suspend contracts for a time.  

At
the GD 10 trial's outset, Vermont's State's Attorney TJ Donovan said
the activists should sign a plea bargain: agree to pay $77 a piece for
restitution, perform 50 hours of community service, and in
exchange, receive no criminal record. Other members of the GD 10 claim
Donovan was pursing increasing penalties for two protesters who'd
previously had their charges dropped in similar plea agreements. One of
them, Jen Berger, claims Donovan, "vowed to do away with civil
disobedience." Donovan counters he "never said" such a thing, though
two other protesters, Rachel and Will Bennington corroborated Berger's
claims.

Though in State Attorney
Donovan's eyes, "Free speech is not an absolute right. It can be
regulated in time, place and manner." Donovan also suggested legal
protests like the 5pm peace vigil in front of Burlington's Unitarian
Church are "more effective" than the civil disobedience at GD.
Bennington agrees that, "it's great that there's a vigil," he but
doesn't, "see how having a vigil outside of a church is more effective
than going into the belly of the beast and saying that we don't want
you here. Segregation wasn't ended by people standing outside of
churches and having vigils." At the end of the day all ten of the
protesters accepted Donovan's plea deal.

Ruggles
claims, "We never planned to pay restitution. We didn't understand what
we were signing." So when the other eight members of the GD 10, who'd
been locked together in the weapons facility,  anted up the money and
agreed to perform their community service, it made what came next
surprising. The presiding judge asked at their next scheduled
appearance how were they going to pay restitution. Kylie and Rachel
looked up at the judge, in her bone white collar and mate finish ebony
robes, behind her staid bench at the courthouse, and said that they
"couldn't pay on moral grounds" restitution to a company that makes
manufactures 14,000-pound guns which fire up to 4,200 shots per minute
and Hydra 70 rockets in the People's Republic of Burlington.

The
response was swift and decisive, Rachel recounted, with the slow
intonation of someone still in disbelief: "The judge said morals need
to be put aside. She threw the real issue out the window" and held the
two "in criminal contempt of court." Kylie said despite the twosome's
relative legal naiveté, "We researched restitution laws. The aim of
restitution is to ease the burden of a victim. Restitution is for a
mom's car that's smashed, or a small business. It was a total misuse of
the law. It [restitution] isn't supposed to be punitive." According to
Rachel, "She [the Judge] wanted us to pay restitution or go to jail.
The judge threatened us with being put in prison indefinitely and being
charged daily. We didn't think the judge was bluffing. We went to court
fully prepared to go to jail."  But in Rachel's words the judge was
using the legal system, "like a debtor's prison for a war profiteer." 

Cue
overwhelming odds and ominous clouds. When asked if they ever doubted
themselves, before the final sentencing, Vanerstrom pauses for a
moment. "Even some of our friends told us we were being silly," she
said. "But even if it were one dollar, we were not going to pay. I
never doubted that what we were doing was the right thing and the right
cause. When we were ordered to pay restitution and refused to do so it
made me more sure." They laundered their "one nice outfit" a piece,
and, with lumps in their throats, walked up the steps and through the
courthouses' metal detector one final time, prepared to do the perp
walk out the back door in handcuffs and orange jumpsuits. 

At
the sentencing, Donovan pulled out the sort of courtroom pyrotechnics
that are usually more the providence of Matlock or John Grisham novels
than Patriot Act America circa 2008. He said, "My position was although
I didn't agree or condone what they were doing, we reached a fair
compromise where they could keep their deferred sentences and pay twice
the original amount to a charitable fund for injured soldiers [instead
of General Dynamics]." Kylie says, "I feel grateful, TJ could have
stood aside and been silent. I think we had a strange miscommunication.
He kind of came through for us." Though, she adds, Donovan lectured the
two of them, saying "having a criminal record isn't a badge of honor."
After reassuring the Judge multiple times that they would pay, an
exhausted Rachel and Kylie emerged "victorious" in their words, in
principal, if not on paper. "I think Kylie and I were probably the
happiest people who have ever left that court room."  

As
for the future, I asked each if they would disappear into a quiet life,
now that their trial is finally behind them. Rachel smiled and said,
"I'm relieved the court case is over and feel ready to do something
bigger. We fought our battle. TJ and other attorneys would have it that
civil disobedience didn't happen. The change we're talking about is
huge, it's an economic conversion. I don't know how we could do it if
we weren't civilly disobedient at times. More large scale civil
disobedience is necessary and I'll be happy to participate in that
because of what we're up against." Almost finishing her sentence Kylie
chimes in, "we've been involved with a new group concerned with
Vermont's transitioning economy into a peace economy. And we have big
plans for the future. We want Vermont's major export not to be weapons
of mass destruction."

Kylie, Rachel and the rest of the GD 10
have their work cut out for them as the torrent of money continues to
pour into GD: a new $51 million dollar contract was signed the day
after their arrest. So far in October, GD has signed $704 million in
new contracts. Not to be outdone, the activists have called a rally
against GD at Vermont's Statehouse on Saturday November 1 at 1:30 pm.
According to Joelen Mulvaney, suddenly now it's this new generation's
civil disobedience "inspiring" the older activists.

More information on Rachel, Kylie and the Vermont movement against General Dynamics can be found here: http://stopgeneraldynamics.blogspot.com/

 

See this video of the May 1st action at General Dynamics in Burlington, VT. Filmed and edited by Sam Mayfield:

 

 

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