In Part VIII of this series, we looked at all of the organizing efforts to confront Congressman Vern Ehlers, who supported the war in Iraq and voted every year to finance the US occupation of Iraq. In today’s post, we look at the counter-military recruiting work being done in Grand Rapids.
Besides all the marches and protests that took place when politicians came to town, one of the more important anti-war actions that were taken was the counter-military recruitment work. Counter-recruitment work is some of the more effective strategies used in anti-war organizing, since it can result in reducing the number of people enlisting in the military.
There were two groups doing counter-recruitment organizing, the Institute for Global Education (IGE) and ACTIVATE. IGE was doing mostly educational work, distributing educational materials and going into the schools to let students know what they might be getting into if they signed up for the military.
ACTIVATE was also doing educational work, creating flyers, zines and videos that deconstructed what it meant to be in the military and what military recruiters were offering to potential recruits. Here is a video of one of the actions, which counters a US Army slogan at the time, Army Strong, with the tag line, Army Dead.
In early 2007, MediaMouse reported on an action at a Military Recruiting Center in Grand Rapids. Here is what was written:
On Friday, twenty-five people attended a protest organized by ACTIVATE against military recruiting and the ongoing occupation of Iraq (video and photos are also available). The protest took place at the Armed Forces Career Center at Celebration Cinema and was the third and largest protest held against military recruiting in Grand Rapids. The protest was held in conjunction with the antiwar demonstration taking place in Washington DC on January 27, with the protestors calling for an end to the occupation of Iraq and opposing President George W. Bush’s planned escalation of the Iraq War.
ACTIVATE targeted the military recruiting station for its protest on the 26th because it provided a direct connection to the war in Iraq and the military’s capacity to maintain the occupation. The group held a variety signs highlighting facts about military recruiting and the human costs of the Iraq War. Thus far, the war has killed 655,000 Iraqi civilians and more than 3,000 troops. Additionally, organizing against military recruiting–through these protests and organizing high school students–could play an important role in ending the occupation of Iraq. In recent years, recruiters have failed to meet recruiting goals and pressure has increased on recruiters to meet their monthly goals. Military recruiters have also come under fire for a 50% increase in abuses in 2005, abuses that have ranged from coaching recruits to cheat on drug tests to widespread sexual misconduct with potential recruits. Antiwar activists can increase that pressure by denying them the recruits that the military needs to maintain the occupation. A number of people involved in the antiwar movement, including former Special Forces soldier Stan Goff, have argued that counter-recruitment should be a priority for the movement.
The recruiters initially positioned themselves at the front of the recruiting center and blocked the doors to the building while pounding on drums and chanting “Stop Enlisting, Start Resisting.” Two different recruiters came out and told the group that they could not block the doors, but the group refused to move. When it became clear that the recruiters had moved into the back of the building, the group moved to the backdoors and continued chanting and drumming in an attempt to disrupt the activities of the recruiters inside. At one point, the protestors opened one of the unlocked doors and disrupted an interaction between a recruiter and what appeared to be a potential recruit. The police eventually came and told the protestors that they could not block the doors or enter the building, but explained that they were otherwise free to continue protesting. When the police left, the group again moved to the front and distributed more flyers to pedestrians outside of the movie theatre. The group then chose to move to the back of the recruiting station again, chanting and pounding on the windows to disrupt the recruiters who were on the phone. Throughout the protest, the recruiters were very aggressive, repeatedly opening doors and slamming them into protestors, while responses from the public tended to be favorable. The police eventually returned to the scene and informed the protestors that they could not play drums, citing complaints from other businesses. Following the second visit from the police, the group decided to leave shortly after most of the police did.
The group is planning additional events and protests against the occupation of Iraq as part of a campaign designed to increase the visibility and effectiveness of antiwar movement in Grand Rapids. The campaign is part of a response by ACTIVATE to a nationwide call to action that the group signed onto back in December of 2006. The call challenges the antiwar movement to critically examine its failures and to move forward by “taking risks, making demands, and creating consequences” as well as making connections and doing the critical organizing work that has often been neglected by the movement.
There were also counter-recruitment actions held at Military Recruiting Center in Wyoming, MI, in March of 2007. Again, here is how MediaMouse reported on that action:
The protest began at 9:00am after the group walked over to the station. On the way to the recruiting center, the group received many supportive gestures from passing motorists. When the group arrived at the station, they used a ten-foot long banner reading “Stop US Imperialism” to block access to the main door of the building while other protestors held signs reading “Stop Recruiting the Poor for the War,” “Recruiters Lie,” “655,000+ Iraqis Dead,” and other signs highlighting the deaths of the more than 3,220 US soldiers killed in Iraq. The group also chanted a variety slogans including “Recruiters Lie, You Die,” “No Justice, No Peace, US Out of the Middle East,” and “There’s Dead and then there is Army Dead.” During the protest, one person was denied access to the building, while a couple of recruiters were forced to push their way through the protestors or using the backdoor to gain access to the building. The group was unable to close down the recruiting station given their numbers, but it was clear that their presence was an annoyance and was somewhat disruptive to the recruiters, the majority of whom just stood around watching the group from inside. The reactions of individuals entering the neighboring businesses were entirely positive, with at least two people thanking the group for being there.
At another counter-recruitment protest, a group of pro-war bikers showed up to confront the activists with ACTIVATE. Here is what MediaMouse reported:
The actions of the bikers were clearly provocative and were in many cases violent. Just as recruiters have pushed doors into protestors and physically threatened them at previous protests at this recruiting center, the bikers and their small group of supporters occasionally shoved protestors, tried to knock signs out of their hands, ripped bandanas off their faces, and challenged protestors to fights. Their presence was characterized by jingoistic and macho posturing, with the bikers repeatedly using homophobic insults towards the protestors, calling male protestors “girls,” and calling protestors “sissies.” For the most part, the protest was essentially a shouting match, occasionally interrupted by the bikers revving the engines of their motorcycles in an attempt to drown out the protestors’ chants. As is frequently the case with folks representing a reactionary point of view, the bikers collectively demonstrated a lack of understanding about the war, arguing that Iraq and al-Qaeda were linked, that the war is necessary to protect the United States, and that more people were killed under Saddam Hussein than under the United States’ occupation. Whenever they were queried about matters such as the United States’ support for Saddam Hussein, the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children due to US-imposed sanctions in the 1990s, or the killing of 655,000 Iraqis since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the bikers either hurled homophobic insults, made quasi-racist comments disparaging Muslim people, or responded with asinine statements such as telling the protestors to “name them” when they told the bikers that 655,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed.
When the Grand Rapids Police Department showed up, it was clear that they were on the side of the bikers and the military recruiters. While the bikers got a simple wave of the hand to stop revving their engines, one protestor was immediately singled out and given a 10 second warning to leave or be arrested. As the person was leaving, the police officer grabbed him at which point a man wearing an Army shirt and hat claimed that the protestor had spit on him. Eventually the protestors were told that they had to leave or be arrested, despite the fact that the bikers–some of whom were standing in the road in clear violation of the law–were not told to leave. After the warning, the protestors made the decision to leave. The protestor that was detained was later let go without any charges.
One additional tactic that the group ACTIVATE used was to flyer at local high school football games, which were generally effective at getting information into the hands of students who were vulnerable to military recruiters and their propaganda.