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:
Contact Jonathan Leavitt at firstname.lastname@example.org