Communities hope to sway Air Force decision on F-35’s
Northside News | 30 March 2020 | Oona Mackesey-Green
The air was brisk but the sun was out, and the crowd was filled with families parading to the festive sounds of the Forward! Marching Band. The “Parade to the Gates of Truax” led by Safe Skies Clean Water Wisconsin took place in late February. Safe Skies organizer Tom Boswell said the goal was “to illustrate to the public that there is broad-based support for our position and against the F-35s at Truax.”
The Air Force has not made their final decision about the placement of an F-35 squadron at Truax Air Base in Madison. The parade was one visible example of the organizing led by Safe Skies and other groups to publicize community concerns about the jets and to try to impact the Air Force’s final decision. While the COVID-19 outbreak has changed what that organizing looks like, the work continues online, in homes and behind-the-scenes.
The Air Force released their final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Feb. 19 analyzing the potential environmental impacts of the F-35s on the five locations being considered to house them. Of the five, Madison’s 115th Fighter Wing is the preferred site. There is a 30-day wait period between when the EIS is officially registered online and when the Air Force can issue a decision. That decision could come as early as the end of March.
Efforts to contact Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, as well as elected officials like Senator Tammy Baldwin who may be able to influence the Air Force’s decision, have increased in recent weeks. Safe Skies mailed a petition with over 2,000 signatures to Barrett in March and have urged people to call and write to Baldwin.As winter weather warmed, the march to Truax was Safe Skies’ first attempt to get a large group of people together outside. Hundreds showed up.
“I think it energized people,” said Boswell. “I think people like the opportunity to speak out not just as individuals, in a letter to the editor or in an email, but to really come together as a big group and let their voices be heard.”
The event connected supporters of the Safe Skies coalition in person, and, Boswell hopes, “it put the powers that be on notice that we are organized, there are a lot of people and we’re dead set against this happening and we’re going to continue to work to oppose it.”
Within weeks of the parade, as COVID-19 spread in the United States and cases were identified in Dane County, social distancing recommendations turned into public health orders and local events were cancelled or rescheduled.
Continuing to organize has been a challenge, said Boswell. “It’s almost like an oxymoron to try to organize because it involves working closely on a personal level with people: having one-on-one meetings, meeting in small groups or bigger groups, doing public events, being out there on the streets and being with other people. Right now we can’t be with other people.”
The circumstances have forced some creativity.
Eken Park Resistance is a group of neighbors in Eken Park opposing the F-35s. A group of about 15 people (including me, for full transparency) gathered at Bashford United Methodist Church March 7 to canvass the neighborhood. They knocked on doors and talked to people who opposed the F-35s but weren’t sure what they could do to make a difference, or thought that the final decision had already been made. They distributed posters, yard signs and postcards with messages like “No F-35s for our children.” They handed out flyers with a list of upcoming events: a showing of Dark Waters, a film about PFAS, as well as a neighborhood Speak Out and a Water Walk along Starkweather Creek. Several days later, Governor Tony Evers declared a public health emergency, followed quickly by the decision to close schools statewide.
The weekend following canvassing, Eken Park Resistance relocated their Speak Out from a large room at Bashford Church to a video chat via Zoom, an online conferencing tool. The Water Walk, originally a group walk, is being rescheduled as a self-guided walk along Starkweather Creek with accompanying audio.
Tehmina Islam, an EPR organizer, said the group is still meeting every week, virtually. “Even in the midst of the pandemic, we are still trying to find ways to gather and to use our voices from afar,” said Islam, and to “use forms of organization and resistance that have been around for a long time like radio, and like the mail. We printed the 2,000 signatures that were part of the petition” that was then mailed to Barrett.
Both Boswell and Islam see connections between organizing to stop the F-35 placement and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Some of our opponents talk about how the F-35s make them feel safe and I just can’t understand that reasoning,” said Boswell. “I heard the F-16s the last couple of weeks going overhead and it just seems like a totally surreal situation. Here we all are hunkered down in our houses, you know, worried about going outside and talking to our neighbors because we may get sick, and there’s this pandemic raging across the country and these planes are flying overhead and it’s like what is this all about. How can these planes possibly protect us? We need housing, we need medical care, we need education, we need food for our kids. To waste all this money on this military industrial complex is just totally irrational and obscene.”
Boswell said that Safe Skies is shifting their messaging to point out ways they would like to see the Air National Guard working alongside community members.
“We don’t need these jets, they shouldn’t be here. They shouldn’t be in a highly residential low-income urban community.” Instead, Boswell said, he’d like to see the Air National Guard take on a different mission. “There are a number of guard bases around the country that do have a medical mission. It could also be a combination of a domestic mission where the Guard helps out during natural disasters and other types of emergencies like we’re facing now.”
During the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the relationships that neighbors have built through Eken Park Resistance have become networks of support.
That EPR was formed in the weeks and months leading up to the pandemic was fortunate timing, said Islam. “This has been a really important time to also connect and know your neighbors and be able to walk by and check in to make sure no one needs groceries, or is everybody’s family doing okay.”
“We came together to organize against the F-35s from being placed here,” said Islam, “but we also organized to be here for each other as part of a community, and as a form of social support when our elected officials and government don’t protect us, that we can support each other and protect each other.”
The Northside Planning Council issued a statement against the F-35s
(northsideplanningcouncil.org/f35s) in Sept. 2019.
Safe Skies Clean Water Wisconsin: safeskiescleanwaterwi.org/
Email the Air Force
Contact Senator Tammy Baldwin (608-264-5338)
Contact your Madison alder (cityofmadison.com/Council/contact)
Contact your Dane County supervisor (dcimapapps.countyofdane.com/supervisors) about resolutions opposing the F-35s