Rolling protest of F-35s coming to Madison ‘amplifies voices’ around State Capitol

Wisconsin State Journal, April 18, 2020 – Howard Hardee

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A cacophony of cars’ horns filled the air around the state Capitol on Saturday afternoon as a caravan of protesters registered their dissatisfaction with last week’s decision to base a squadron of F-35 fighter jets in Madison.

It was the latest protest organized by the Safe Skies Clean Water Coalition, a grassroots organization opposed to bedding down the next-generation fighters at Truax Field at the Dane County Regional Airport. But this was the first since the U.S. Air Force announced Wednesday it will send the jets to the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing in 2023, which proponents say will create new jobs and benefit the local economy.

Precautions were taken during the protest to observe social distancing amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Following the example of rolling protests being held across the country, almost all of the participants drove the route from Truax Field to the state Capitol and stayed in their vehicles as they made several laps around Capitol Square. A handful of cyclists and pedestrians wearing face masks joined the demonstration.

Tehmina Islam, a leader with Safe Skies, said it’s important to advocate for the vulnerable people and neighborhoods that stand to be most impacted by the jets, despite the barriers presented by the pandemic.

“We’re trying to find a balance between amplifying our voices and keeping citizens’ rights at the forefront of what we do, while also keeping people safe,” she said. “We’ve had to get creative.”

Islam lives in the Eken Park neighborhood, which would be directly impacted by the sounds of F-35s landing and taking off from Truax Field. Her home is in the 65-decibel zone that is “incompatible with residential use,” according to the final impact statement released Feb. 19.

As a midwife with a home-based practice where she offers prenatal care for pregnant women — including some of her neighbors — the potential for increased noise is concerning on multiple levels.

“As a health care provider, I’m worried about the health of our community’s children,” she said. “There are multiple schools and day cares in the neighborhoods that will be most impacted. I’m certainly worried about all of the families with young children in this neighborhood. I’m worried about the most vulnerable people in our communities, including people of color and low-income people, and how this will just further increase the disparities we see in Madison.”

Islam isn’t surprised by the Air Force’s final decision, but she isn’t disheartened, either. The fight isn’t over for Safe Skies, which has retained a law firm and is challenging the environmental impact review.

“This is a long-range game and we’re going to continue to protest the F-35s being here,” she said. “We’re still fighting and keeping our goals the same. Just because the Air Force has made its decision doesn’t mean we’re going to stop protesting and organizing and resisting.”

The protesters’ voices were certainly heard around Capitol Square, as the beeping and honking proved too much for some pedestrians caught in the crossfire. Several people were seen grimacing with hands over their ears.

The outing was a success in the eyes of Tom Boswell, one of the protest’s organizers and a participant in the caravan. He estimated that it was about 100 vehicles long.

“It was impressive,” he said.