Books or bullets?
Antiwar movement fights for a ballot measure to keep recruiters out of schools

By Rob Eshelman

A coalition of antiwar activists and organizations is poised to qualify a groundbreaking initiative for San Francisco's November ballot that, if passed, will put voters on record as being opposed to federal policies that allow military recruitment in the city's schools and universities. In so doing, the initiative's organizers hope to put increased pressure on a weak link in the continued occupation of Iraq and generate some much-needed momentum for the fatigued local antiwar movement.

Organizing under the name College Not Combat, the coalition began in February with a meeting of more than 100 parents, teachers, student antirecruitment activists, and Iraq war veterans and resisters. The group is building on successful direct actions on campuses, such as San Francisco State University's, where students blocked efforts by military recruiters to enlist students.

"Military recruiters are in every neighborhood, every school, every campus. They are getting more aggressive. They are lying. They are breaking the law," said Todd Chretien, a College Not Combat organizer. "They're getting millions of dollars more per year to recruit kids, and we see [the initiative] as a concrete way where people can stop the war machine from getting the kids it needs to continue this occupation."

Indeed, schools have become a focal point for recruitment and counter-recruitment activities thanks to two pieces of federal legislation: the No Child Left Behind Act and the Solomon Amendment. Together, these laws require school officials to provide recruiters with access to school facilities and student contact information, or else the schools risk having their federal funding axed.

The military has gone to great lengths to boost its dwindling recruitment numbers. Prospective soldiers have been offered shorter service commitments, increased enlistment bonuses, and improved benefits. Despite these changes and the lowering of recruitment goals, recruiters have failed to meet their quotas for the past four months, raising questions about the military's ability to maintain current troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan with an all-volunteer force. Recruitment efforts have thus been exposed as a serious weak point for the military, giving activists hope that they can use this realm to undermine the United States' ability to carry out its occupation of Iraq.

Even as the body counts rise in Iraq, the antiwar movement hasn't been able to marshal the huge numbers that filled the streets of San Francisco in early 2003. While some may have been disappointed by not preventing the invasion, and others by the 2004 election results, opposition to the Iraq war has remained consistently high, and people seem to be looking for ways to express their concerns.

Chretien describes a San Francisco public that is extremely eager to express its discontent. He estimates that 8 out of 10 people who are asked to sign the petition stop and lend their support. "There's a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for this out there," he said before adding that the masses feel some real pessimism about the prospects for peace. For Chretien and other organizers, that's all the more reason to step up and offer people something to mobilize around and to help feel, once again, a sense of urgency toward the ongoing occupation.

Added to the general public's positive response to the proposal, teams of volunteers have stepped forward to gather signatures, further demonstrating strong opposition to the war. During the past several weekends, College Not Combat signature gatherers have spread out over the city's eastern neighborhoods, queried sunbathers and afternoon beer drinkers in public parks, and weeded through the out-of-towners during Pride in search of San Francisco voters in support of the initiative.

On a recent afternoon, a campaign worker canvassed filmgoers queued up in front of the Castro Theatre. Among them was Deb Janes, a 41-year-old fundraiser for a local nonprofit. She took to the streets in 2003 and admits to having felt demoralized following the invasion. For her, the College Not Combat initiative represents a small, tangible way of reenergizing opposition to the war.

"I can't think of a more critical issue for people to get behind," she said after signing her name to a petition. "Kids should have an opportunity to go to college and not feel forced into the military."

Aidan Delgado, who served as a military police officer at Abu Ghraib prison before successfully obtaining conscientious-objector status, sees counter-recruitment – or, as he calls it, "honest recruitment" – as a bright spot for the peace movement. "People don't only vote with their ballots," he said. "They vote with their feet, and I think the peace movement has been very successful in getting people to realize that the Iraq war is not a good choice for them, their children, or anyone."

Beyond building opposition to military recruitment and simultaneously helping to energize the antiwar movement, College Not Combat is looking ahead. "Once we win this in November," Chretien said, "we plan to find a way to put a progressive tax measure on the ballot so we can actually fund scholarships for low-income students so they are not compelled to join the military."

The campaign needs roughly 10,500 signatures from registered San Francisco voters in order to qualify the measure for the November ballot. To date, they have collected 10,000 and secured the endorsements of prominent Iraq war opponents such as Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in Iraq, and Camillo Mejia, a former member of the Florida National Guard who served nine months in a military prison for refusing to participate in the occupation.

Local labor organizations and politicians have also gotten behind the initiative. College Not Combat has organized a final signature-gathering push for July 9, at the 16th and Mission BART station, before submitting petitions to the Department of Elections on July 11.