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Local anti-war activists persist through decades of intimidation and repression 

Peace of history

click to enlarge These peaceniks try to shake our acceptance of war. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • These peaceniks try to shake our acceptance of war.

The shoulder of North Academy Boulevard, right before it crosses over Interstate 25, isn't exactly a sought after hangout for most people, especially early in the morning before work.

Yet, on the morning of May 24, atop the noisy sidewalk and under the beating sun, a gaggle of about 10 anti-war activists is gathered. They're carrying big banners branded with slogans about peace, still sturdy after decades of use. Sensibly dressed, they're prepared with water bottles and court documents proving their right to stand there.

It's an annual song-and-dance. The Air Force Academy graduation ceremony draws in thousands of proud parents. A high-profile speaker (sometimes the commander-in-chief) gives a speech about defending freedoms. The Thunderbirds soar overhead in diamond formation, with thrown caps arcing beneath. All the while, a ragtag group of dissenters is stationed outside the Academy's South Gate, broadcasting an anti-war message that just never seems to land.

This year was a typical iteration. As cars with far-flung license plates plodded along Academy Boulevard toward the campus, the protesters received sporadic responses. And you can tell the difference between "b-b-beep b-beep" and "bwaaahhhmmpp" when you hear it.

But why are these protesters so estranged from the on-campus goings-on? What's the point of bannering this far from the graduation, where their message just as easily falls on customers heading into the nearby Denny's?

Bill Sulzman, a critic of nuclear weapons and militarism in general, remembers a time when communicating directly with the cadets wasn't so hard. In fact, he says that he and other protesters would spend afternoons passing out anti-war literature on campus, especially at football games or around the chapel. The Vietnam War years, Sulzman recounts, were the heyday for dialogue between civilians and service members about the ethics of the military missions overseas.

Then, in 1973, various newspaper archives confirm, Sulzman and four others tried to stage a "pray-in for peace" at the chapel. They were arrested and charged with trespassing, later appealing to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals where the conviction was overturned on First Amendment grounds. After that, he says, Academy property was considered an open forum, where free speech activities are protected, until a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case out of Hawaii, United States v. Albertini, made it unlawful to re-enter a military base after having been "ordered not to reenter by any officer in command or charge thereof." Sulzman and his friends had received such "bar letters," so had a much harder time getting on base to do their leafletting after that.

But, in the meantime, to remedy their overturned 1973 conviction, the judge suggested the Academy take up a more constructive dialogue with the peaceniks. So, for some years in the late '70s, activists, including Sulzman, had the opportunity to guest lecture in some ethics classes on base. "Sometimes after class, the cadets would stay to chat more, and it really was a good period," Salzman recalls, adding that over the years, a handful actually dropped out and contacted the peace group for support.

Those classes ended in the '80s, but were briefly revived in the '90s in the form of lunchtime philosophy talks.

The equation changed after 9/11.

Now, free speech on Air Force property is governed by Instruction 51-906 that states "No person may use any military installation to meet, march, picket, demonstrate or for any other similar activity (e.g., distributing leaflets, making speeches, etc.) for the purpose of engaging in any activity prohibited by this Instruction," including unionization or collective bargaining. It also states that "Any individual or organization which seeks to intrude on the relationship between commanders and military members of the Air Force in matters relating to mission accomplishment or terms or conditions of military service presents a clear danger to discipline, loyalty, and obedience to lawful orders of command. Such interference is not permitted."

For the most part, the public was either ambivalent or supportive of such changes. "People became much more open to repression after 9/11, the limiting of dissent, and got into this very straight-and-narrow thinking," Sulzman says, "which accounts for the fact we see almost no criticism of the half-a-dozen wars going on." Anti-war activism saw a brief resurgence during the buildup to the Iraq War but died down during the Obama years.

In 2002, local peace activists got their first taste of how policing would change during the War on Terror. They were bannering outside the Academy graduation, as they did every year, outside the South Gate on the public right-of-way. Police approached and told them they were trespassing. Knowing it was not AFA land, Sulzman and several others stood their ground, which earned them a spot in a cop car. While sitting, cuffed, in the back, Sulzman says he heard over the radio that "there's an FBI hit on Sulzman."

After later getting released without charges, he pressed the issue, trying to find out what that was all about. Eventually, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, "spy files" kept by the Denver Police Department were uncovered, showing that local law enforcement was working with the FBI to survey pacifist, environmentalist and other activist (especially leftist) groups deemed to be "terrorist threats." Although the Colorado Springs Police Department has never publicly confirmed or denied its involvement, according to past reporting by the Independent, the ACLU's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests found a CSPD intelligence analyst had faxed the license plate numbers belonging to 30 activists to the FBI in 2002.

None of this hampered the annual demonstration, however. As another longtime activist, Mary Lynn Sheetz, sees it, their regular anti-war bannering is more about principle than practicality. Furling up her banner after this year's graduation protest, she commented, "Sometimes it's not so much about changing other people, but at least it's keeping you from being changed."

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