Bernie the Bomber's Bad Week by Will Miller In late April I was among the 25 Vermonters who occupied Congressman Bernie Sanders' Burlington office to protest his support of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and the ongoing war against Iraq. Calling ourselves the "Instant Antiwar Action Group," we decided to bring our outrage at Bernie's escalating hypocrisy directly to his office, an action that resulted in 15 of us being arrested for trespass. Many of us worked on Bernie's campaigns through 1980's, the years he was--as the local press repeatedly put it-- the "avowed socialist" Mayor of Burlington, Vermont. His descent into de facto membership the Democratic party has been a major setback for the task of building a real electoral alternative to the two factions of the corporate property that monopolize what passes for political choice in the United States. Bernie's selling out says clearly to working people and those unable to find work that even leftists become mainstream politicians, when and if they win office. Sanders presented himself to the left outside of Vermont as the leader of the third party movement, vanquishing the two major parties in every Mayoral election from 1981-88. When he first got elected Mayor of Burlington he was the only elected U.S. official to attend the anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution in Managua. The Gannett owned Burlington Free Press said he had to be removed from office "by any means necessary." Now that same Burlington Free Press endorses his Congressional candidacy. Bernie became an imperialist to get elected in 1990. In August, 1990--after the Bush administration enticed Iraq into invading Kuwait--Sanders said he wasn't "going to let some damn war cost him the election," according to a staff member who was present at the time. So Sanders backed the buildup in the Persian Gulf and dumped on the left anti-imperialist peace movement, singling out his former allies like Dave Dellinger for public criticism. He lost in 1988 Congressional race, the last time the Democratic party ran an official candidate against him. In that election Sanders and the Democrat, Paul Poirer, split the majority of votes and the election went to the Republican, Peter Smith. Bernie--out of office for the first time in eight years-- then went to the Kennedy School at Harvard for six months and came back with a new relationship with the state's Democrats. The Vermont Democratic Party leadership has allowed no authorized candidate to run against Bernie in 1990 (or since) and in return, Bernie has repeatedly blocked third party building. His closet party, the Democrats, are very worried about a left 3rd party forming in Vermont. In the last two elections, Sanders has prevented Progressives in his machine from running against Howard Dean, our conservative Democratic Governor who was ahead of Gingrich in the attack on welfare. The unauthorized Democratic candidate in 1990, Delores Sandoval, an African American faculty member at the University of Vermont, was amazed that the official party treated her as a nonperson and Bernie kept outflanking her to her right. She opposed the Gulf build-up, Bernie supported it. She supported decriminalization of drug use and Bernie defended the war on drugs, and so on..... After being safely elected in November of 1990, Bernie continued to support the buildup while seeking membership in the Democratic Congressional Caucus--with the enthusiastic support of t he Vermont Democratic Party leadership. But, the national Democratic Party blew him off, so he finally voted against the war and returned home--and as the war began--belatedly claimed to be the leader of the anti-war movement in Vermont. Since 1991 the Democrats have given Bernie membership in their Congressional Caucus. Reciprocally, Bernie has become an ardent imperialist. Sanders endorsed Clinton in 1992 and 1996. In 1992 he described Clinton as the "lesser of evils," (a justification he used to denounce when he was what the local press called an "avowed socialist"). By 1996 he gave Clinton an unqualified endorsement. He has been a consistent "Friend of Bill's" from since 1992. One student I know worked on the Clinton Campaign in 1996 and all across Vermont, Bernie was on the stage with the rest of the Vermont Democratic Party Leadership, while the unauthorized Democratic candidate for his Congressional seat was kept out in the audience. Sanders continues to support sanctions even though the Iraqi body count has now passed 1.5 million. Just as he has supported every bombing of Iraq since 1992. When Clinton sent military units to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in October, 1994 because Iraq moved troops inside Iraq closer to the Kuwait border (apparently about 100 miles away), Bernie supported this because "we cannot tolerate aggression." As a Congressman in Vermont he has allied himself the MIA/POW crowd, the American Legion and the VFW, the very groups that red baited him as Mayor. At the same time he and his staff "forget" to invite the Green Mountain Veteran's for Peace--the only anti- imperialist veterans group in the state--to his sponsored Veterans events. He sends out mailings to veterans that supports the US having "the strongest military in the world," while praising our sacrifices as veterans "for the freedom of Americans." Bernie regularly rides out with the rest of the Vermont Congressional delegation defending the military contracts in Vermont against cuts by the Pentagon, while arguing that some moderation in military spending is possible on the grounds "that the threat of communism is over" (WCAX interview, 10/94). Incidentally, Sanders now has a stronger record voting on the Democratic side in the Congress than either Bonier or Gephardt --the Congressional Leadership of the Democratic Party. It is tempting to situate Sanders within the framework of the Congress as a whole. By that standard he doesn't look so bad--though that's a very low standard to use. But remember, unlike Maxine Waters or Ron Dellums who moved continuously to their left during their Congressional careers, Bernie got where he is now by a lurch to the right. He promises working people, the aged, the poor, and the "vanishing middle class" that he will defend them while he repeatedly blocks the building of the anti-capitalist political movement and party that might actual make such promises legitimate. Indeed, when challenged publicly about his failure to help build a left alternative to the major capitalist parties, Sanders claims he is now too busy with his work in Congress to be bothered. Among his other discredits, Sanders supported the Federal Crime Bill that give the gave the capitalist state more than 50 new pretexts to execute members of the working class--because those without capital get the punishment. He did this while courting the Vermont Police Chief's Assn. Sanders also voted to extradite Assata Shakur from Cuba in violation of the existing treaties with Cuba. Recently, Bernie championed in Congress the dumping of Vermont's nuclear waste near Sierra Blanca, Texas, a low income border community with a mostly Latino population that is overwhelmingly opposed to the dump project. Environmental racism and classism seem not to bother him. On a related issue, Bernie was recently asked by the local press why he was the only member of Vermont' s three member Congressional delegation who had no person of color on his staff. Bernie responded that "we're hiring the most qualified people we can." For all of these reasons, we are sitting-in at Bernie Sander's Office. We call on all Vermonters who shares our concern and horror at what U.S. Empire is doing in Yugoslavia and Iraq to make your voices heard. The response to our occupation of Bernie's office was, unfortunately, consistent with his lurch to the mainstream. At 6:30 PM, one half hour after closing time, Philip Fiermonte of Bernie's staff had 15 of us arrested for trespass. Sanders refused a conference call with those in the occupation, which was carried out nonviolently and with no disruption to his staff. Fiermonte claimed he could not contact Sanders for the four hours of the occupation-- if true, it still another way Bernie has gotten out of touch in the Congress. Ironically, Fiermonte was one of the defendants in the celebrated Winooski 44 case in 1984, where the conservative U.S. Senator Robt. Stafford's (R-VT) office was occupied for his support of Reagan's murderous wars in Central America. At least Stafford's staff let the occupation continue for three days before having anyone arrested. In the following week, Bernie, doing quick damage control, ducked responsibility for arresting the "Sanders 15" and got himself included at the last minute with a Congressional delegation going to Austria to meet with representatives of the Russian Duna to bring the Russians in to help broker a settlement in the US/NATO war in Yugoslavia. But, before leaving to see the Russians, he voted in favor of the continued bombing of Yugoslavia, a bombing that the Russians had already said would have to stop as a precondition for any settlement. A general town meeting has already been scheduled for the following Monday, so he turned it to a "town meeting on Kosovo." Apparently, Bernie Sanders has forgotten what a Town Meeting is. Perhaps he lived in Burlington (too "big" for town meetings) and Washington (scared to death of town meetings) for so many years he cannot recall how a democratic town meeting actually works. No one is allowed to appoint themselves the moderator for the town meeting and persons who are partisans on the issues before the town are excluded from the moderator's election in favor of persons who can moderate fairly and evenhandedly. Sanders as the self-appointed moderator/boss opened the evening with naked self-justification. "It is a very complex situation..." followed by the ritual of demonization of Milosevic--a technique he has perfected over the last eight years on Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Then he presented the false dilemma that the only alternative to bombing is doing nothing. Sanders said his situation was the same as that of Joschka Fischer's of the Green Party, Germany's Foreign Minister, who has outraged his Green Party membership by supporting the bombing his coalition government is carrying out as part of NATO. Back in Vermont the assembled citizenry moaned audibly. He continued by subjecting the packed room of over 200 people to more than an hour of a panel presentation by people of his own choosing; even then, only one panelist overtly supported his position--Bogdan Denich, a professor from New York City and leader of the pro-imperialist wing of the Democratic Socialists of America. Another panelist, Shirley Gedeon, a UVM Economist whose speciality is the Balkans, undercut Sander's historical analysis and a third, Roddy Cleary, a feminist and religious activist, challenged he support of the bombing directly. Apparently, with all the college and universities in Vermont, Bernie had to travel far into flatlander territory to find an academic willing to support his "bomb now, talk later" position. In fact, Denich went beyond Bernie's present position and called for sending in ground troops, immediately. After allotting the panelists and himself 12 minutes each and now more than an hour and a half into the meeting, the people finally had a chance to speak. But only for 2 minutes each, dictated the self-appointed moderator Bernie! And this after having lectured us on how "complex" the issue of the US/NATO War on Yugoslavia really is. When he was challenged by a few members of the meeting about his undemocratic restriction of peoples' speech, he said anyone who didn't like it could leave. It seems when Sanders was in college in Chicago, he learned more from Mayor Richard J. Daley than from his academic studies. The overwhelming majority of the people present were against Sander's support for the bombing. Even with all his attempts to control the meeting, the people had at him for more than an hour and a half. He was denounced for his selling out to the Empire and it's war machine and for his support for the 9 year old war against Iraq and his active support for every US intervention since he has been in Congress--Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Liberia, Zaire (Congo), Albania, Sudan, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia. He was further criticized for his refusal to ban or even object to the use of depleted uranium with it's long term toxicity in both Iraq and Yugoslavia. Sanders even tried to escape responsibility for arresting 15 of his constituents in his office one week ago for the crime of wanting to talk to him without an appointment by blaming those arrested for their arrest, as if they went out and brought the police in to arrest themselves. Sanders was repeatedly unresponsive to questions put to him. He evasiveness and arrogance did not serve him well. In the end, only a few people defended him. Whatever else Sanders gets for his joining the other side in the global struggle for social justice--he has lost the left and the peace movement here is Vermont. Maybe in the next election he will finally have to run officially as the Democrat he has been for the last 9 years! And then the people of Vermont will be free to build t he anti-capitalist political movement and party that Sanders has worked so hard to block for more than a decade. People left the meeting resolving to escalate the antiwar movement before the US escalates the war with an invasion of ground troops. The latest leaks out of NATO sources in Europe suggest that the current plan is to invade with troops by the end of May. Remember Vietnam! Never again!
This essay appeared in Wild Matters II, The Old North End Rag, July, 1999 and The Northern Spy, Summer, 1999.