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Fertile Resistance

Pittsburgh counter-recruitment activists recruit a crowd

Protest's future looks so bright, more police will be wearing shades.

That was the conclusion presented to more than 60 anti-military recruitment activists from around the country on April 9, during the last day of Pittsburgh's first Counter Recruitment Conference.

It was not your typical conference. The seminars, held at Carnegie Mellon University, were attended by both anarchists and Malamutes. No one wore name badges around their necks; in fact it was first-names-only-please for some participants and presenters. Instead of pens and tablets with corporate logos as giveaways, tables in a central room proffered buttons ("Shame on the Chickenhawks"), books (The Bush Junta), and pamphlets such as "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Anarchism But Were Afraid to Ask" and "A Good War is Hard To Find."

Pat Elder, of Washington D.C.'s National Network Opposing Militarization of Youth, took his first anti-war stance against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Today, he says, it's the Pittsburgh Organizing Group's three-dozen Oakland anti-recruitment demonstrations that are setting the standard for the anti-war movement.

"It's the sustained demonstrations at that recruitment center" on Forbes Avenue, Elder says. "It puts out the same message over and over again. It's important to do that."

But sometimes in different ways, the group concluded.

"Nick" of Stop Recruitment in Cleveland, a 9-month-old group, said they had already tried several tactics that hardly seem feasible here, given the heavy police response to Pittsburgh protests. The northern Ohio group covered the recruiters' storefront with a fake community center door made of cardboard to show alternative uses for the space; Nick says the cops permitted it. They once attracted a crowd by offering free ice cream in front of the recruitment center. On one wintry day, they gave free soup and coffee to the recruiters themselves.

"They were really nice," Nick said. "You could tell just by dealing with them that they saw the more human side of us."

Steve Theberge of the Youth and Counter-Recruitment Program of New York City's War Resisters League runs weekend camps to teach "Counter Recruitment 101" to high-school kids. Elder suggested new targets for protestors, passing out this year's national touring schedule for the Army Adventure Van and its ilk — the Air Force ROVers, the Navy's Nuclear Power Van and Sea Power Van — that carry rock-climbing walls, miniature cinemas, M-16 rifle simulators and other recruiting tools to schools.

Not everyone in the group agreed on tactics.

Protesting at the recruiting center "was great yesterday because [recruiters] were actually there," said one conference attendee. However, he added: "Often it seems symbolic that we shut down the recruitment center. Recruiters don't actually work out of their own recruiting centers. What do people think of a more direct tactic?" He suggested finding out recruiter's cell phone numbers and either harassing them or keeping them busy with fake prospects. Some responded enthusiastically.

"I would disagree pretty strongly," countered New York's Theberge. "We have to go to the root of the problem … but I don't think going after individual recruiters is setting the right tone. For me, it's being very clear about where the power lies and where we can have leverage."

POG's Alex Bradley made it clear that, whatever the value of such guerilla tactics, POG's constant public protests had value beyond blocking a single door, either literally or symbolically: It is the movement's own recruitment tool, he said. Conference organizers are now planning a 22-city "UPRISE Counter-Recruitment Tour," taking their message throughout the Rustbelt this fall.

Whatever counter-recruitment's future strategies, expect increased police response, said Mike Healey of the National Lawyers Guild and the Downtown law firm of Healey & Hornack. Healey, who joked about already representing half the people in attendance, said there was currently "no question, a crackdown on dissent. … The shots on this counter-recruitment stuff are being directed by the federal authorities," he added. "This is something that scares the shit out of the federal government. Somewhere, someplace, there's going to be impaneled a federal grand jury to call witnesses and look at conspiracy charges."

While conference participants seemed undaunted, they're not ready to declare victory either.

"I'm 42," said presenter David Solnit of San Francisco's Courage to Resist. "I've been trying to start a revolution in the United States for the last 25 years, and I'm getting kind of impatient. The Bush administration is giving the world one story. If we don't have a separate story … we won't get beyond fighting one war at a time. I don't want to have to create another anti-war movement for Iran."

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By Mars Johnson