Centennial Hall in Colorado Springs was packed last Tuesday with people donning military green to show support for the Regional Business Alliance’s massive #KeepCarsonStrong effort. Roger Cloutier, liaison from the Pentagon Army Brigadier General’s office, was in town to discuss some heavy budget cuts at Fort Carson, the region’s largest military installation.
As part of a messy deal to avoid hitting the debt ceiling in summer of 2013, the defense budget was originally facing around $600 billion in sequestration cuts (though that widely reported figure is overstated by more than a billion, ProPublica points out.) Instead of capitalizing on the political gift to Democrats who have a hard time arguing for cuts to military spending, the sympathetic Obama administration reduced the budget cuts to around $100 billion over the next five years. To put that into perspective, the Department of Defense requested $585.3 billion for the 2016 fiscal year (a 4.4 percent increase from last year, despite the fact that our two+ overseas wars are ostensibly coming to a close).
Any way you shake it, the Pentagon has some downsizing to do. So officials are going on something of a listening tour, visiting military installations around the country as they decide where to start tightening up.
Fort Carson is slated to potentially lose two-thirds of its 24,500 soldiers, which officials say would reduce the state’s income by $1.7 billion. Whether that’ll indeed happen apparently rides on a number of criteria defined by the Pentagon, one being the fort’s “well-being” which is judged in part on “community support” (or the community’s dependency on the base, depending on how you see it).
The economy of the Pikes Peak region is entirely dependent on defense spending, owing half of every payroll dollar to the Pentagon. The military culture is also deeply entrenched here, and it has been for a long time. So droves of local politicos, business people, generals, soldiers, veterans and interested community members dropped what they were doing last week to rally behind Fort Carson at the Pentagon listening session.
Here’s a photo of the crowd, decked out in army green, via the city of Colorado Springs’s own twitter account:
— City of Colo Springs (@springsgov) February 4, 2015
The meeting had a bit of a Hunger Games-feel, as seen via the stylings of council woman Jill Gaebler:
“This is not about removing dollars from our pockets, it is about removing members of our families,” state Senate President Bill Cadman (R-Colorado Springs) pleaded into the microphone before Gov. John Hickenlooper got up to affirm the “long proud history with the military here in the Centennial State.” Political rivals of all stripes disarmed for the afternoon: strong-mayor Steve Bach and city council president Keith King rubbed shoulders; folks from Colorado Springs and folks from Pueblo refrained from bringing up their brewing lawsuit over stormwater drainage in conversation; Irv Halter, the retired Air Force Maj. Gen. and failed Democratic congressional candidate in the district, got a chance to make peace with — oh no, Rep. Doug Lamborn, Halter’s GOP opponent, wasn’t there. Things to do in Washington, Lamborn’s people say.
Here’s a video Rep. Lamborn and Rep. Scott Tipton jointly recorded to boost — or latch onto — the #KeepCarsonStrong effort all the way from D.C.:
Mayor Bach gave an emphatic speech in defense of Fort Carson, flanked by the mayors from Trinidad, Monument, Fountain, Woodland Park and Pueblo.
— El Paso County PIO (@epcpio) February 3, 2015
Some in the audience were in uniform, some in civilian clothes. The place teemed with politicos from various arenas — council members and county commissioners past and present, former mayor Lionel Rivera and newly elected Secretary of State Wayne Williams could be spotted among the crowd.
The lawn outside the public meeting room in Centennial Hall was an entirely different scene. About 20 protesters gathered there with signs and petitions that stood in stark contrast to the patriotic hooplah going on inside. In the most general sense, they were there to speak out against the significant military presence in the local economy and community.
Some of the protesters were associated with the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission, or the Citizens for Peace in Space. For others, this was the first foray into public demonstration.
Specifically, they tried to draw attention to the 12 Gray Eagle unmanned aerial systems that could be added to Fort Carson’s combat aviation brigade by 2017, according to an Army proposal. The 56-foot-long, 29-foot-wide drones would serve combat and surveillance purposes and require the building of a new 52,000-square-foot hangar. Training missions would run day and night, using “dummy missiles.” Since the proposal was announced in December, the Army gave the public 45 days to comment.
At one point, longtime Colorado Springs peace activist Bill Sulzman delivered an anti-drone petition with well over 400 signatures to the military brass inside Centennial Hall. These unmanned armed vehicles (UAVs) carry out assassination missions in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan, which is both illegal and immoral, petitioners contend.
Armed with a clipboard and a stack of literature outside of Centennial Hall, activist Susan Gordon said that “although [the protest] was definitely a voice crying out in the wilderness, it was an important and much needed voice nonetheless.” Gordon, who manages an urban farm in the Springs, said that she’s one of many who “see the recently proposed cuts to military bases across the country as an opportunity for positive change rather than the death knell portrayed by local business leaders.”
For an event billed as a listening session, Gordon was disappointed that “there was no room for conversation about how the huge amount of public resources committed to growing and sustaining the defense department could instead be spent creating jobs outside of the military to allow young people to engage in activities that promote life rather than death, like building much needed housing, growing food, alternative energy — the creative possibilities are endless.”
A few minutes later, an activist who calls himself Peter the Pest rolled up to Centennial Hall on his bike, pulling a stop sign reading “STOP killer drones at Ft. Carson” from a wooden trailer hitched behind his back tire. He took up post holding a banner with two other protesters.
Peter the Pest on the right.
“We are here for two reasons, obviously both undergirded by huge ethical concern about bringing an end to war,” Peter said while juggling all of his activist accoutrements. Those two reasons, he specified, are the Gray Eagle drones proposal and the one-dimensionality of the local economy. “Our claim is that the more diverse the economy, the healthier the economy,” he said, “and that is just not understood around here.”
The conservative Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance brags that the military is to thank for more than 100,000 jobs in the Pikes Peak area and has a $12.6 billion yearly impact on the regional economy.
All that federal money pumping into a regional economy with such a ubiquitous small-government ideology “is a bit ironic, isn’t it?” Peter commented wryly before adding that the military community also enjoys a multitude of tax breaks that he, as a bike mechanic who serves the homeless community, does not.
Peter the Pest is one of the diehards.
“We’ve been mooned, we’ve been tossed with tomatoes, we’ve obviously been verbally blasted just umpteen times and we’ve been jailed many times, of course,” he said, asserting that the dozen protesters outside of #KeepCarsonStrong last week are just a slice of a more sizable contingent Springs-area residents who view the military with a more critical eye. Precisely because it may not be the most popular opinion in town, Peter said that “it’s imperative that we, in all humility, express our conscience and our concern. We have to put it out there, be willing to suffer whatever social or actual consequences, and then trust that some seeds have been sewn and then go from there.”
A uniformed man walking up to Centennial Hall for the hearing brusquely asked the gathered protesters if they were promoting “some kind of left-wing agenda.” They laughed it off. One of the banner holders replied: “what gave it away?”
Photos by Nat Stein.