Madisonians who’ve organized against the F-35s have learned a great deal, and can still hold local leaders accountable.
Flight Path is an in-depth report on grassroots opposition to the basing of F-35 fighter jets in Madison. Available as an audio documentary and a four-part written series, Flight Path is a partnership project of Tone Madison, Communication, and Northside News. The Air Force officially chose Madison as a site for the jets in April. But the fight continues in areas that stand to bear the brunt of the F-35s’ noise, environmental, and economic impacts. These efforts have already brought neighbors together to organize and advocate for their communities in a changing Madison.
Before reading this story, make sure you read Part 1: How F-35s galvanized neighbors in Eken Park and Part 2: Rights signed away and forgotten, and Part 3: “Loud but affordable”
Photo above: Art by Clare Norelle adorns a table of anti-F-35s literature.
There’s a story that I’ve heard Omar Poler share a few times to familiar nods from others in the neighborhood activist group Eken Park Resistance.
“As I’ve told you all before, you know that we were over, my son and a few other kids were all over at Emerson Elementary playing at the playground and the F-16s flew over and it was just, it was so tremendously loud, it was like we were being enveloped in sound. And I don’t know what it was about this particular time, but maybe it was like somehow where they were positioned and the sound was just beaming down on the playground, but we were just all surrounded by sound and all the kids held their ears and screamed.
“And I just got so mad, you know. I got so mad that these F-16s were flying over and having this affect on the kids. I called our alder from the playground and I said that we cannot have the F-35s here. The F-16s are already too loud. And for me it was like, you know, there’s like, they were talking about having a F-35 come here and so they can compare the sounds between the F-16s and the F-35s. I don’t think we need to do that. We already know the F-16s are too loud, you know. We’ve already got, it’s already demonstrated to us that they’re too loud. If they’re equal, or any louder, that’s too loud. So it was at that moment that I decided like this is, okay, it’s clear to me that this is a real threat to our community, to our neighborhood, to our children. And so that was the moment where I felt like okay, we’ve got to, I’ve got to do something. And it wasn’t until later that we, I think we, we got a — or I got a ‘we’, you know that we got to start to work together.”
“That reminded me. I’ve been here, I’m from Mexico and I’ve been here for almost, I think almost 11 years, I’m going to go to 12 years,” said Eugenia Highland Granados. “And so the first time that I heard that sound, that sound and those planes are part of my immigration experience. And it’s also part of like what we, outside, you know, people from other countries, we understand what this country is about.
“So when I first listened to the F-16s, it’s the first time that I heard that noise and didn’t know what it was. I remember that I was just thinking, what is that? Okay, somebody is, like I thought that really somebody was throwing a bomb here. And I also thought of course, somebody is destroying this country that is destroying all the countries outside. So I thought that it was part of like, being in the United States. It was that, it’s that imminent threat, of the imperialistic threat. I understood that those were the F-16s, that they were here in Madison, that they were close by.
Keeping up the fight, staying connected
We were talking via Zoom video, and Granados gestured to her head when she said the word “here,” and then to her heart. “It just doesn’t feel like here, it feels like here. It feels very scary. For me it is very, very scary. I cannot even imagine what being you know like,” she paused. “Like war will feel, it just took me there, a lot there. So this is the sound of war.
“Definitely none of them should be here. None of them should even exist. All that is…at the heart of 500 years of colonization, imperialism, oppression of communities of color. It’s the same, it’s the machine.”
Granados’ young daughter, Naydalyna, stepped over to whisper in her ear at this point. There was a brief back and forth, and a laugh, before Granados continued.
“It’s the machine. It was recognizing okay, I live in the, I live here. That comes with all that noise. With the, also the immigrant guilt, that as an immigrant, you know, leaving my country, I know I have better opportunities here, but I also know that I am in some way part of the empire unless I do something about it. So either you are against it, and there are many ways to push back, there are many platforms. The revolution has to happen in every space. Or you’re with it.
“And that has also been like a lot of my immigration story. To be against that. And to be anti- that, in everything that I do in my life, in my work, in my organizing, in everything.”
We can break down the numbers, the noise, try to pin down and measure the impact to the residents and to the environment around the air base. But what is missing from the military’s environmental impact statement, from the arguments about jobs and economic development, are the people.
As we watch our country and the world respond to COVID-19, it is easy to tell when money is put before people’s lives. The same is true here with the fight against the F-35s.
Here is Poler again:
“Growing up around the Crandon Mine controversy, I know that there’s a lot of good things that can come out of bad things, you know. That even though our community was threatened, that through that process of resistance, of resisting that development, of fighting those multinational corporations, it built such a strong beautiful community of people, people who really cared for one another. A community that sustained itself over almost 30 years, you know. That there are opportunities to build good things out of threats. Out of things that can hurt you, hurt your community.”
Thinking about the F-35s, Poler said, the question is “how can this provide one of those opportunities, you know, for some of those good things to emerge? How can we be thinking about all those little intermediate short-term benefits that can come out of organizing?”
“It’s not just defeating this threat to our community, which I think that we can do. It’s all those little things. Like how is that we get to come together, and we get to have a dinner with one another, or we get to be invited to each other’s houses, or we get to knock on our neighbors’ doors, or we get to make signs together, you know.”
Those are intermediate benefits, said Poler, and beyond those, it’s not only defeating the F-35s. “From being organized as a neighborhood, there are so many other things that could come from that in the long-term.
“I really feel like as human beings that we have some of the greatest threats in front of us right now with climate change. And that we desperately need to be coming together as people, as human beings and thinking differently, and thinking about how do we care for one another, how do we organize, how do we just think about being human beings differently right now. And to do any of those things we need to know one another, we need to be caring for one another, we need to know the people that live near us, that are in our neighborhoods. There’s all of these different needs and benefits that can come from this type of organizing. And so how can this type of thing, just coming together around the immediate needs provide all of these other benefits for us as a community.”
There was a pause as his words sank in.
“I think that word resistance is such a powerful word, and one that speaks to a lot of people right now,” I said. “But it’s interesting, at least I notice for myself that when I hear that word, I often think about protests or being in the streets. And what you describe is resistance as also, like, sharing a meal together or just having a conversation and connecting in a new way.”
“Mmhmm,” said Granados. “I think that, yeah, I really appreciate Omar you saying that because I think the biggest resistance to white supremacy is connection. It’s connection and understanding how we are all interconnected. Because that’s what white supremacy does. It breaks that understanding, that we are interconnected.”
“Well and one of the definitions of, that I use of colonization is the severing of relationships,” responded Poler. “That colonization is about severing, for Native people it’s about severing our relationship to land, about severing relationship to family, to community, to ancestors, you know. And so the question is how do we build those as an act of resisting colonization, how do we build those and recreate those relationships.”
“Beautiful. I feel like it’s, just for me in being part of Eken Park Resistance,” said Islam, “it’s just not a coincidence that the leaders of the group are a person who is Native, a person who has recently immigrated here and is a person who is a daughter of immigrants, like that, I think those lenses really shape my attitude about Eken Park Resistance in terms of—we’re not going to put up with the status quo. And that’s also what resistance looks like to me. Like not taking it just because it’s being, just because it’s what’s fed to us.
“I feel like so often in this community in Madison I feel like folks who are speaking up don’t necessarily represent the communities that are being most impacted and I’m so thankful for Eken Park Resistance because we have been. We are one of the communities that will be most impacted if the jets land here, and we’re also using our voices in every way possible.
“Some things that I’ve appreciated with Omar and Eugenia’s leadership too,” said Islam, “is that this is part of placing, putting steps in for the long haul.” The pandemic hit in the middle of everything, she said, so although they were able to canvass in person, their Speak Out was held virtually. “Part of the speak out was going to be, originally, having neighbors sign up for what skills they have, what tools they have, how can we be there for each other as this virus is starting to kind of infiltrate.”
Although plans for the Speak Out shifted, because of the long term thinking Poler mentioned, the group as also been prepared to support each other during the pandemic, said Islam.
“We’re trying to do bulk food orders together and sometimes I’m like biking eggs around and dropping a scale off to weigh a baby, and just like all these beautiful forms of being there for each other that I think are so important and grew out of, you know part of that grew out of Eken Park Resistance. Now there’s like a Google Group of neighbors I can email and get a bulk dairy order from the Sassy Cow Creamery for example. And so just those moments of like how do we think about each other, how is our neighborhood, and our neighbors, part of an integrated family, right, and how do we bestow this thought and resilience for each other? Present, you know, how does that stay present? And I think Eken Park Resistance is part of that resilience.”
The F-35s aren’t here yet. Activists hope they never will be.
But already, walking down the streets in Eken Park, some things have changed.
“We’ve seen more neighbors with Eken Park Resistance posters up and that feels good when we’re walking around,” said Islam.
“That feels great,” said Granados. “My daughter and I we are like doing bike rides, and what she does right now is she counts every sign that she sees and she gets so excited.”
“I feel like this is such a beautiful part of our Speak Out,” said Islam. “I feel so moved and, you know, thankful. I just really, you know, loved and cared for Omar and Eugenia before this, but just love them even more now and that’s kind of how I felt about Eken Park neighborhood. Like, I loved it before, but after Eken Park Resistance I’m in love with it even more now. And it just makes it that much more worth fighting for.”
“Yeah, I have to say it’s very easy to feel that and hear that listening to all of you talk,” I said. “Right, how much care there is behind this for, for each other.”
“And too, you know, it’s us but it’s also the groups, the folks that aren’t on this call today, but that we’ve got a chance to meet through this experience and get to know,” said Poler. “I love, you know, I really haven’t been off the block much the last couple weeks, but I see people that I know walking by and we talk to one another across the street. Or you know, it’s really been great to see the other folks in Eken Park Resistance as well and just to, as we’re being isolated now, but in our homes, or on our blocks, through this got to have a better connection with my neighbors. It’s been really really nice to have those relationships going into this pandemic.”
“And I think that I also want to say that the decision has not been like, been made or made public, but regardless of what decision comes out of it, I think that, we’re still going to continue fighting,” said Granados. “And it really doesn’t matter, well it does matter, but we’re not going to stop if they decide that they’re going to bring the planes. We’re still going to continue organizing and we’re still going to be covering like I say the whole neighborhood with signs and messages of resistance that could be seen from the air. Because this doesn’t stop there.”
“Yeah,” agreed Islam. “We’re going to still connect.”
This is the end of the Flight Path series, but definitely not the end of the story. A couple weeks ago, organizers gathered to protest again while safely physically distanced but socially connected in a car caravan downtown. They are also continuing their efforts behind the scenes to stop the F-35s from coming to Madison. You can help. Visit safeskiescleanwaterwi.org to sign up for newsletter updates and for information about contacting your Dane County Supervisor to ask that they support the resolution against the F-35s. You may have a new supervisor and this is a great chance to introduce yourself and let them know what you care about.
Thank you to everyone who spoke with me, and shared their time and thoughts about the F-35s for this report and previous articles. A special thanks to folks from Eken Park Resistance and the Safe Skies Clean Water Coalition. Thank you for all that you’re doing.