One year after the Air Force’s decision, activists continue taking creative measures to stop the jets.
As people trickled into the City-County Building to vote, a small collection of jars accumulated on the front steps. It was the last weekend for early voting and the first truly beautiful day of the year. While ballots were marked inside, outside a different kind of civic engagement began.
“Today we’re here for the water,” said Omar Poler, an organizer of the neighborhood group Eken Park Resistance (EPR), which hosted the April 3 event. “An act of love, care and responsibility for the water. Today we wanted to have an opportunity for each of us to think about our own relationships with water, our own responsibilities to the water in this place.” (Full disclosure: I am a member of another group that works alongside these activists, Safe Skies Clean Water Wisconsin.)
A flyer for the event, “Act of Care for the Water,” read: “The wells and waterways in Madison are contaminated with toxic PFAS chemicals. Our elected officials must act to clean and protect our water, blocking construction of F-35 fighter jet facilities at Truax Field which would add more deadly PFAS to our water.” EPR invited people to bring a container of local lake, river, spring, or tap water, along with a message sharing “where it’s from, why it matters to you and why we must protect our water.”
Like the parade to the Gates of Truax and neighborhood organizing in Eken Park in early 2020, the event topic was serious, but the mood was light. Friends and neighbors chatted in the sun. In front of the steps, chalk illustrations swirled and grew. In a light pink color: “Salmon can smell one drop of their natal stream in 250 gallons of seawater.” Amid blue waves and droplets: “Life starts in water” and “We are water, somes agua.” In a red warning sign, crossed out: “PFAS.”
In some ways the afternoon felt like hitting play again after the in-person pause of the last year. Almost exactly one year ago, two things happened within a span of weeks.
In the late winter of 2020, organizing to stop the placement of F-35 fighter jets at Truax Field and demand clean-up of spreading PFAS contamination was building momentum. EPR, which formed to oppose the jets, had planned a speak-out event at Bashford United Methodist Church and a Water Walk along Starkweather Creek. All of this came to a sudden halt with the pandemic lockdown. And despite adaptations—the speak-out moved to Zoom and the Water Walk became self-guided—the intentional relationship-building that is critical to organizing was no longer possible in-person.
Just a few weeks later, on April 15, the Air Force announced that it had selected Madison as a site to receive a squadron of F-35s. The decision was disheartening. The announcement, of course, included no mention of the years of local organizing to oppose the jets. It did not acknowledge the Air Force’s own Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which showed that communities of color, low-income communities, and children would be disproportionately impacted by the jets.
But the decision was not necessarily surprising. Madison was first designated as a preferred site to receive the F-35s years earlier, and rarely, if ever, did the Air Force show willingness to reconsider. Facing off against the Air Force was always an uphill battle. The blow of April 15, as I understood it, was at least as much the loss in momentum as it was the change in circumstances. The impact was the perceived defeat, as much as the real one.
Even while canvassing in Eken Park that March before the final decision, in a neighborhood where the noise from the current F-16 jets rattles windows and drowns out conversation, a frequent initial response from neighbors was surprise that people were still working to stop the F-35s. Wasn’t that a done deal?
Ongoing organizing argues that the answer is a decisive no. Safe Skies Clean Water Wisconsin filed two lawsuits against the Environmental Assessment and EIS prepared by the Air Force and will be filing an Environmental Justice Complaint against the Air Force. These legal challenges offer real hope, although Safe Skies organizer Tom Boswell cautions that trusting too much in their outcomes could ultimately undermine efforts to stop the jets. Sometimes people assume “the courts are going to save us,” says Boswell, “but it doesn’t usually happen that way.” That assumption can drain the momentum from the public pressure needed to keep elected officials—and the Air Force—accountable to community demands.
There is also action at the County level. Resolution 548 opposing the F-35s was introduced at the Dane County Board of Supervisors last year, but stalled last summer when committee chairs declined to bring it up for a vote. This February, Supervisors Michele Ritt and Yogesh Chawla revived the resolution with amendments, and it is slowly but steadily moving forward. If passed, it would direct the County to explore potential legal strategies to stop the jets and make authorization of the County’s Joint Use Agreement with the Air National Guard contingent on beginning clean-up of PFAS contamination.
It may turn out that the legal challenges are a result, rather than a cause, of our best shot at stopping the F-35s. Over the last two years, creativity and persistence have turned up new strategies and allies in the coalition to reverse the Air Force’s decision and address PFAS contamination.
By the time the “Act of Care for the Water” event ended, I counted 59 bottles, jars, jugs and a few stray tupperware containers lining the concrete steps. Some were filled with clear tap water and others with layers of murky green and brown that had settled to the bottom. The messages written on and around the containers—short notes, long letters, colorful illustrations from the younger folks in attendance, as well as a few Sharpied skulls and crossbones—would be sent to elected officials.
“We wanted to make sure that our local leaders really were reminded of their great, maybe their highest responsibility,” said Poler, “which is to care for the water of this place that allows us all to live, and is fundamental to all human beings. We wanted to remind them and we wanted this water to remind them, to see this water as a living being that deserves care and respect.”
While the Air Force has always been a target of local organizers, strategy has swelled from the ground up. With friends, neighbors and a loose coalition of organizations at its center, it rippled outwards, sweeping up local leaders in its waves—leaders with the power to take action that could potentially sway or stymie the Air Force. Momentum is crucial to that strategy, as is sustaining the struggle for the long haul.
The gathering at the steps of the City-County Building was an act of resistance. And as people laughed together and peeled off layers beneath the warming sun, it was also a reunion. An extension of EPR’s neighborly mutual aid throughout the pandemic, a welcome break from Zoom meetings, a reminder of what is at stake. While these actions might not sway the Air Force, they do make a difference. They are an antidote to the disregard that got us here—facing devastating contamination of our water, and the continued placement of destructive fighter jets at Truax—and they are what will sustain the work moving forward.