Steve Wiegand / The Sacramento Bee & Matthew B. Stannard / San Francisco Chronicle – 2009-04-26 21:07:38
Humboldt Cities Take on Military Recruiting — and US
Steve Wiegand / The Sacramento Bee
ARCATA (Apr. 19, 2009) — David was sitting in a coffee shop when he first got the idea to take on Goliath. The “David” in this story has a last name of Meserve. The “Goliath” is less metaphorically known as the United States government. And the tale revolves around a first-of-its-kind effort by two small Humboldt County cities to prevent military recruiters from trolling for prospects among the towns’ residents under age 18.
Virtually unnoticed by the rest of the world, voters in Eureka (population 26,000) and Arcata (population 18,000) last November approved ballot measures that were collectively referred to as “the Youth Protection Act.”
Passed by convincing margins (73 percent in Arcata, 57 percent in Eureka), the act prohibits military recruiters from initiating contact with anyone under the age of 18 within the cities’ limits. Violations can result in a fine of $100 for both the recruiters and their commanding officers.
“We’re not anti-military,” said David Meserve, a 59-year-old former Arcata city councilman. “But we think that we have the right to protect our children from being unduly influenced.”
If the rest of the world paid little notice to the votes, however, the federal government paid acute attention. In December, the Justice Department notified the two cities they were being sued. (The cities agreed not to try to enforce the ordinances until the legal fight plays out.)
“The gist of the government position is our constitutional system assigns the responsibility for military functions, including the recruitment of qualified persons to join the military, solely to the federal government,” Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said in an e-mail to The Bee. “Individual cities do not have the power to overrule the federal government on this issue.”
Recruiter’s Pitch Hit Nerve
Meserve, who designs and builds environmentally friendly custom homes when not leading initiative drives, said the idea for the measures came to him a couple of years ago while in a coffee shop, eavesdropping on a National Guard recruiter making a pitch to three young girls.
Meserve said he listened as the recruiter told the girls that as National Guard members, they had only a small chance of being sent to Iraq.
“I just about lost it at that point,” he said. “It brought home to me the fact that these recruiters were targeting young people who didn’t have fully developed thought patterns on things like this, and I thought we should do something about it as a community.”
Meserve said he began hearing stories from area residents of recruiters talking to kids at the local skateboard parks, or at sports events, or repeatedly calling a prospective recruit on his or her cell phone. “In some cases, it was pretty intense,” he said. “It was getting a bit out of hand.”
So last spring, Meserve and others gathered enough signatures to put the issue before voters in both cities in November. There was no organized opposition in either town. Although educational institutions such as Yale Law School have tried and failed to ban military recruiters, and the Berkeley City Council “invited” recruiters to leave town last year, the Arcata and Eureka ordinances appear to be the first of their kind.
“To our knowledge, the attempt by these cities to second-guess the congressionally established (recruitment) policy is unprecedented,” said the Justice Department’s Miller.
Reaching Youths Early
Just how big a perceived problem the two cities are trying to solve is hard to measure. There’s no question that military recruiting is big business for the Department of Defense.
According to a recent Rand Corp. report, the department spent more than $600 million in 2007 on recruitment advertising.
There’s also little doubt that traditional recruitment procedures include efforts to “inform” youths under the age of 18 about military enlistment.
A 2007 Defense Department study reported the percentage of youths who would consider joining the military dropped from more than 25 percent at age 16 to less than 15 percent at age 21.
Steve Wiegand, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1076.
Humboldt County Cities Restrict Military
Matthew B. Stannard / San Francisco Chronicle
ARCATA, Humboldt County,(April 26, 2009) — This picturesque community among the redwoods, once dubbed “the Berkeley of the north” for its reputation for unabashed liberalism, has repeatedly thumbed its nose at the federal government.
Over the years, its civic leaders have declared this city a sanctuary for military resisters to the Persian Gulf War and barred local enforcement of the Patriot Act. If they had had enough pull, President George W. Bush would have been impeached at least once.
Now Arcata is at it again, with a law blocking the military from recruiting anybody in town under the age of 18. And this time, the law has the backing not of a few City Council activists, but of thousands of voters who went to the polls in November. On the same day, voters in Eureka, a historically politically staid city a dozen miles away, surprised everybody by approving an identical measure.
“The idea that Humboldt County can fight the federal government is as ridiculous as hell, but goddamn it, we’re gonna try,” said Winfield “Win” Sample, a World War II veteran turned Orwell-quoting pacifist who brought Arcata’s measure to Eureka.
In the past, Arcata’s quirky pokes at Washington have been shrugged off as the antics of pot-drenched students and patchouli-scented hippies for whom the ’60s never quite died. Passionate, but largely irrelevant.
Heading for court
This time the federal government isn’t shrugging. A court hearing is scheduled in Oakland on June 9 on the government’s demand that the cities’ laws be overturned for seeking powers constitutionally granted to the federal government.
Characteristically anti-war cities, including San Francisco and Berkeley, have tried to battle military recruitment. But nobody can recall a case where a city used the ballot box as a counter-recruitment tool, an act that has broader significance.
“It touches on a couple of core issues that really relate to the foundation of government,” said Allen Weiner, a senior lecturer at Stanford Law School. “The questions of what areas belong to the federal government, and what areas belong to the state.”
Until November, this town of 18,000 seemed to many residents to be dialing back its rebellious ways, booting some of its more radical activists off the City Council and focusing more on fixing potholes than foreign policy, and Eureka hardly had a history of such obstinacy. Now some in Eureka, where “Support the Troops” ribbons far outnumber the “US Out of Humboldt” bumper stickers more common in Arcata, worry that Arcata’s infra-blue attitude is catching on there.
“People’s sense of responsibility isn’t there anymore,” said Michael Hagedorn, a former Marine and father of two teenagers in Eureka who voted against the law. “It’s a responsibility of everybody to take care of this country and serve this country. … That should be instilled in kids.”
But others say the anti-recruiting measures appealed to Humboldt County’s spirit of self-reliance and self-determination, which harks back to the Gold Rush. Tucked behind a wall of towering redwoods and lacking a railroad link to the Bay Area until 1914, its population was largely cut off from the rest of California.
Today, Highway 101 provides relatively quick access to the urban centers to the south, but the sense of a Redwood Curtain dividing the county from the rest of the state has never completely faded.
“The fact that Eureka followed suit tells me it’s more about independent thinking,” said Laura Middlemiss, who was born and raised in Arcata, raised three kids there and felt that recruiters calling her kids at home went too far. “The reason this measure passed in this region is that people don’t want to be told what to do.”
The Man behind the Laws
The law was the inspiration of former Arcata City Councilman Dave Meserve, who gained national attention after his 2002 election by spearheading a first-in-the-nation law making compliance with the USA Patriot Act illegal.
The council followed up with repeated resolutions calling for Bush’s impeachment and withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Meserve’s failure to win re-election in 2006 is generally attributed to voter weariness of his sometimes divisive activism.
Not easily deterred, in late 2007, Meserve began thinking about ways to re-engage his town against the war. He hit on military recruiting, which he saw as a link between war overseas and everyday life at home, and he decided that instead of going to the same activists or to the council, he’d go to the ballot. “You don’t get anywhere by getting the same 30 people out to the demonstration. You don’t get anywhere talking in all the cliches against war, against imperialism,” he said.
The measure, which Meserve wrote to focus on the naivete of youth, easily qualified for the November ballot in Arcata, and then qualified in Eureka, after a last-minute petition drive by Sample and a handful of volunteers.
“Somebody had to start it,” shrugged Sample, an outspoken man who hands out business cards bearing an Edward Abbey quote – “A patriot must be ready to defend his country against his government.” Even after it qualified, few thought Eureka would embrace Arcata’s proposal.
“Twenty years ago, I don’t think that would have had a ghost of a chance of making the ballot, let alone passing,” said Eureka Mayor Virginia Bass, whose son is a Marine, and who signed the argument against Eureka’s version of the law. “Maybe (opponents) sat back and said this could never happen – I don’t know.” But when the polls closed on Nov. 4, the measure had won easily in both towns. “I was of course happy with 73 percent in Arcata,” Meserve said. “But 57 percent in Eureka just blew me away.”
San Francisco’s school board has battled against JROTC, and Berkeley’s City Council issued a letter – since rescinded – calling local Marine recruiters “unwelcome intruders.” But the Humboldt County laws appear to be the most direct counter-recruitment effort mounted by a city’s electorate anywhere in the nation.
The Department of Defense refused to allow interviews with Humboldt County recruiters, citing the lawsuit. A department spokeswoman, responding to written questions, said it is important for recruiters to be able to help young people and their parents make informed decisions about military service.
According to data by the National Priorities Project, Humboldt County youths enlist in the Army at a rate of about 1.5 per 1,000 15- to 24- year-olds – a rate a tad higher than California as a whole, and about on par with the national average.
In its lawsuit, government lawyers claim the country will suffer “irreparable harm” if the Arcata and Eureka laws are allowed to stand. Few people believe the laws will survive the legal challenge. “The federal government is going to win. If you look at the law it seems like almost a no-brainer,” said Weiner, the Stanford Law School lecturer, who is not connected to the suit.
The supremacy clause placing certain powers – including regulating the military – in federal hands is well established, Weiner said, and generally trumps the right to privacy being claimed by the cities.
The cities are also claiming that the United States is party to international treaties prohibiting the recruitment of children under 17 – which they argue include activities such as talking about the benefits of military service. The treaties, the cities argue, hold equal standing to the supremacy clause, an argument Weiner called novel.
“If they were to have a chance, that would be the one place they had a chance,” he said. But, he added, it is likely the court will define “recruiting” as not simply a matter of discussing the benefits of military service, but as a matter of actually signing someone up to serve in the armed forces. Currently, recruits must be 18 to enlist in the military – 17 with parental permission – although contact with recruiters may begin at any age.
Activists take notice
Win or lose, for Meserve, the election demonstrated that activists can be more effective by reaching out to mainstream voters instead of putting all their resources into rallies or symbolic resolutions – a message that is spreading among activists from Berkeley to back east.
“Activists around the country are certainly looking at this and saying, ‘Hmmm, maybe we can do something like that here,’ ” said Sam Diener, editor of Peacework Magazine in Cambridge, Mass.
Enforcement of the laws is on hold for now, pending the court hearing. Recruiters are still operating in their small offices behind the Big 5 Sporting Goods in Eureka. Recruitment there also takes in Arcata. And young people who wish to serve are still signing on the dotted line.
“My grandpa was in the Army. I just kind of want to get out of Humboldt County and try something new,” said Mary Bellach, a 17-year-old from Fortuna who is going through the enlistment process. Her sister, Heather Bellach, will go to Air Force boot camp next month. “Personally, I think it’s up to the kids. It’s what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives.”
No matter what the outcome of the legal battle, residents of Humboldt County seem to want to retain a sense of community. Charles McCann, a lifelong Arcata resident who opposed the measure, recalled in 2007 when his nephew, Peter Schmidt, came home to Arcata as the county’s first – and so far only – combat casualty in Iraq.
It seemed like the whole town turned out for the funeral, McCann said. So long as that spirit remains, he said, he isn’t tempted to wish away all the hippies and students and rebels and turn Arcata back into the conservative logging town of his youth. “I think we’d lose something. The broad range of members of society, I don’t find that threatening,” he said. “That’s what changes society.”
The Arcata Youth Protection Act
This text is an abridged version of the Arcata law passed in November 2008. Eureka passed an identical measure. No person who is employed by or an agent of the United States government shall, within the City of Arcata, in the execution of his or her job duties, recruit, initiate contact with for the purpose of recruiting, or promote the future enlistment of any person under the age of eighteen into any branch of the United States Armed Forces.
Nothing in this Ordinance shall prevent any person from voluntarily visiting a military recruitment office or specifically initiating a request to meet with a recruiter.
Nothing in this Ordinance shall prevent individuals who are not employed by or agents of the US government from encouraging people under the age of eighteen to join the military.
Any military recruiter who violates this Ordinance, as well as his or her commanding officer, shall be held responsible for said violation. Both shall be deemed guilty of an infraction and shall be subject to the penalties stated in the Arcata Municipal Code.
Matthew B. Stannard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2009 Hearst Communications Inc.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.