Civil Liberties

Friday A/V Club: I'm So Old, I Remember When Liberals Protested Military Exercises Conducted on U.S. Soil

From Operation Urban Warrior to Jade Helm 15


Red Texas
Jade Helm 15

This summer, the military plans to hold a gigantic training exercise in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. It's called Jade Helm 15, and some of the people who live in those areas are pretty upset about it. There are concerns that it will disrupt people's day-to-day lives: that the troops will make too much noise, say, or that they might accidentally set off a brush fire. There are more political objections too, like the residents unhappy that they weren't able to vote on whether their towns or counties would be included in the operation. Or the man who worried to the Austin American-Statesman about what will happen when "you get the people used to the troops on the street, the appearance of uniformed troops and the militarization of the police."

Where there are anxieties, there inevitably are conspiracy theories. These have taken several forms, but the most common seems to be the one that literalizes that fear of a militarized America by declaring the operation an actual plot to install military rule. That same fellow in the American-Statesman went on to say he thought the Pentagon was "moving logistics in place for martial law." Others believe the operation will itself impose martial law, bringing the last tatters of American Constitution to an end this year.

Earlier this week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott responded to these various constituents' concerns by asking the State Guard to monitor the operation, saying he wants "to ensure that adequate measures are in place to protect Texans." This has sparked a lot of smug commentary from the left end of the blogosphere. Charles Pierce of Esquire attributed the residents' fears to "the complete alternate reality that has been created on the American Right" and declared that "in Texas, organized paranoids are just another constituency to be serviced." Wonkette published a piece that used a lot more words to say basically the same thing. Because only a right-wing lunatic could possibly be unhappy at the thought of a military exercise being conducted next door.

Or not. Behold this transmission from the year one-nine-nine-nine:

That's a short documentary Gar Smith made about the time Operation Urban Warrior came to the San Francisco Bay. The Marine training exercise sparked sharp opposition from the local left, and at one point in the debate protesters occupied Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown's office. (Brown's support for the operation was a significant sign that he was moving away from the activist community he'd been a part of just a few years before.)

There are some obvious differences between Urban Warrior and Jade Helm. The territory affected this time is much larger than in 1999, but the number of civilians close to any given part of the operation will be much smaller. And most of Jade Helm is going to take place on private land. But the parallels are pretty strong as well. As with Jade Helm, part of the opposition stemmed from regular quality-of-life issues. (The video highlights the noise, pollution, and general disruption that the mock invasion caused.) As with Jade Helm, there was a more general concern that it was simply a bad sign culturally to have the military conducting this sort of activity in or near a civilian community. (You needn't believe such operations are intended to desensitize the public to worry that they will have that effect.) And as with Jade Helm, there were conspiracy theories—and not just from folks like Alex Jones, though yes, he was there in Oakland too. Gar Smith wrote a story for The San Francisco Bay Guardian, one of the area's two major alt-weeklies at the time, arguing that "the armed forces are preparing themselves to contain popular uprisings—including uprisings in U.S. cities."

(Uprisings in U.S. cities? Thank goodness that could never happen.)

Feel free to look askance at the folks who think this exercise will be the actual apocalypse, as opposed to an ugly cultural signpost and a potentially noisy neighbor. Feel free to wonder at a Texas governor who issues that order but loves the idea of militarizing the Mexican border. But spare a little disdain as well for people so eager to wag their fingers at some rural Red Staters that they never wonder whether there might actually be some good reasons not to want a vast military operation in their neighborhood. If they can't quite get their minds around that concept, I know some urban Blue Staters in Oakland who could help them understand.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For more thoughts on conspiracy theories, go here.)