Bernie the Bomber’s Bad Week
by Will Miller
In late April I was among the 25 Vermonters who occupied Congressman
Bernie Sanders’ Burlington office to protest his support of the NATO
bombing of Yugoslavia and the ongoing war against Iraq. Calling ourselves
the “Instant Antiwar Action Group,” we decided to bring our outrage at
Bernie’s escalating hypocrisy directly to his office, an action that resulted
in 15 of us being arrested for trespass.
Many of us worked on Bernie’s campaigns through
1980’s, the years he was–as the local press repeatedly put it–
the “avowed socialist” Mayor of Burlington, Vermont. His descent
into de facto membership the Democratic party has been a major setback
for the task of building a real electoral alternative to the
two factions of the corporate property that monopolize what passes
for political choice in the United States. Bernie’s selling out
says clearly to working people and those unable to find work
that even leftists become mainstream politicians, when and if
they win office.
Sanders presented himself to the left outside of Vermont
as the leader of the third party movement, vanquishing the two major
parties in every Mayoral election from 1981-88.
When he first got elected Mayor of Burlington he was
the only elected U.S. official to attend the anniversary of the Sandinista
Revolution in Managua. The Gannett owned Burlington Free Press
said he had to be removed from office “by any means necessary.”
Now that same Burlington Free Press endorses his Congressional
Bernie became an imperialist to get elected in 1990.
In August, 1990–after the Bush administration enticed Iraq into
invading Kuwait–Sanders said he wasn’t “going to let some damn
war cost him the election,” according to a staff member who was
present at the time. So Sanders backed the buildup in the Persian Gulf
and dumped on the left anti-imperialist peace movement, singling
out his former allies like Dave Dellinger for public criticism.
He lost in 1988 Congressional race, the last time
the Democratic party ran an official candidate against him. In
that election Sanders and the Democrat, Paul Poirer, split the
majority of votes and the election went to the Republican, Peter Smith.
Bernie–out of office for the first time in eight years–
then went to the Kennedy School at Harvard for six months and came
back with a new relationship with the state’s Democrats. The
Vermont Democratic Party leadership has allowed no authorized
candidate to run against Bernie in 1990 (or since) and in return,
Bernie has repeatedly blocked third party building. His closet party,
the Democrats, are very worried about a left 3rd party forming in
Vermont. In the last two elections, Sanders has prevented
Progressives in his machine from running against Howard Dean,
our conservative Democratic Governor who was ahead of Gingrich in
the attack on welfare.
The unauthorized Democratic candidate in 1990, Delores
Sandoval, an African American faculty member at the University of
Vermont, was amazed that the official party treated her as a nonperson
and Bernie kept outflanking her to her right. She opposed the
Gulf build-up, Bernie supported it. She supported decriminalization
of drug use and Bernie defended the war on drugs, and so on…..
After being safely elected in November of 1990, Bernie
continued to support the buildup while seeking membership in the
Democratic Congressional Caucus–with the enthusiastic support of t
he Vermont Democratic Party leadership. But, the national Democratic Party
blew him off, so he finally voted against the war and returned home–and
as the war began–belatedly claimed to be the leader of the anti-war
movement in Vermont.
Since 1991 the Democrats have given Bernie membership
in their Congressional Caucus. Reciprocally, Bernie has become an
ardent imperialist. Sanders endorsed Clinton in 1992 and 1996. In
1992 he described Clinton as the “lesser of evils,” (a justification
he used to denounce when he was what the local press called an
“avowed socialist”). By 1996 he gave Clinton an unqualified
endorsement. He has been a consistent “Friend of Bill’s” from
since 1992. One student I know worked on the Clinton Campaign
in 1996 and all across Vermont, Bernie was on the stage with
the rest of the Vermont Democratic Party Leadership, while the
unauthorized Democratic candidate for his Congressional seat was
kept out in the audience.
Sanders continues to support sanctions even though the
Iraqi body count has now passed 1.5 million. Just as he has supported
every bombing of Iraq since 1992. When Clinton sent military
units to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in October, 1994 because Iraq
moved troops inside Iraq closer to the Kuwait border (apparently
about 100 miles away), Bernie supported this because “we cannot
As a Congressman in Vermont he has allied himself the
MIA/POW crowd, the American Legion and the VFW, the very groups that
red baited him as Mayor. At the same time he and his staff “forget”
to invite the Green Mountain Veteran’s for Peace–the only anti-
imperialist veterans group in the state–to his sponsored Veterans
events. He sends out mailings to veterans that supports the US
having “the strongest military in the world,” while praising
our sacrifices as veterans “for the freedom of Americans.”
Bernie regularly rides out with the rest of the Vermont
Congressional delegation defending the military contracts in Vermont
against cuts by the Pentagon, while arguing that some moderation in
military spending is possible on the grounds “that the threat of communism
is over” (WCAX interview, 10/94).
Incidentally, Sanders now has a stronger record voting
on the Democratic side in the Congress than either Bonier or Gephardt
–the Congressional Leadership of the Democratic Party. It is
tempting to situate Sanders within the framework of the Congress
as a whole. By that standard he doesn’t look so bad–though that’s
a very low standard to use. But remember, unlike Maxine Waters
or Ron Dellums who moved continuously to their left during their
Congressional careers, Bernie got where he is now by a lurch
to the right. He promises working people, the aged, the poor,
and the “vanishing middle class” that he will defend them while
he repeatedly blocks the building of the anti-capitalist political
movement and party that might actual make such promises legitimate.
Indeed, when challenged publicly about his failure to help build
a left alternative to the major capitalist parties, Sanders claims
he is now too busy with his work in Congress to be
Among his other discredits, Sanders supported the
Federal Crime Bill that give the gave the capitalist state more than
50 new pretexts to execute members of the working class–because
those without capital get the punishment. He did this while courting
the Vermont Police Chief’s Assn. Sanders also voted to extradite
Assata Shakur from Cuba in violation of the existing treaties with Cuba.
Recently, Bernie championed in Congress the dumping
of Vermont’s nuclear waste near Sierra Blanca, Texas, a low income
border community with a mostly Latino population that is overwhelmingly
opposed to the dump project. Environmental racism and classism
seem not to bother him.
On a related issue, Bernie was recently asked by the local
press why he was the only member of Vermont’ s three member
Congressional delegation who had no person of color on his staff.
Bernie responded that “we’re hiring the most qualified people
For all of these reasons, we are sitting-in at Bernie
Sander’s Office. We call on all Vermonters who shares our concern
and horror at what U.S. Empire is doing in Yugoslavia and Iraq to
make your voices heard.
The response to our occupation of Bernie’s office was, unfortunately,
consistent with his lurch to the mainstream. At 6:30 PM, one half hour
after closing time, Philip Fiermonte of Bernie’s staff had 15 of us
arrested for trespass. Sanders refused a conference call with those in
the occupation, which was carried out nonviolently and with no
disruption to his staff. Fiermonte claimed he could not contact Sanders
for the four hours of the occupation– if true, it still another way Bernie
has gotten out of touch in the Congress.
Ironically, Fiermonte was one of the defendants in the celebrated Winooski
44 case in 1984, where the conservative U.S. Senator Robt. Stafford’s (R-VT)
office was occupied for his support of Reagan’s murderous wars in Central
America. At least Stafford’s staff let the occupation continue for three days
before having anyone arrested.
In the following week, Bernie, doing quick damage control, ducked
responsibility for arresting the “Sanders 15” and got himself included at
the last minute with a Congressional delegation going to Austria to meet with
representatives of the Russian Duna to bring the Russians in to help broker
a settlement in the US/NATO war in Yugoslavia. But, before leaving to see
the Russians, he voted in favor of the continued bombing of Yugoslavia,
a bombing that the Russians had already said would have to stop as a
precondition for any settlement. A general town meeting has already been
scheduled for the following Monday, so he turned it to a “town meeting on Kosovo.”
Apparently, Bernie Sanders has forgotten what a Town Meeting is.
Perhaps he lived in Burlington (too “big” for town meetings) and Washington
(scared to death of town meetings) for so many years he cannot recall how a
democratic town meeting actually works. No one is allowed to appoint themselves
the moderator for the town meeting and persons who are partisans on the issues
before the town are excluded from the moderator’s election in favor of persons
who can moderate fairly and evenhandedly.
Sanders as the self-appointed moderator/boss opened the evening with naked
self-justification. “It is a very complex situation…” followed by the ritual of
demonization of Milosevic–a technique he has perfected over the last eight years on
Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Then he presented the false dilemma that the only alternative
to bombing is doing nothing. Sanders said his situation was the same as that of Joschka
Fischer’s of the Green Party, Germany’s Foreign Minister, who has outraged his Green
Party membership by supporting the bombing his coalition government is carrying
out as part of NATO.
Back in Vermont the assembled citizenry moaned audibly.
He continued by subjecting the packed room of over 200 people to more than
an hour of a panel presentation by people of his own choosing; even then, only one
panelist overtly supported his position–Bogdan Denich, a professor from New York
City and leader of the pro-imperialist wing of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Another panelist, Shirley Gedeon, a UVM Economist whose speciality is the Balkans,
undercut Sander’s historical analysis and a third, Roddy Cleary, a feminist and
religious activist, challenged he support of the bombing directly.
Apparently, with all the college and universities in Vermont, Bernie had to
travel far into flatlander territory to find an academic willing to support his
“bomb now, talk later” position. In fact, Denich went beyond Bernie’s present position
and called for sending in ground troops, immediately.
After allotting the panelists and himself 12 minutes each and now more than an
hour and a half into the meeting, the people finally had a chance to speak. But only for 2
minutes each, dictated the self-appointed moderator Bernie! And this after having
lectured us on how “complex” the issue of the US/NATO War on Yugoslavia really is.
When he was challenged by a few members of the meeting about his undemocratic
restriction of peoples’ speech, he said anyone who didn’t like it could leave. It seems
when Sanders was in college in Chicago, he learned more from Mayor Richard J. Daley
than from his academic studies.
The overwhelming majority of the people present were against Sander’s support for the
bombing. Even with all his attempts to control the meeting, the people had at him for
more than an hour and a half. He was denounced for his selling out to the Empire and
it’s war machine and for his support for the 9 year old war against Iraq and his active
support for every US intervention since he has been in Congress–Iraq, Somalia,
Haiti, Bosnia, Liberia, Zaire (Congo), Albania, Sudan, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia.
He was further criticized for his refusal to ban or even object to the use of depleted
uranium with it’s long term toxicity in both Iraq and Yugoslavia. Sanders even tried
to escape responsibility for arresting 15 of his constituents in his office one week ago
for the crime of wanting to talk to him without an appointment by blaming those arrested
for their arrest, as if they went out and brought the police in to arrest themselves.
Sanders was repeatedly unresponsive to questions put to him. He evasiveness
and arrogance did not serve him well. In the end, only a few people defended him.
Whatever else Sanders gets for his joining the other side in the global struggle for
social justice–he has lost the left and the peace movement here is Vermont.
Maybe in the next election he will finally have to run officially as the Democrat he
has been for the last 9 years! And then the people of Vermont will be free to build t
he anti-capitalist political movement and party that Sanders has worked so hard to
block for more than a decade.
People left the meeting resolving to escalate the antiwar movement before
the US escalates the war with an invasion of ground troops. The latest leaks out of
NATO sources in Europe suggest that the current plan is to invade with troops
by the end of May.