By Andrea Bichan
On Oct. 1, 2008, the Ithaca Common Council voted unanimously to declare Ithaca, N.Y. a “community of sanctuary” for active-duty service members and veterans who wish to protest the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The resolution is a reaffirmation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, granting freedom of speech to Ithaca residents. It praises veterans who are brave enough to speak up against war, “in the great tradition of democracy, civil rights and human rights.”
Maria Coles of the Common Council drafted the bill together with Peace Now Ithaca, a local anti-war group, and Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), a nationwide organization dedicated to ending the war in Iraq. She says that local veterans were “very heartened and felt support from the community.”
The idea of a sanctuary city has existed since the 1980s, when cities across the United States began appropriating “sanctuary” laws to protect illegal immigrants. These ordinances bar employers, police and civil servants from inquiring about residents’ immigration status. This offers legal protection, or “sanctuary,” for these immigrants seeking refuge in America. Today, there are 22 sanctuary cities for immigrants across the United States, including Washington, D.C. and New York City.
Recently, IVAW and others have called for cities to become sanctuaries for veterans as well. PDX Peace, a peace coalition centered in Portland, Ore., has been campaigning to turn Portland into such a city. Among other objectives, the group demands legal protection for soldiers who are absent without leave (AWOL). So far, no city has adopted this resolution.
Ithaca, however, has pledged to support veterans who wish to protest but does not offer legal protection for AWOL veterans and those who break the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Coles says, “We are only supporting legal protest. We are staying between the confines of what is right and wrong. We’re not telling them to go AWOL, we’re not telling them to protest in uniform.”
Soldiers who violate the UCMJ by wearing their military uniform to a protest, for example, are subject to a dishonorable or other-than-honorable discharge, immediate or retroactive, which results in cuts in their veterans’ benefits. This affects their access to health care and their ability to cash in their GI Bill (which helps many veterans pay for higher education). Under the Common Council resolution, soldiers who protest in Ithaca still face these risks.
So what’s the point?
Coles claims that it’s the city’s civic duty to state its opinion about national issues such as the war in Iraq. “Ithaca is very sophisticated politically,” she says. “I think that they expect the Common Council to make these kinds of statements [about national policy].”
The resolution essentially is just psychological support for soldiers and veterans. The city has given them a metaphorical “we’re with you!” without the ability to back up these words with legal action.
In addition, the resolution helps to spread the word about the “plight that our nations’ soldiers and veterans are facing right now,” which Iraq veteran Mike Blake argued when he spoke to the Council on Oct. 1. The official declaration of Ithaca as a city of sanctuary is helping to spread awareness about the importance of taking such a stance.
By giving Ithaca ‘sanctuary city’ status, the city has officially acknowledged not only the blockades that active-duty soldiers and veterans who wish to protest the war face, but also the desire soldiers have to protest the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. This official support is significant, but without being able to legally protect our veterans by making sure they continue to have access to the benefits they’ve earned, regardless of their political stances, the resolution will hold little weight if the military cracks down on protesting soldiers.
Andrea Bichan is a sophomore exploratory major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.