Submission to the S.F. Chronicle Open Forum, 9/11/2007 (not published)
Also see Peace Navy 2008 actions

A Better Fleet Week is Possible
San Francisco Bay Area Peace Navy calls for conversion
of Fleet Week to a broader celebration of the bay

On August 13 a San Francisco Board of Supervisors committee defeated a proposal that would have banned the Blue Angels from flying over the bay during Fleet Week. The impetus for the measure included concerns for public safety, noise complaints, and criticism by the local peace movement that such displays of aerobatic prowess were little more than a razzle-dazzle PR campaign for an imperial Navy.

An imperial Navy? Unfortunately, it’s not just peacenik hyperbole. When then-mayor Diane Feinstein instituted Fleet Week in 1981, she was resurrecting the glory of the original Fleet Week of 1908, when San Francisco proudly hosted President Teddy Roosevelt's "Great White Fleet." Sixteen sparkling new battleships, painted white but for the gilded scrollwork on their bows, were on a fourteen-month voyage around the world. The U.S. Navy was showing that the Spanish-American War, in which it resoundingly demonstrated its ability to project power, was just the beginning. Admiral Dewey had sailed into Manila Harbor and defeated the Spanish without a single U.S. casualty, and the Atlantic Fleet had thrashed the Spanish navy in Santiago harbor in a war lasting less than four months. Was not the United States the preeminent defender of freedom and thus worthy of showing off its forces of good to the world? Unfortunately, the answer was no.

This war, like many others, was a complex mixture of motivations and events. Despite popular rhetoric about the sinking of the Maine and mistreatment of the Cuban people by the Spanish colonial authorities, U.S. commercial and military interests fueled an invasion that subsumed the Cuban's and Puerto Rican's struggle for self-determination, resulting in geopolitical consequences that remain with us to this day. The situation in the Pacific was even worse. Although the Filipinos initially appreciated the U.S. role in evicting Spanish rule, tensions mounted as it became clear that our interest there had less to do with protecting democracy than it did with territorial expansion. Even before the Peace Treaty was signed, U.S. troops fired on a group of Filipinos and started the Philippine-American War, a vicious and ugly chapter in U.S. history that lasted until 1914. Openly racist views of the Filipinos underscored public debate and policy. Whole villages were relocated into concentration camps, a method shamefully reminiscent of both the Spanish military practices we had earlier criticized in Cuba and the "strategic hamlets" we would later establish in Viet Nam. The actual death toll will never be known, but estimates of civilian deaths from famine, disease, and other war-related causes range from 200,000 to 600,000.

This war had started out as a popular campaign, but as time went by the shine had worn off and some brave citizens began to raise their voices in protest. Among them was the great American author Mark Twain, who advocated the position that "An inglorious peace is better than a dishonorable war." A hundred years later, these same issues resonate about our role in Iraq.

Next year is the centennial of the Great White Fleet. Instead of banning the Blue Angels, how about just making Fleet Week better? Every year the Blue Angels fly over two west coast cities, but the events are markedly different. Seattle's annual Seafair features the Angels – as well as hydroplane races, pirate parades, marathons, fishing fleet parades, wooden boats, classic cars, dragon boat races, and numerous community events. In contrast, San Francisco's Fleet Week is purely a hollow homage to a Navy that is no longer based here. The Bay Area Peace Navy has long insisted that by focusing entirely on the military, Fleet Week ignores the many other citizens of this magnificent Bay Area that deserve a broader celebration such as that hosted by Seattle.

Lincoln Cushing
Bay Area Peace Navy (retired)
Berkeley, California

In 1990 the BAPN set legal precedent for activist free speech in challenging the U.S. Navy regarding their 75-yard security zones around warships during public events.

Bay Area Peace Navy v. United States, 914 F.2d 1224, 1229 (9th Cir. 1990)

“The Peace Navy, a non-profit association dedicated to using small boats for peaceful anti-war and anti-militarization demonstrations . . . engaged in a counter-demonstration during Fleet Week by parading in formation in front of the invited guests on the pier during the parade of real Navy ships farther out in the Bay.” Id. at 1225-26. The intended audience was the group of invited individuals who were interested in the Navy procession and therefore, the demonstrators apparently presumed, harbored views about the importance of military preparedness different from those of the demonstrators. We considered whether a restriction preventing the Peace Navy from getting within 75 yards of their intended audience was a valid time, place, and manner restriction on speech, and held that it was not. The restriction did not leave the speakers with an ample alternative for communicating their message to the intended audience, the last prong of the time, place, and manner analysis as traditionally stated. Id. at 1229. From 75 yards away the audience could neither see the protestors’ banners nor hear their singing. Id. at 1226. See generally Kevin Francis O’Neill, “Disentangling the Law of Public Protest,” 45 L OY. L. REV. 411, 443-47 (1999).

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