It was an Earth Day to remember. On a beautiful sunny spring day, our local citizen coalition Reject Raytheon (in Asheville, North Carolina, USA) pulled off a three-part demonstration for the protection of the earth and earthlings and against the US military-industrial complex. We rallied, we paraded, and we performed a direct action.
The event, on Friday 22 April, began at 10am in the Bent Creek River Park, on the banks of the French Broad River. The park sits exactly next to the new bridge being built for the 1.2 million square foot Pratt & Whitney plant and in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge over the river. Across the river from the park is a dirt road, called Old River Road, that provides access to the many trucks coming and going from the plant every day. On this morning, it was busy, full of power and commerce.
In the park, over 50 of us came together to call for conversion from the war economy to one that addresses the climate emergency. The theme of the gathering was 'Windmills Not War Machines'. We had a number of speakers describe the dangers of the Pratt & Whitney plant and also what a better economic development plan for the Asheville area could look like.
Pratt and Whitney is wholly owned by Raytheon Technologies, the second largest war corporation in the world. Its new plant here will be making airfoil turbines for jet engines that will be used by both military and commercial aircraft. The military engines are for notorious fighter jets like the F-35 and F-16, which are sold for wars all over the world, including in Yemen and Palestine. Sales of these weapons have soared with the onset of the war in Ukraine. This is a war profiteer coming to our community.
Our rally not only emphasized the war machine production of Pratt and Whitney, but also called attention to its effect on the climate emergency. What we don’t need in this urgent time is more fossil fuel intensive jet engines, even if they are for commercial use, and even if they are supposedly more efficient.
At the end of our rally, the Brass Your Heart social justice marching band led the group on a parade. With music, chants, banners, and signs, we moved from the park up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we crossed the bridge to the other side of the river. It was festive as well as pointed.
While the parade was in process, eight of us took a position on the Old River Road and blockaded the oncoming construction traffic from both directions. Five of us spanned the entire road with a 20 foot banner that said: 'Make Wind Turbines, Not War Machines'. Another held a smaller banner that said, 'Pratt and Whitney Fans the Flames of Climate Emergency'. And two of us stood in front and behind the blockade with the stop-sign shaped message: 'No War Industry'.
As our parading friends came to the end of the bridge, they stood above us waving, cheering, and singing along with the band. Construction traffic came to a halt and backed up for as far as the eye could see.
Amazingly, this stoppage lasted a full two hours. Biltmore Farms, which owns all the surrounding land and donated 100 acres to Pratt & Whitney for its plant, sent its security guards very quickly. They said we were on private property and threatened to have us arrested. Truck drivers walked up to us with a range of emotions from anger to sympathy to amusement. Soon the site was swarming with confused workers and authority figures. Eventually, the Buncombe county sheriff’s office (BCSO) came and asked us to leave. When we didn’t, a prolonged series of phone calls ensued.
As we found out later, there was an uncertainty about jurisdiction. We were actually on the National Park Service (NPS) easement for the Blue Ridge Parkway, not on Biltmore Farms private property. [An 'easement' gives an identified person or body the right to use your land in a certain, specific way.] Technically, this meant that NPS was the proper authority to remove us. It apparently was decided that they would ask BCSO to take charge.
It was probably also the case that executives from both Biltmore Farms and Pratt & Whitney were discussing how to handle this situation in a way that would get them the least amount of negative publicity.
What this amounted to was a two-hour shut down of business-as-usual for the corporations bringing a war industry to our county. It was just a small victory for us earth protectors, but still a moment to savor on Earth Day.
The decision the police finally made was to give us a choice. We could just walk away with no charges, we could walk away with a citation for misdemeanor trespass, or we could get arrested and taken to jail. We huddled up and decided on door #2: we took citations and walked away. We are hoping for our day in court where we can tell why we did this direct action and what is at stake with this war industry plant getting built. A trial will be a means of continuing to raise public awareness about it.
And it’s not just this one plant. What we also know is that Jack Cecil, owner of Biltmore Farms, is working with the local chamber of commerce to bring more businesses like Pratt & Whitney into this area. Some 1,000 acres have been set aside for an industrial park that will likely be centered on the toxic aerospace industry. The gas pipeline just put in by Dominion Energy will service not just Pratt and Whitney, but also the companies now being actively recruited to come here. The new interstate exchange on I-26 will likewise serve this future development.
Say goodbye to a lot more trees and worry about the health of the French Broad River. Pratt & Whitney is just the beginning of this Biltmore Farms project. It is like the anchor store in a mall. It is being used to attract others of the same ilk.
This is why Reject Raytheon is calling not just for conversion of this plant that is now nearing completion, but for a moratorium on any more approvals for industries that are connected to the military-industrial-fossil fuel monster that is devouring our earth and making life untenable for us and our children and grandchildren.
We who stood in the road are not the criminals here. The criminals are those who are making profits from the destruction of life on this planet. It is they who should be on trial and that is what we intend to do if we get our day in court. We, the Earth Day 8, hope you will follow us in solidarity.
We will also keep on showing up in the streets to raise the alarm. Ever since we found out in October 2020 that the Buncombe county commissioners voted to give $27 million in tax incentives to Pratt & Whitney, we have been crying foul. But it’s even worse than that. If you take into account all the subsidies provided to this huge multinational corporation – state, local, and private – it comes to over $100 million. Think about how much we need that money for the many human needs of our community.
And don’t be deceived about the jobs being promised. Yes, there will be jobs, but there is no actual guarantee about how many nor who will get them. And we know very well that we would have many more jobs than the 800 they tout (counted cumulatively, over 10 years) if we put that same $100m into clean energy, education, health, housing - literally anything other than the military-industrial complex. Why would anyone think that a huge corporation like Raytheon cares about anything other than its own profits, notwithstanding all of its local greenwashing and public relations efforts?
It is this prioritizing of profits over people that we need to change.
Forward together for Mother Earth and for us, her children.
The Earth Day 8, who all live in and around Asheville, NC, are:
Rachael Bliss, 76, writer and founder of WNC4Peace
Claire Clark, 40, labor organizer and LGBTQ activist
Padma Dyvine, 72, retired nurse, healthcare and climate activist
Ken Jones, 73, retired professor of teacher education and VFP member
Steve Norris, 78, grandfather, carpenter, teacher, activist
Lyle Peterson, 73, blacksmith and founding member of VFP chapter
Gerry Werhan, 68, retired Medical Service Corps officer and VFP chapter president
Greg Yost, 55, former high school teacher and zip line guide