Podcast: “What we could do to harness our power” – Jonathan Hutto

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Podcast: “What we could do to harness our power” – Jonathan Hutto

Jonathan W. Hutto, Sr. is an author, community organizer, and co-founder of Appeal for Redress. Inspired by the Vietnam GI Resistance Movement, Jonathan started Appeal for Redress so that active duty US military personnel could speak out against the second conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their action came to the attention of several members of Congress, as well as laying the groundwork for future active duty military members to voice their concerns over American military operations worldwide.

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Transcript

Jonathan Hutto:
As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq.

Matthew Breems:
This is the Courage to Resist Podcast. Since 2005, Courage to Resist has worked to support military resistance to illegal and unjust wars, counter-recruitment, draft resistance, and the policies of empire.

This episode features a guest from the 30 years of current US military intervention in the Middle East. Author, community organizer, and co-founder of Appeal for Redress, Jonathan Hutto, Sr. Is our guest today. Inspired by the Vietnam GI Movement, Jonathan started this organization of active duty personnel to end the second conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their action came to the attention of several members of Congress, as well as laying the groundwork for future active duty military members to voice their concerns over American military operations worldwide.

Well, Jonathan, I’m looking forward to our conversation today. With all of our guests, we like to get a little bit of background information on who you are. Why don’t you tell us how you ended up finding yourself in the U.S. Navy leading into the Iraq conflict?

Jonathan Hutto:
All right. Well, thank you again for this opportunity, Matthew, and to Jeff Paterson and Courage to Resist.

I found myself enlisting in the United States Navy, January 2004, as the extension of not having a sustained or serious safety net from which to rely upon in my mid, as I was moving to, my late twenties. In fact, I was already in my late twenties. I was 26 years old. I was three months shy of my 27th birthday. I was a single father, had been a single father for a year to my four-year-old son. I’ve been working at Amnesty International, U.S.A.’s Mid-Atlantic regional office for nearly three years, deeply engaged in human rights work in the Mid-Atlantic United States, with a specific, deep focus on police accountability at that time.

Today, the slogan is “Black Lives Matter”. 20 years ago, the slogan being “Enough is Enough”. But within that milieu I was in and in contrast to the middle-class, upper strata, African-American students that I had gone to the university with, that wasn’t my experience. My going to Howard, matriculating through Howard, and then landing within a nonprofit was the direct result of what I would term a Horatio Alger bootstrapping spirit, that by the time I was 26 years old, I hit a wall, a serious wall. Couldn’t maintain that lifestyle anymore being a single parent. And by the fall of 2003, I was in search of some serious relief.

Matthew Breems:
So it was an economic concern for you primarily that made that look like a good option.

Jonathan Hutto:
It was economic. It was structural. I had attempted initially to transition from non-profit work to being a full-time teacher. There was a transition to teaching program. I was put into what they would term an urban classroom. And in that situation, I must say I failed miserably. Fell on my face, in fact.

On the day that I fell, meaning exited the classroom knowing I would not be back. That was late October 2003. In anguish, I never forget, I was at an Atlanta Bread Company in Greenbelt, Maryland. A Navy recruiter stumbled upon me and made his pitch. And at that moment, if I had had enough strength, I would have just brushed him aside and walked away. But at that moment, I was actually susceptible to the pitch that he made to me that day.

Matthew Breems:
So it’s just kind of coincidence that it seemed like a good opportunity for you in the condition that you were in, just emotionally and situationally?

Jonathan Hutto:
Yes. At the time, the main part of his pitch… Because there were things that he was saying that went over my head that wasn’t sinking in. But when he… From the look I had that day, I believe he sized me up as young college graduate. And so, one of the things he said was, “Look, I know you got student loans now.” He says, “We pay up to…” He said, “$50,000 for a four year enlistment.” That’s when I started listening. But unlike my peers, when I hit a wall, as many young people do in their mid twenties. It’s called life. I couldn’t go home on the couch. There was no home to go to. So I had to figure out how to make a way for myself moving forward.

Matthew Breems:
Okay, so you joined the Navy. Walk us through some of your experiences.

Jonathan Hutto:
It has to be said that, ideologically, I was opposed to the Iraq War before I enlisted. I actually was on the ground and had participated… When I say on the ground, I mean on the ground within the Antiwar Movement within the United States, had participated in a number of mass marches with the ANSWER Coalition, the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism Coalition. Nevertheless, I still enlisted because…

In fact, I was thinking about this earlier. As a student leader at Howard University going backwards to come forward here, my watershed moment was when we brought the late Kwame Ture, known to my mother’s generation as Stokely Carmichael on the campus. Within that address, he talks about that contrast between him and Colin Powell. Colin Powell saying “Yes” to Vietnam, and Kwame saying “Hell no” to Vietnam. Within those contrasting ethos, dictum, beliefs, I was operating in the middle, if you will. Ideologically opposed to the war, but at the same time, from a practical standpoint, believing the military could give me that structure.

To then connect back to your question. My joining the Navy, I was intentional about not being on the ground in Iraq. I wanted the benefits of the Navy, but I did not have any intention of shedding blood or shedding anyone else’s blood. Nevertheless, the ideological struggle and the draconian, hierarchical, ultra authoritative ethos of the Navy certainly rained down upon me. I was very naive to believe that I could join the Navy and somehow navigate it only for my own benefit, and not be confronted by the overall culture and structure. And that struggle really deepened.

But once I got to apprentice school, this is where the ideological struggle deepened. This is when I began to receive multiple upon multiple counseling chits for, really, what they deemed to be an unacceptable decorum within the military. I didn’t come off as someone that was afraid. I didn’t come off as someone who was as obedient in their decorum as they should have been. I seemed to be more questioning than some of my other peers. And that’s where the targeting process began. And then once I got out to the fleet, that’s where things really began to intensify and nearly forced me to desert the United States Navy.

Matthew Breems:
Was there a specific experience that really kind of got you past the line to resisting the war over there? Or was it kind of a gradual process, or a number of experiences?

Jonathan Hutto:
It was gradual. The linchpin of other resistance, meaning… The linchpin, meaning the one who really intensified it, who really personified, I’ll never forget. He was the First Class Petty Officer E6 within the photo lab of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt when I arrived. James Foehl personified, this draconian spirit and its draconian ethos of beating any aspects of individualism out of you, any aspects of autonomy out of you, any aspects of free thought, any aspects of having a questioning disposition about anything. And it really came to a head in early 2005. I was… My son was living in New York City with his mom. I was also visiting a girlfriend of mine that lived in New York City. And while I was there actually got trapped in a snow storm and could not get back to the ship at the required time. Usually in a circumstance such as that, if you call your leading petty officer and let them know the situation that you’re in, and if you do it expeditiously and early enough, then some leeway will be given. In my case, that is not what took place.

They were looking for an opportunity based upon what they perceived to be a challenging disposition to then, for lack of a better framing, rain hail upon me. That’s exactly what they did. They wrote me up to the actual legal department. I then went before what was called a disciplinary review board, DRB, comprised of Chief Petty Officers throughout the ship, who, for lack of a better framing, Matthew. In a Navy way, they chewed my ass. Called me everything, but a child of God up in there. And made me feel like I was the lowest piece of spectacle under the earth. When I came out of there, that’s when it snapped in my mind. I said, “I’m not doing this anymore.” I said, “I don’t know what I’m about to do, but I’m leaving the United States Navy.”

Matthew Breems:
Okay. So you have this linchpin moment. What was kind of your first steps? So what was your first action of resistance?

Jonathan Hutto:
Well, I was… I never forget. After they chewed my behind, I said behind. After they chewed my behind at the DRB, I was then taken back to the photo lab by Senior Chief Mills, I never forget. And I’m at attention. And I kind of looked to my left and my right. I didn’t see anybody. I immediately walked out of the photo lab. Hurriedly went to my rack, grabbed a few belongings, threw them in a bag, saluted off the quarterdeck, went to a cab, got to the Enterprise Rental Car, rented me a car. I’m on my way to Washington, D.C. And I called an old mentor of mine named Rodney Green, who at the time was the Chairman of the Economics Department at Howard University, and told him that I was leaving the Navy. He then asked me if I would stop by his house the next day so that we could have a conversation. A conversation that proved very pivotal as to why I’m even able to have this conversation with you today.

Matthew Breems:
And what was the advice that he gave you in that conversation?

Jonathan Hutto:
So some background on Rodney Green. Rodney Green is foundational to me known at Howard University as Dr. Rodney Green, retired Professor of Economics. It was with Rod and of coalition that he facilitated in the spring of 1996, right at my 19th birthday that I participated in my first mass agitational demonstration. At that time, as a freshman student at Howard, this was against Newt Gingrich’s contract with America, really the contract on America. Several years later, Rod and I found ourselves within a voluntary, collective, cooperative coalition in Prince George’s County, known as the People’s Coalition, struggling and fighting against police brutality in the county. And it was within that struggle that I learned much more about rod and our relationship deepened.

So when I went to see Rod that morning with no intention of going back to the ship, Rod begins to within our conversation, have an ideological struggle with me about the necessity of my going back to the ship, which to me at that moment sounded absolutely crazy considering what I had just been through. However, he made some salient points to me, both personal and political, that not only sat with me, but began to penetrate. I began to think more deeply about what Rod was saying. Emotionally, I did not want to go back to the ship, but after another day of being in Washington, D.C., almost felt as though I didn’t have another choice.

Matthew Breems:
So you ended up going back to the ship. That’s correct?

Jonathan Hutto:
I ended up going back. And when I got back, they began to rein me in and to bring the full thrust of the legal authority upon me. I was cursed out again very badly in front of the Executive Officer with tears streaming down my face. And the Executive Officer actually had mercy upon me and did not send me to Captain’s Mast. He actually gave me… The word they use in the Navy is awarded me. So they awarded me, in parentheses, awarded me what they call 24 extra hours of what they call XMI, extra military instruction. EMI, excuse me. Yeah. Extra military instruction, which is basically me staying after the work for several hours each day, shining brass, shining ladder wells, scrubbing floors. I mean, scrubbing toilets and having this draconian First Class Petty Officer breathing down my neck as this process has commenced.

So that was what I had to do, in order to work myself back into the Navy fold and the Navy way of things. But I’m going to bring you up to February 2006, after having been on deployment now nearly five months, I go into the photo lab early one morning. As I get to the back of the photo lab, there’s three petty officers in the back of the photo lab. I’m an E3 three airmen, all three are white males. And one of them reaches up on top of the vent duct and pulls down a Hangman’s noose right in front of my face, dangling right in front of my face, February 2006. As I’m sitting there looking at this noose, it took me a minute to even understand what was happening. I didn’t… I then said to them, “Is this a joke? What is this?”

The perpetrating Petty Officer then says that one of my African-American friends could use a lynching. At that point, I depart the photo lab in deep disgust and anguish. I then came back to the photo lab about an hour later to retrieve the noose. I was looking for it. No one was there at that point. I untied it and put it in my locker. And then I began to contemplate what I was about to do, because I had gone to the chain of command numerous times before. In fact, within the eval process I had listed down all of the horrendous acts that had been taking place in that shop, especially around this question of racism and xenophobia. Comments, disparaging comments, being made about Dr. King from white Petty Officers. Celebratory comments made about Adolf Hitler, for example. This was pretty commonplace.

And the black sailors and the black Petty Officers would not say anything about this stuff. And in fact, when I would voice concerns, I would be treated as if I was not a team player. So I knew at that moment in February of ’06, that the chain of command, the direct chain of command could not be relied upon. I devised a strategy where I would send a letter to the department head over the entire Admin Department, cc the Command Master Chief, who was the highest enlisted person on the ship, cc the Equal Opportunity Advisor, and then hit the entire chain of command with that letter. It was January 12th, at three o’clock in the morning from the Public Affairs Office that I sent that letter that worked on to the total, the entire chain of command of the Admin Department, including the Command Master Chief and Equal Opportunity Advisor. I sent that at 3:00 AM.

By zero seven hundred that morning, an investigation had been opened. Within four hours, I had an email stating to me that an investigation had been opened and that I was to report to the Equal Opportunity Advisor. At least a third of the sailors in the shop came forward and said that there were issues that took place in that shop. And they listed what those issues were. That investigator ruled in my favor. It went to Captain’s Mast and that perpetrating Petty Officer was reduced in rank, was restricted to this boat, and ultimately was forced out the Navy. There was some level of restorative justice there.

Matthew Breems:
So tell us a little bit about the Appeal for Redress organization that you co-founded. How did that start and what was their MO? What was the purpose of that organization?

Jonathan Hutto:
So we brought David Cortright, the author of “Soldiers in Revolt” to Norfolk, Virginia, in the spring of 2006. There must’ve been roughly a hundred people in that audience and about 15, say roughly 15 active duty members of the military that we attracted. One of whom was Liam Madden, who was in town with a few friends from Quantico, Virginia. From there, we then had a smaller meeting with just the active duty folks and began to have a deeper discussion with David about the GI movement and about what we could potentially do to harness our power within the moment we found ourselves in. We wanted to know what we could do. We were a group of active duty that were questioning. We then began to explore GI regs that night. And, and then it went on after the meeting.

We began to look at several DOD directives. We began to look at, can we do a petition? When we looked at the regs around petitioning, we saw that active duty military members are forbidden to petition. However, that we did come across this Military Whistleblower Protection Act, which states that any military member without prior command approval and without having to consult the chain on any level, can send a protected communication to a member of Congress on any issue. That right there, the Military Whistleblower Protection Act became the basis for the Appeal for Redress. We began to say, okay, we can’t petition. However, we can send protected communications, which means ideally we should be able to then collectively bring about these protected communications and channel a way to send them in a bulk way to members of Congress. That right there was the basis. Then we began to grapple and come up with language and then began to build out an organization going forward.

Matthew Breems:
So initially this just started with a handful of active duty military personnel, but it did blossom into several thousand at the peak of its success, if you will. What kind of influence do you feel like you had with members of Congress?

Jonathan Hutto:
So, and you’re right, from a small group, it was three of us that really pushed it initially, Liam Madden down at Quantico and Linsay Burnett out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. So as we built the appeal going forward, in terms of influence with Congress, the first Congress person to support us was Dennis Kucinich out of Ohio. I remember a McGovern out of Massachusetts, a Congressman McGovern out of Massachusetts. The late John Lewis was one of the early, early congresspeople to support us as well. But in terms of the influence and the power of the appeal, this is when I knew that the power of what we were doing had a more qualitative aspect than a quantitative aspect. It was not when we had a thousand signatures, even 500 or even a hundred, Matt. It was when we had 65 signatures. We had just started.

We launched on October 23rd ’06. Within about the first of November, we had 65 signatures. With those 65 signatures, Tony Snow the point press person for the Bush administration, within one of those press briefings was asked by a reporter about the Appeal for Redress, about these 65 active duty service members. And Tony Snow had to affirm our right to do what we were doing. That it was protected. However, he did attempt to marginalize what we were doing. To state that in no way that we speak for the mass populous of military members, et cetera. But that told me something. 65. By the time we got to almost 700, we were called both by Nation Magazine. And as you mentioned earlier, 60 Minutes wanted to do a story. By the time we got to the fall of ’07, we had nearly all of the progressive caucus within the Congress supporting us.

We did a press conference on Capitol Hill with the leading members of the progressive caucus was there with us, supporting us. We were helped immensely in this effort by the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., which subsequently awarded us the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award for our work. So that was the power. We were able to marshal and push support from a number of members of Congress. Of course, we weren’t able to end the wars and occupations in Iraq, if you will. But we certainly were able to add our voices and our muscle and to lay a framework and a guide for activism, what we would call frontline activism. Not waiting until you’re separated from active duty, but taking that service, taking that risk right then, right there. And in alignment with our Constitutional oath that we took to protect the Constitution against all enemies both foreign and domestic.

Matthew Breems:
Right? And that’s a very powerful precedent you were able to set for any future military personnel that need to voice their activism against military excursions and episodes across the globe.

Jonathan Hutto:
Oh yeah, absolutely. And that was what we wanted to do. And we were able to do that due to the genius, and I do call the genius, of David Cortright. As the appeal took off, I saw the genius of what he was doing, what he had advised us to do. David felt that the statement, the initial statement that we put out for the Appeal for Redress should not be as ideologically driven. He felt that the statement should actually be patriotic in tone and should be simple in nature, which allowed us to be able to capture a broad network of folks. We were able to capture people who, like myself were, were against imperialist war.

We were able… And I want to read the statement. The statement says, it’s on page 69 of my book that I wrote that was published in April 2008 from Nation Books, Anti War Soldier, which captures that time, how to dissent within the ranks of the military. The statement says, “As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq. Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. Troops to come home.” And so we were able to have a broad base and to show the broad breadth of this struggle.

Matthew Breems:
You mentioned the memoir that you wrote back in 2008. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Like what was your motivation behind it and what does the book cover?

Jonathan Hutto:
I never aspired to write a book. I was actually in the midst of struggle, in the midst of the Appeal for Redress doing mass interviews, speaking on campuses, going to mass demonstrations. And in the midst of this work, working alongside veterans and peace organizations, I got a call from a Nation Books. And they made a pitch. They said, “Look, we like for you to capture in a book a little bit about your life. Some autobiographical pieces about you. What inspired you to do this work and what the Appeal for Redress is all about and a way forward.”

And what the book seeks to do because it… The Anti-War Soldier is the title, but the real purpose of the book is how to dissent within the ranks of the military. It breaks down anecdotally what we were doing, but it also gives the legal framework and the basis, both legal to what we were doing, but also historical in terms of what inspired it, the GI movement coming out of the Vietnam War and a way forward in terms of how active duty military members can be, not just part of, but integral to the conversation.

Matthew Breems:
Jonathan, how has your activism changed as you came out of the Iraq conflict era? What is your activism look like now in these more recent years?

Jonathan Hutto:
In the spring of 2012, I had helped to reconstitute the Prince George’s People’s Coalition. This is a coalition of organizations and lay persons concerning the county where I lived, Prince George’s County, Maryland. So I helped to reconstitute that coalition in the aftermath of what happened in Sanford, Florida to Trayvon Martin, and to leverage our work to a number of local cases that were taking place in Prince George’s County. Within a year of reconstituting our coalition, we were in the streets in direct response to that verdict out of Sanford, Florida, that horrendous verdict in that Trayvon Martin case, which launched and sparked, as you know, what is still moving today, the Black Lives Matter movement.

And so that’s what I did coming out of the military, went back to boots on the ground. I was working within a doctoral program at Howard University. I also began to work with a number of nonprofit organizations over the years. I’ve worked with Gamaliel. I’ve worked with Veterans for Peace. I most recently worked with Empower D.C. for housing as a human right for all human beings. In terms of the activism I’ve been engaged in is the nexus between peace at home and abroad, the deep connection between peace at home and abroad. The understanding that the major reason why the United States has this massive military industrial police complex as the late president, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us of…

The reason why we have this is because we have the gutting, the serious gutting of domestic priorities at home. We have the public sphere shrinking. We have schools closing. We have cities massively gentrifying. We’re at the lowest union participation ever in the country’s history. While we have this massive military industrial police complex, 700 plus military bases around the world, countries to this day, such as Germany and Japan, 80 plus years after World War Two, still occupied by the United States Military. Countries, such as Iran, surrounded by the United States Military, 11 aircraft carriers that literally occupy the world.

In fact, it is the United States military, and it’s only the United States military, that even makes the United States a superpower in the world today. It’s not our educational system, certainly not. It’s not because of what we produce. The United States hardly produces anything anymore. What it is, it’s our bombs. It’s the bombs of the United States. And sadly it is the complicity, both conscious and unconscious, of the American citizenry.

Matthew Breems:
Well, Jonathan, thank you so much for taking time to speak with me today. You just have a fascinating story of resistance to war within the military. So thank you so much.

Jonathan Hutto:
Thank you, Matt. And thank you and Jeff and Courage to Resist. Proud to be here and support this effort. And let’s continue to push ever onward, ever forward. The more we struggle, the more we know. The more we know, the more we’re able to do. And humanity is going to need us to do until we die. So we press ever forward.

Matthew Breems:
This podcast is a Courage to Resist production recorded and edited by Matthew Breems with special thanks to executive producer, Jeff Paterson. Visit couragetoresist.org for more information and to offer your support.

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