A coalition of about 30 peace groups has proven triumphant in its goal of shutting down the Army Experience Center (AEC) in a suburban shopping mall in Philadelphia. The Army announced on June 10 that it will close down the recruitment center on July 31, 2010, four months before its lease expires.
The beleaguered $13 million, 14,500 square foot AEC at Franklin Mills Mall has been the center of controversy since it opened its doors in August of 2008. Its closure is a testament to the steely resolve of a handful of activists from New York to Maryland who were intent on the facility's demise. They organized several protests of hundreds of people that resulted in a dozen arrests, as well as regular vigils and a boycott of mall owner Simon Property Group, Inc.
Witnessing 13-year-old boys giving each other high fives for "blowing away ragheads" while the simulated blood of Afghans poured on their screens provided enough stimulus to turn outrage to action. The U.S. Army was ultimately forced to retreat, bringing to mind the revolutionary words of Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
The AEC boasts dozens of video game computers and X-Box consoles with various interactive, military-style shooting games. The facility has sophisticated Apache helicopter and Humvee simulators that allow teens to simulate battlefield killing. Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Rob Watson compared the Army Experience Center to "a heavy dose of candy cigarettes."
When the center opened, the Army announced it was designed as a pilot program and would decide whether to launch them nationally. As recently as August 2009, Captain Jared Auchey, Company Commander at Franklin Mills, was boasting of the center's success and claiming others were being planned across the country. But the protests escalated. Dozens of local and national peace groups joined the “Shut Down the Army Experience Center” campaign.
The campaign infiltrated the AEC's Facebook page, and for days several dozen people opposed to the center dominated a discussion of the ethical implications of recruiting youth using video games. The Army eventually moved to ban many of its new Facebook "friends," but others took their places and the "unwelcome disruptions" continued.
Demonstrators typically cited moral rather than political reasons in their signage and statements to the press. Bill Deckhart, coordinator of BuxMont Coalition for Peace Action, described the AEC as "a monument to dishonesty." He continued, "The AEC teaches children killing without consequence. Real warfare does not have reset buttons or multiple lives. To give this impression to our youth is immoral and must be stopped." It is this burning resolve and strategic messaging that has caused the Army to reconsider its plans to establish video arcade recruiting centers in shopping malls across the country.
Organizers were assisted by St. Luke's United Church of Christ, located adjacent to the mall. When activists asked if the church and its grounds could be used as a staging area for the protests, the pastor responded, "Of course!"
Elaine Brower, who became a leading activist in the campaign to shut down the center and whose son joined the Marines at age 17, was arrested twice. “This is a victory for the entire peace and anti-war movement. The teamwork and coalition building that was accomplished led to our success. We were relentless in our struggle to shut this center down."
The sustained work of committed activists like Brower forced the otherwise complacent mainstream media to take notice. It's difficult to ignore several hundred angry protesters and just as many police and Army officials along with dozens of rabid, militaristic counter-protesters at the local mall. Taking their cues from Gandhi and King, demonstrators held numerous spirited, creative, nonviolent protests — and it worked. No one lost their cool, except for a few Philadelphia police officers, some of whom couldn't differentiate between First Amendment exercise and petty criminal behavior. All of those arrested eventually had their charges dropped.
Military officials were caught off guard by the frequent protests. When asked to comment on the obvious public indignation, Army spokesmen had a variety of responses. Often they tried to isolate the protesters by politicizing the issue. Sometimes they'd question the patriotism of protesters or speak in general terms, defending the necessity of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Military Times said the fate of the AEC was attributable to economics rather than protests even though when it first opened the Army said it would save money because it replaced five traditional recruiting stations in the suburban Philadelphia area.
The Army's propaganda could never offer an adequate defense of encouraging 13-year-olds to shoot simulated weaponry. Capt. Auchey said the facility is "an innovative way to communicate to society." He often made the point that the same types of combat video games were available just steps away at a mall arcade. Of course, those video games aren't offered for free at taxpayer expense.
When asked why there was so much controversy surrounding the AEC, Program Manager Major Larry Dillard responded, "I think they're terrified it'll work." The major was right.
The Army realizes that sophisticated computer animation that simulates combat is a powerful hook to lure youth. Rather than locate mega-recruiting centers in suburban shopping malls, the Army is now expressing an interest in bringing combat simulations into traditional neighborhood recruiting centers, hoping they will become a cool place for youth to "chill." The Army already has several dozen converted 18-wheel trucks with combat simulators that are used primarily for recruiting on high school campuses.
The closure of the AEC represents the third major counter-recruitment victory with national implications in a little over a year. Last year, activists in San Diego were successful in banning the use of firing ranges affiliated with JROTC programs on high school campuses. This spring a group in Maryland facilitated legislation prohibiting the automatic release of Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test results to the Pentagon for students who take the military’s test in schools. These successes underscore the public's growing disdain for aggressive military recruiting of children and provide a template for similar campaigns across the country.
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (http://www.comdsd.org/)