FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSERS: I’m not expecting Hobert Parker Jr. to become the darling of the ACLU chicken-dinner circuit anytime soon. Parker’s commentary could induce the food to flow in contrary direction. Where Parker’s concerned, I’m guessing, just about everything flows in contrary direction. But Parker won a major legal battle against the Vandenberg Air Force Base commanders late last month over his freedom of speech and his right to assemble. When I called Parker up to discuss this David-versus-Goliath victory—achieved at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals—there was no customary exchange of hellos. Instead, his first words were, “What the hell you want?” His last words were, “Well, I have to get off the commode now.” In neither instance was he joking.
A 68-year-old retired iron worker and longtime Lompoc resident recently blinded by diabetes, Parker gives no hint of ever having gotten along by getting along. “I’m a stubborn, tenacious, unforgivable person,” he explained. That’s no doubt an understatement. I don’t pretend to understand the underlying dispute that started between Parker and Vandenberg security back in 1993. That, he said, would take hours to explain. We do know Parker was terminated from his iron worker job at the base on what he calls false charges. At some point, he sought to get back on the base. And at some point, he was arrested by base security for allegedly making threats, making nuisance phone calls, trespassing, and improper conduct in public. He admits he swears. But the rest, he said, is not to be believed. “These people lie even if they’re reciting the alphabet,” he said. No charges against Parker were ever brought. In 1994, he was issued the first of many notices banning him from base property.
Vandenberg commanders, it turns out, consider Ocean Avenue — a public road that bisects the vast Air Force facility — base property. Members of the public are allowed to traverse that road — even Parker — as if it was a public road, but when it comes to demonstrating against the base or carrying protest signs, base commanders insist they have the first, last, and middle word. They require all such protests be held by the front gate on Highway 1. They’ve established a green line over which protesters cannot cross without being arrested for trespassing. They also insist that protesters get clearance with base security at least two weeks before holding any such protests. Even then, base security insists it has the right to say who can and cannot protest. Anyone given a letter banning and barring them from the base can be arrested for trespassing, even if they stay on the safe side of the green line. Or at least they could. Once a month for the past 25 years, for example, a group of hardcore peaceniks and activists with Commies for Christ have assembled at the front gate to protest Vandenberg’s central role in the militarization of the space race. Dennis Apel — a leader in the Catholic Worker Movement — has been arrested 13 times for trespassing and two times for civil disobedience.
By contrast, Parker has waged a one-man campaign protesting base security practices. Between 1993 and 2006, he held intermittent protests along Ocean Avenue without ever getting arrested. But then in November 2006, Parker was arrested no less than five times. What prompted the change remains unclear. Maybe it was Parker’s penchant for wearing white underpants over his blue jeans and dry-mooning base personnel. “The constitution does not require that you qualify for the Top Ten Best Dressed list to exercise your constitutional rights,” he elaborated. And there’s little doubt that Parker could be belligerent, defiant, and, in his words, unforgivably rude. In a YouTube video documenting his fourth arrest, Parker repeatedly exhorts one young Air Force security officer to have sex with a fish. When that officer attempts to serve Parker with his citation papers, Parker indelicately suggests the young man use the citation in lieu of toilet paper. When Parker sought to walk past — or through — one of the security officers, he was handcuffed, placed on the ground, and rolled over on him stomach. He claims the video shows a degree of violence that I didn’t see. But I also didn’t see why the security officers had to stop Parker in the first place. Or why they blocked his path after they told him to walk that direction.
Parker didn’t just get pissy. He got even. A federal magistrate — no doubt exasperated at Parker’s efforts at self-representation — ordered a federal public defender to take his case. That public defender, James Locklin, argued that Parker could not be guilty of trespassing because Vandenberg Air Force Base did not hold exclusive rights to the public road in question. It turns out that Vandenberg shares that road with the State of California, which in turn, transferred its authority to the County of Santa Barbara. It’s a simple legal argument supported by all the tricky sounding Latin phraseology, italicized words, and hair-splitting allusions to precedent-setting cases that make legal texts such riveting reading. The federal magistrate told Locklin to pound sand and found Parker guilty of trespassing. An appellate judge said the same. But on May 24, three judges from the Ninth Circuit Court ordered Parker’s convictions be “VACATED.” The Air Force could not claim it was trespassed, the judges opined, if it did not in fact enjoy “exclusive right of possession” over Ocean Avenue.
For the peace protesters, the implications are huge. If Parker’s charges didn’t hold up, then all the times they’d been arrested were bogus, too. Naturally, Dennis Apel mentioned this to base security when making arrangements for the June 1 protest at Vandenberg’s gate. He said they were aware of the ruling. But when he showed up to protest, they arrested him anyway. Base attorneys point out because Parker’s ruling was not a “published opinion,” it carried no weight of precedent. But Apel has his own case pending before the Ninth Circuit Court, and it’s hard to imagine it won’t affirm the Parker decision.
When it comes to the intersection between personal freedom and government power, it doesn’t get much more basic than where you can — and cannot — go. Clearly, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Hobert Parker Jr., “unforgivable” as he may be. In his honor, as you get off the commode, flush twice.