The crosswalk in front of Vandenberg Air Force Base has an extra thick painted green line where protesters gathered today to commemorate the 25th anniversary of anti-war demonstrations at the base.
After a short symbolic march along Highway 1, the group gathered at the front entrance of the base, where the green line demarcates the boundary that protesters may not cross. From here the marchers pleaded with airmen to abandon their posts and join the protest against nuclear weapons. They offered housing and support for any military personnel and their families who wished to leave their posts.
When their offer went unanswered, three protesters stepped forward and, linking arms, crossed the green line and surrendered themselves to Air Force Police. The three were identified as Larry Purcell, Ed Ehmke, and Mary Jane Parrine. Once they crossed the line officers repeatedly ordered the three to return to the other side; they calmly refused. One officer looked at his watch and told them they had two minutes to change their minds or be arrested. As time ran out, he asked them if there was anything he could say or do to make them go back. Parrine responded that he could shut down the missile tests. The officer signaled for the three to be taken into custody and they were led away as the rest of the protesters cheered.
Speaking at a pre-march rally in a parking lot in nearby Vandenberg Village, organizer Bruce Gagnon, who was himself in the Air Force until protests outside of his base changed his mind towards peace activism, said, “America is addicted to war and militarism.” Gagnon, who is the coordinator of Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, warned that the testing and other operations at Vandenberg are “moving the arms race into space.”
In 1983 the first nuclear-capable Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) was tested at Vandenberg and since then the base’s mission has expanded to launching and monitoring orbiting satellites, and managing space surveillance operations, in addition to its work with missiles. The protests also began in 1983.
Bud Boothe, 83 and a WWII combat veteran, was present at that first rally where hundreds were arrested and he has come back every chance he gets. Boothe says he has been arrested four times over the years. One time he was taken into custody with 22 others including including actor Martin Sheen who crossed the green line in an attempt to deliver a letter to the base commander, pleading for an end to the missile tests. Boothe smiled as he recalled that he once told a federal magistrate who reviewed his war record, and called him a hero, “What I did at Vandenberg was more heroic than anything I did in Germany.”
Although the number of protestors at Vandenberg’s gate has waxed and waned over the years, the March 2 action suffered no shortage. Organizers from Catholic Worker said that 161 people joined the march, from groups including Pacific Life Community, the Green Party of Santa Barbara, and the Santa Barbara Chapter of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Most of the participants, like Boothe, live in the county but many of the day’s marchers came from as far away as Los Angeles and Orange County. Some, such as Cal State Fullerton’s Students for Peace and Social Justice, came in buses provided by the organizers. Holding signs and beating drums as they marched alongside the busy highway, the crowd drew a cacophony of supportive honks from passing cars, with a few fully extended middle fingers to balance things out.
The Air Force declined to comment on the march, give a crowd estimate, or cite the specific charges against those arrested other than to say they supported the marchers’ right to protest. The base even provided parking and toilet facilities, but that does not mean that it welcomed their presence. Earlier in the day there was a tense mood in the base’s visitor center as a few officers went over a binder containing information on well-known protesters One leader pointed to a photo and told his subordinates to keep their eyes on him. The base’s website provides a detailed list of regulations for protesters to follow, and a fact sheet on the effects of pepper spray, as well as a description of what you can expect should you be detained.
Dennis Apel, one of the key organizers, has been detained three times. He is perhaps best known for spraying a syringe of his own blood onto a sign at the entrance gate during a 2003 demonstration. Today the signs are covered with black netting, perhaps to prevent another bloodbath courtesy of Mr. Apel. Like many others in the crowd, Apel has been served with ban-and-bar letters prohibiting him from being on the property even for peaceful protests. “They’re willing to take a risk for their convictions,” he said of those who came despite the letters. While usually these restrictions last 3 years, Apel claimed the Air Force is trying to serve him with a lifetime ban; but every time they try to deliver the papers, he politely declines to accept them. As the protesters returned to their buses, satisfied in their efforts to end the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Apel remarked, “I’ve been here for 11 years. They know the kind of person I am.”