Sticks and Stones

An Appeal to Allow Freedom of Expression at Vandenberg Fails

Protesters trespassing on Vandenberg Air Force Base Feb. 25, 2012
Paul Wellman

“Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” —Theodore Roosevelt

On Monday, I was up before dawn, staring bleary-eyed at my laptop screen, waiting for the Supreme Court to release its orders for petition of certiorari. At 6:30 a.m. (9:30 a.m., Washington, D.C., time) the order was released; in the case of United States of America vs. John Dennis Apel, “Petition Denied.” The Supreme Court was, for the second and last time in two years, refusing to hear arguments regarding my right to peacefully express my opinion in public.

Thus ended a five-year odyssey that began in 2010 with my trespassing conviction for standing quietly on the easement of Highway 101, Pacific Coast Highway, outside the main gate at Vandenberg Air Force Base with a sign that read “No Weapons in Space.”

The cause for which I have a passion, and for which the peaceful expression of that passion resulted in my arrest more than 20 times at Vandenberg, was all but lost in the legal process. I was asserting my constitutional right to free speech, and the government was asserting the right of the commander of Vandenberg to deny me that right. The cause, my objection to the continued testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs, arguably the “biggest stick” our government carries) and, by extension, the continued irradiation of the waters and islands in the Marshall Islands and the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons in total disregard for our international treaty obligations, wasn’t mentioned much in the legal process.

I fell from grace at Vandenberg when on a clear, cold morning in March 2003, five days before the “Shock and Awe” campaign that began the invasion of Iraq, I stepped off the Highway 101 easement onto Vandenberg Air Force Base and poured a few ounces of my blood on the entry sign. In the short time it took to wash my blood off the rock wall, I had already been escorted by two assault-rifle-toting security police, and brought before a judge on the base who convicted me on the spot of trespassing and vandalism. I spent two months in federal prison for that action.

I considered the blood-pouring a prophetic statement. Iraq, which had already suffered 10 years of brutal sanctions that resulted in the deaths of 5,000 children per month, was to be brutalized further because our government insisted that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction, even though UNSCOM, the UN weapons inspection team, had declared Iraq free of such weapons. Saddam Hussein, the evil president of Iraq who had tortured and imprisoned his detractors and gassed the Kurds, was to be removed. To this day, 12 years later, Iraq is still unstable, we have lost thousands of American lives, tens of thousands of Americans have been permanently injured and disabled, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens have been killed or injured, no weapons of mass destruction were ever found. We, like Hussein, ended up imprisoning and torturing our detractors, we used chemical weapons on the people of Fallujah, and we completely destroyed the physical infrastructure that Saddam Hussein had spent decades constructing. Was the pouring of a few ounces of blood on the wall at Vandenberg prophetic? I suppose it depends on how one defines evil and to whom one attributes that evil.

In any case, Vandenberg officials decided they didn’t want me on their base. I totally understand that. But then, seven years later, they decided they didn’t want me on Pacific Coast Highway outside the main gate. This, I don’t understand. And I was prepared to be arrested as many times as it took to have our justice system, our “Nation of Laws,” convince the folks at Vandenberg that their self-image as a force whose mission is to protect our freedoms requires that they also honor our Constitution to protect even the opinions of those who disagree with their testing weapons of mass destruction.

I thought it would be a no-brainer. But when I sat three years later, after appeal upon appeal, with my wife and two children before the nine justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, I was shocked. There we heard Justice Scalia’s response to my attorney, Erwin Chemerinsky, bringing the issue of the First Amendment, the right to free speech, before the justices: “You can bring it, but it doesn’t mean we have to listen to it!” Any hope of convincing my kids that the Bill of Rights, which we had viewed at the National Archives the previous day, was alive and well, were crushed in that moment.

And so, on April 27, 2015, at 6:30 a.m. PST, after more appeals, the Supreme Court made its final proclamation that the justices are not going to hear my argument for free speech at Vandenberg. The proverbial stone has been dropped on my case and the proverbial “big stick,” Vandenberg’s hideous ICBMs, are still flying. We still test a weapon capable of delivering three independently targetable nuclear warheads, each with 30 times the explosive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. And we are able to deliver those warheads anywhere on the planet, to be unleashed on any mass of innocent civilians, within half an hour. And Vandenberg still has the authority to arrest anyone its commanders deem unwanted on the highway outside their base if they don’t like their dissent. I am disappointed and disillusioned. Maybe I am a sore loser, or perhaps it’s just sour grapes. But then … the realization that our country is not what we pretend it is does leave a sour taste in one’s mouth.


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