It’s as much ritual as protest, and both sides know the drill cold. Before the test launch of an ICBM, anti-nuclear demonstrators clutching homemade signs gather outside Central California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base where the Pacific Coast Highway knifes through the sprawling installation. They stand on one side of the prominent green line painted across the asphalt near the guard shack, while military police stand on the other. Eventually, a small knot of the protesters emerges from the larger group and strides across the line, and into the arms of the waiting, and likely a little bored, MPs. Arrests for trespassing follow, and soon enough everyone who isn’t now wearing bracelets goes back to their workaday activities.
Usually the sacrificial lambs are few and not overly prominent, but a launch earlier this year drew an all-star cast of peaceniks—Daniel Ellsberg, Cindy Sheehan, Father Louis Vitale, MacGregor Eddy, and (sometime Miller-McCune.com contributor) David Krieger, among others—to deliver to the base commander a letter explaining that the launch breached the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and was therefore illegal. But with the Air Force having a different view of the proceedings, the only detentions for illegal activities made this day were of activists.
As Brock Brower described in our July-August magazine issue, in an article titled “Going Ballistic”:
That February launch drew a small surge of 70 nuclear protesters at Vandenberg’s Lompoc gates, led emeritus by Dan Ellsberg, now 81. A band of 15 protesters—other antinuclear activists like David Krieger and the Franciscan priest Louis Vitale among them—trespassed over a painted green line and onto VAFB, and were promptly arrested. They face charges, and if it comes to more than a fine, there is the federal penitentiary (where Father Vitale has already done time) down Klein Boulevard, past artichoke fields bordering the base, tucked into grand green ridges.
But prison time is rarely part of the kabuki, and that was the case this time, too. Wednesday a federal court agreed with the district attorney and dismissed all the charges, including those against two protesters who didn’t want the dismissal so that they could air their concerns publicly in trial. With no bully pulpit provided, they instead put their thoughts on the Internet.
So closed the curtain on this drama, with Vitale declaring “victory.”
The next performance? Well, there’s another Minuteman III test launch scheduled for Nov. 13, and the veterans are already making plans for a sequel.