A thick green line painted across the roadway separates protestors from the most advanced space weapons and missile testing facility in the world. Outside the main gate of Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB), located six miles north of Lompoc in northwestern Santa Barbara County, demonstrators gather with rocket-shaped signs. Pinwheels protrude from these mock rocket engines in place of superheated exhaust.
“Missiles into windmills,” the signs read at last Saturday’s anti-weapon in space protest.
However, signs near VAFB’s designated protest area – a narrow strip of grass between the busy Highway 1 roadway and a plastic orange snow fence – are not so easily read. Base security covered area street signs and all signs identifying VAFB with black sheets.
Oct. 11 was the last day of Keep Space for Peace Week, an international campaign organized by the Global Network Against Weapons in Space (GNAWS), which has 170 affiliate groups worldwide encompassing “literally millions of people,” National Coordinator Bruce Gagnon said. GNAWS sponsored dozens of nationwide protests last week – and hundreds of protests over the past 11 years – calling for the end of government spending on space-based military technology like the missile defense shield.
At VAFB, home of the Air Force’s 30th Space Wing, protestors from GNAWS and the Vandenberg Action Coalition (VAC) wanted more – the devotion of base facilities to the study of alternative energy sources rather than to the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“We feel the priorities of our government are wrong,” said Peter Cohen, Santa Barbara Coordinator of GNAWS. “We’d rather see Vandenberg direct its energy to so many other things, like solving global warming, poverty and ignorance. I’m not opposed to the military; I’m opposed to the policy.”
Cohen, a 77-year-old retired mural painter, served in the south Pacific during World War II. He said he has been an advocate for peace ever since, and campaigned against the Vietnam War during an unsuccessful 1968 candidacy for a Pennsylvania congressional seat. He agreed to organize this protest after eight other organizers were banned from the base following incidents of trespassing. In one incident, a protestor was arrested for splattering human blood on a VAFB sign in protest of the war in Iraq.
The 30 people who turned out for Saturday’s protest, mostly retirees, were a better turnout than Cohen was expecting.
“We do our thing and [our message] starts to sink in,” Cohen said, as he clutched a mock rifle barrel with a flower stuffed in it. “Over the course of time, we won’t have to be here.”
That thick green border demarcation line in front of the main gate guardhouse is easily crossed, but nearly a dozen uniformed VAFB security guards and cameramen are waiting and watching from the other side, documenting faces of protest participants and ready to record any trespassing attempt on film.
A helicopter flies over the roadway at regular intervals, and a base security officer hands out information packets to the crowd of about 30 people. The packet’s first page is a reminder that unauthorized base entry is forbidden. The second page is a fact sheet about the effects of pepper spray.
Second Lieutenant Michelle Mayo, a representative from 30th Space Wing Public Affairs who was observing the gathering, said the military cameras are there for visual documentation of the protest. She said that anyone who is arrested for crossing the green line gets a ticket, photographed and barred from the base for three years.
“Once they pass the line, we don’t know what their intentions are,” Mayo said.
As for the black sheets covering the VAFB signs, Mayo said they are covered to prevent protestor photo opportunities, but she did not elaborate.
Reached by phone the day before the protest, Major Stacee Bako, VAFB Public Affairs Officer, said the base is a national security asset and that operations are unaffected by protests.
“They have the right to protest whatever they want, but that doesn’t change our mission,” she said.
In response to protestor demands that VAFB convert to a center for alternative energy research, Bako said that in fact, the base is engaged in research of windmill-driven power generation.
“We’re in the preliminary design stage,” Bako said. “We’re looking into a small wind farm on the north side of the base that will generate 3 megawatts and supplement the base’s commercial power. It should be installed and functional by September of ’04.”
Bako said VAFB is also one of the largest federal users of electric and natural gas-powered vehicles.
“We’re always looking at different ways to conserve energy,” Bako said.
At around 3:00 p.m., the protestors gathered in a circle to introduce themselves and state aloud their feelings about weapons in space. Several minutes later, the helicopter that had been flying over the roadway returned to circle the crowd. Some demonstrators wondered aloud if this was an intentional form of harassment, since noise from the rotor blades made it very difficult to hear each other speak.
Dorothy Boothe, of Los Olivos, said a major person was missing from this gathering: her husband Bud, who took her to a protest on a first date 14 years ago.
Bud Boothe, 78, was one of the original co-founders of the VAC in 1983. He has been arrested several times for trespassing on base property. In October of 2000, he was one of 22 other protestors who was arrested with actor Martin Sheen for crossing the green line and attempting to deliver a letter to the base commander.
Reached by phone the day after Saturday’s protest, Boothe said “it hurt” not being able to participate in the demonstration because he was arrested – he says unjustly – again last December, three days before his probation from the Martin Sheen incident was due to end.
Boothe said backpackers have entered the base and escaped undetected, even after security was heightened after 9/11.
“People have backpacked deep into the base and hung banners on antenna equipment before,” Boothe said. “None of them have been arrested, but they arrest me for stepping over the green line.”
While some protestors say current windmill research is positive step for VAFB, most see it as a very small step-especially when compared to the billions of dollars still spent on space-based weapon systems.
Patrice Acuna, an 83-year-old Isla Vista resident who attended the protest, said she has marched for peace, civil rights and other causes throughout her life.
“I don’t like the way this country is going,” Acuna said. “No matter how hard I march, things just keep getting worse; it’s kind of depressing.”