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Military bases pose threat to free speech and protest

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A ground-based interceptor launched Sunday afternoon from Vandenberg Airforce Base in California.

One of the most infuriating retorts I hear from police, guards and counter-demonstrators is that we, as demonstrators, must be at least somewhat grateful that we live in a society in which we can come out with signs and banners and espouse our views without being shot. Somehow, we are a testament to the freedom they are stifling. They see themselves as protecting our right to assemble and speak freely, even as they are not letting us speak, arresting us or worse. And they do it all capriciously, creating and then ignoring designated protest areas on a whim. They don’t let us talk to “the opposition” even when they are acquaintances. They don’t even respect their own lines and fences.

At Vanbenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) in Lompoc, California there is no longer any pretense of the right to peaceably assemble. Last Sunday, eight members of Vandenberg Witness were arrested for a “Violation of Security Regulation” and three more were given “ban and bar” notices even though they never entered the base. In fact, they stayed in the designated protest area and identified themselves as instructed. They were simply carrying letters of opposition from six different international organizations.

When asked why she was given two tickets, longtime organizer MacGregor Eddy of Salinas, CA was told by an arresting officer, “One is for showing up and one is for being here.” Another woman, Jude Evered of Goleta, CA, was held on the ground by two security guards, despite being in her eighties, with a soldier’s knee in her back. Her booking was interrupted because she had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance (notably, without police or MPs) for a shoulder injury she sustained after she was in custody.

Such harsh action against protesters at military bases has been on the rise, largely because there has never been a court ruling on whether the military can take obstructive action outside the fenced area of the base. Furthermore, no prosecutor or ACLU lawyer has taken any such case to court.

I won’t argue that demonstrators, even elderly ones, should engage in nonviolent direct action and act like they should be immune from the brutality of the state. But being in uniform should enhance one’s sensitivity to the force needed to make someone comply rather than be an excuse for wrenching frail arms out of sockets. I gasp when I hear other activists start down the slippery slope of racial profiling by feeling that somehow arresting officers should know that they are not going to receive blows from us and that they don’t need their riot gear. We are dangerous (to the status quo). We are a threat, if not a violent one (to those exercising unjust power).

The treatment at Vandenberg also brings to mind how the Navy wanted to ignore the fact that five Plowshares activists managed to infiltrate Naval Base Kitsap in Bangor, WA, in November. They cut through three fences to one of the largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons in the country. At first, they were ignored. Then, when security personnel finally took notice, they were made to lie down for several hours on the cold ground wearing hoods before eventually being charged with misdemeanors and released. Recently, however, the government reversed the charges to felonies, realizing, perhaps, that the public heard about the break in and was concerned about the security of the nuclear arsenal in their neighborhood. But their initial inclination was to be harsh on site, and then pretend that no action occurred.

This trend toward severe sentencing and leaving cases in legal limbo, as well as ignoring breeches of security and manufacturing alleged violations may be a sign of disorganization and uncertainty among military base commanders about their legal right to obstruct demonstrations. Whether or not there is a concerted effort to keep action planners guessing, the focus needs to remain on the issue being raised first—putting an end to missile tests—and being ready to argue when authorities put a chill on free speech and association that what they say they’re defending (the Constitution) is already stained and shredded.