The Second Vandenberg Air Force Base Blockade, March 1983

"I was there..."

Part One

By Osha Neumann

Originally published in It’s About Times, the Abalone Alliance newspaper, April-May 1983, titled “Impressions of a CD action”


Anti-nuclear activists in affinity groups practice for nonviolent civil disobedience.

Photo: It's About Times

In March of 1983 an organized group of anti-nuclear activists staged a multiple day protest at Vandenberg Air Force base in Santa Barbara County, California. The demonstrators gathered to speak out against the development and launch of the MX Missile; they used non-violent civil disobedience tactics and attempted to disrupt operations at the base in order to bring attention to their cause. By the end of the week of actions, over 800 people had been arrested for breaking police lines, blocking traffic, and even for sneaking deep into the base through the surrounding wilderness. Those arrested strategically coordinated to continue their disobedience, and refused to give up any personal information—partially succeeding to protect fellow protestors facing harsher charges.

On Monday, March 21, 1983, the year's second major civil disobedience action at the Vandenberg Air Force Base began. It continued throughout the week, with final arrests on Thursday bringing the total to well over 800.

From the Vandenberg base, located in central California's Santa Barbara County, flight tests of many of this country's strategic missiles are launched. The first test of the MX missile will take place here as soon as Congress approves a basing plan. At each test, a missile arcs thousands of miles over the Pacific Ocean to a target on Kwajelain Atoll in the Marshall Islands, which has been evacuated so that the US military can play its war games. Both protests were intended to publicize, hinder and disrupt the development of first strike weapons.

Because advance media work in the Bay Area was sparse, the recent action didn't get the notice it deserved in the press. Yet its size and enthusiasm was overwhelming.

Sunday: the warmup rally

On a stage erected at one end of a cavernous hall at the Santa Maria public fairgrounds, a band with flute, electric guitars and tablas is playing a kind of rock-reggae. Face paint and masks abound in the swirling crowd. Two blue-clad cops, one with an elaborate waxed moustache, look pained at the carnival atmosphere. Outside it rains.

Monday morning

Before dawn on the day of the blockade, those who plan to slip onto the base and hike through its back country wake each other up. They huddle in circles, then make for the vehicles that will carry them to their drop-off points. A little later, steaming mush with lumps of dried fruit is served at the mess hall. Coffee addicts groan as the short supply of their drug runs out. For the pure, there is an abundant supply of herbal tea.

The main gate

The demonstrators begin to assemble around 7 a.m. On both sides of the gate, ornamental sloping stone walls support the emblem of the Strategic Air Command: a mailed fist clutching bolts of lightning. The walls are wrapped Christo-like in clear plastic to protect them from blood or spray paint.

Guards in an assortment of uniforms bespeaking various ranks and status defend the gate. Some gleam in sado-masochistic splendor, berets at jaunty angles, lots of white brocade, pegged pants tucked into boots, black leather accessories. The ordinary grunts wear fatigues and carry simple wooden clubs held at waist height.

At the intersection in front of the gate, state and local police are preventing people from walking against the lights. A green line drawn in January, still faintly visible, indicates the boundary of federal property. To cross this line without permission is to trespass.

On the opposite side of the intersection is an empty lot. It too is is apparently valuable federal property, for it has its own line of MP's. Every once and a while a spectator who backs up an inch too far onto this bit of land is seized by the MP s and hauled away. Never mind that he or she didn't intend to get arrested.

A woman caught in this manner is dragged backwards across the street, followed by a stunned child who is snatched out of the way of traffic by friends. These occasional unplanned arrests point up the fact that for all the ritualized quality of the combat, we have not in fact agreed to the game, and aren't playing by the same rules.

Throughout the day, contingents of demonstrators emerge from the crowd into the forbidden spaces of the intersection and are arrested. Sometimes it seems like amateur hour: each group has its own style, its moment to do its act before the hook of authority descends.

One group converges from the four corners of the intersection with the practiced timing of professionals. They bring with them a cardboard mock-up of the MX missile, which they set in the center of the roadway. They cluster round, falling on top of it as if it were an opposing halfback stopped at the line of scrimmage. The cops pry the pile apart. Arms are twisted behind backs, wrists painfully bent. At last, two cops pick up the missile and carry it off as evidence. Wild cheers from the crowd.

A woman in the garb of a belly dancer steps to center stage. Traffic is blocked as she begins a dance, soon cut short by two policemen. Gunther the clown, captured for drifting into the empty lot, highsteps towards detention.

And so it goes. The children's contingent, calling itself the "Baby Bears," waits patiently for the light, crosses in the crosswalk, and then sits down in a circle in front of the gate. They are quickly surrounded by police, who lead them away. Finally only two boys remain who refuse to budge. The older and bigger of the two has his arm twisted behind his back and is forced to his feet. The second smaller boy is picked up and carried away. He flashes a peace sign to the crowd.

While most groups are arrested somewhere in the roadway, others make off down the edge of the high way, then duck under a strand of wire onto the base. MP's with batons quickly converge on them. Guard dogs snap from the ends of leather leashes.

By four in the afternoon, the last rite of civil disobedience has been performed. For the supporters left outside, days of waiting and wondering remain.


Prepared with rituals and rain gear, the "occupiers" are dropped off on rural roads in a landscape of rolling chaparral. Hidden by the immense spaces and low-lying shrubbery, they hope to hike within sight-feel-touch of the missile launching sites, the silos, and the assembly buildings.

Throughout the week, rumors of their exploits circulate. The papers report that the base commander is annoyed at the serious breaches of security. One group which reached the missile assembly building, prevented workers from entering it for nearly half an hour. Another fifty occupiers reached the Minuteman silos. From the southern edge of the base, at least two groups set off for the high security Space Shuttle area. After a grueling 10-hour hike through darkness and rain, one group was rewarded with the sight of the Space Shuttle buildings emerging from the fog.

After the arrests

One clogged phone line leading to the legal office conveys inadequate information about the fate of the arrestees. They are like mountain climbers lost from sight of the base camp. All of them have rehearsed their performance in jail. They are ready for the final act of the protest: the confrontation between the jail solidarity of the protesters and the determination of the system to make of them a deterring example. But how is the performance going? We on the outside have only the vaguest idea.

Their chief antagonist is assistant US attorney Bill Landers. Rumors have it he has been given complete authority to deal with the situation as he wishes. Rumors say he is getting calls from military bases all over the country asking advice. This is chance to shine.

I catch a glimpse of him on Monday when he emerges briefly into a crowd of chanting demonstrators at the gate. The painted and masked protesters swirl around him. He looks young and pained and rigid with self-importance. It is as he is afflicted with the moral equivalent of the hormone imbalance that causes young children to grow prematurely old and wrinkled.

The sentences and treatment of the prisoners vary wildly. Some, chosen in a seemingly arbitrary way, are released almost immediately. Others, especially if they are “second offenders,” are held for nearly two weeks.

This second invasion of Vandenberg won’t be the last.

Part Two

Originally published in “It’s About Times,” the Abalone Alliance newspaper, April-May 1983, titled “Jail solidarity vs. the Feds”

By Jane Doe #166

The Vandenberg action of March 21 to 24 resulted in about 800 arrests, a much higher number than had been expected. Those arrested by state authorities on the highway in front of the main gate were taken to the county jail and cited for obstructing traffic, then released.

Most of the demonstrators, however, were arrested by Air Force security police and were held for at least a day and a night in classrooms at the Vandenberg education center.

The quality of the protestors' contact with Air Force personnel varied greatly. Groups with leaflets met many military people who were willing and eager to accept their literature. One Air Force guard reportedly asked for more leaflets "for his friends," while others talked openly. with arrestees when their superiors weren't around. At least one was willing to pass notes between protestors detained in different rooms. And a base security officer abandoned her post, saying she couldn't take it any more.

On the other hand, many tired and overworked Vandenberg SP's were happy to flaunt their power. Some threatened to unleash attack dogs on non-cooperators while others confiscated blankets at 5:30 a.m. from people trying to sleep on the cold hard linoleum floors.

Groups of prisoners in different classrooms managed to communicate with each other through walls and windows, or while passing each other as they were escorted to and from the bathrooms. On Tuesday morning, the word went up and down the row of classrooms that one group had been handcuffed all the previous day and night, and that four people being held in isolation from their groups might be facing stiffer charges.

Immediately, group after group demanded that those handcuffed be unshackled and that the four isolated people be returned. Others attempted to resist the booking procedure until these demands were met. Many a protestor was dragged unwillingly out of the classrooms.

The US attorney on the case, Billy Landers, let it be known that if first time offenders simply gave their names, they would be released with "ban and bar letters." Apparently second time offenders (those having received such letters in January) would be dealt with in a harsher manner.

Solidarity discussions at the camp before the action had prepared participants to non-cooperate on a larger scale than at past antinuclear actions. Hundreds were willing to stay in solidarity with second time offenders, demanding equal treatment for all.

The first mass solidarity tactic was non-cooperation with the booking procedure. Hundreds of the prisoners were processed without giving their names or any other information, thus becoming Jane or John Doe number whatever. Others tried to contort their faces while being photographed and did not readily give, their fingerprints -- until a court order and threats of violence by federal marshals caused them to succumb. After the booking procedure, small groups were taken by marshals, at times forcibly, to be arraigned.

All but a few of the hundreds of Jane and John Does refused to enter a plea in front of the magistrates, in hopes of eventually being granted a mass arraignment to insure more equal sentencing. After seeing the magistrates, demonstrators were transported to one of several facilities where they were held for up to 12 days at the time of this writing. The facilities included Lompoc Federal Correctional Institution, Los Angeles and Orange County Jails and Terminal Island Federal Prison in Los Angeles.

Later in the week, thirty men were taken to a federal prison in Florence, Arizona. Some arrestees were never even taken to see a magistrate at Vandenberg, whether or not they had non-cooperated. Instead they were given ban and bar letters as Jane or John Doe and driven off the base for release -often in the middle of the night.

This arbitrary, discriminatory and unequal treatment of arrestees brought about the realization that just as the participants in the action had their tactics in gear, so did the government. Its strategy was an attempt to divide and conquer -- or at least to divide and confuse (which often succeeded).

On Saturday morning, federal marshals came into the training center at the Lompoc prison where approximately 100 women were being held and called out the numbers of ten Jane Does. Not wanting to be separated from the larger group, many of the women took off their clothes and huddled together, hiding their faces so they couldn't be identified. They also hoped that the mostly male marshals wouldn't dare touch a bunch of naked women. But the marshals were not deterred.

The scene which followed was a horrifying one. Women were dragged apart and handcuffed, their arms twisted and bruised and their hair pulled until the marshals were satisfied that they had the ten women they wanted by way of matching photos and faces. This and other instances of violence and threats of violence made it clear that the marshals would get what they wanted, regardless of resistance.

Solidarity had worked, at least to a point. But it was clear that certain demands, such as mass arraignment and equal sentencing, would have to be foregone unless everyone was willing to hang tough for quite awhile longer.

It did seem a little silly for first timers to wait another week just to be given a five-day sentence, when second timers were saying they didn't mind serving their extra few days. The first timers, they said, should feel free to leave with clear consciences since they had already demonstrated their solidarity--which had allowed second timers to get off more lightly than they had originally feared.

When the sentences were finally meted out by the magistrates, it was clear that solidarity had resulted in relatively lenient, but not completely equal, treatment for everyone.

Sentencing seemed partially to depend upon the person's status as a first or second time offender and partially on the whims of the magistrate involved. First time offenders were mostly given five- or seven-day sentences. Since most of them had been in jail longer than that already, they were released for time served. Second time trespassers were given up to fourteen-day sentences, a far cry indeed from the months that had originally been threatened.

If the solidarity message of the action was loud and clear, the government's response was too: When you mess with the feds they're gonna mess with you right back.

It's little wonder that the government wants to instill fear in anyone contemplating further action at Vandenberg. Base commander Major General Jack Watkins confirmed that protesters made their way to sensitive areas of the base, a serious breach of national security It will be hard for the government to go ahead with its MX test if the Vandenberg back country is swarming with protestors like it was during the Vandenberg action, Part Two.

The government's scare tactic may make some think twice before returning to space and missile country. But the strength of th movement's solidarity has made many a Jane and John Doe want to come back for the next round.

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