Protesters offer training for security
By Staff Sgt. Rebecca Bonilla, 30th Space Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 23, 2003
VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFPN) -- Security forces here responded to nearly 50 protesters at a base gate March 22 and arrested three.
Another group of military supporters gathered at the gate to lend their encouragement to the base and its people.
During the weeks leading up to the protest, groups informed the base they would exercise their First Amendment right to free speech at the gate. Some groups threatened unlawful trespassing and disruption of base operations through so-called "back-country" incursions and damage to government property.
In response, members of the 30th Security Forces Squadron, the 76th Helicopter Flight and local law-enforcement agencies stepped up base patrols and surveillance of Vandenberg's 99,099 acres.
In order to accommodate lawful protesters at the gate, the base set up a designated parking area, put out portable toilets and trash bins, and erected fencing to mark areas for protesters' use.
Base security forces, the California Highway Patrol and Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department officers were on hand to direct traffic and ensure the protesters' safety.
"This is great training for our security forces," said Capt. Paul Quigley, 30th Security Forces Squadron operations officer. "Rather than hindering our mission, these people are providing us training that we don't normally get on a regular basis."
As a symbol of civil disobedience, two women and one man crossed the green line of the base's boundary at the gate. A security forces officer gave the three people two minutes to leave base property. When they refused, Vandenberg security forces took them into custody.
People arrested at the main gate for trespassing are taken to a processing facility here, said Maj. Stacee Bako, the Vandenberg public affairs officer. If they have no prior arrests, they are cited for misdemeanor trespassing -- a conviction that carries a penalty of up to one year confinement and a $5,000 fine, she said. With no prior record, they are then released.
Those who do have prior records can be taken into custody by U.S. Marshals and transported to San Bernardino County for processing, said Maj. Ed Damico of the base staff judge advocate's office. The decision to hold them further rests with the U.S. Attorney's office and depends on the prior record, he said.
Meanwhile, at some of Vandenberg's less-traveled entry points, security forces and Vandenberg fish and game wardens responded to people who appeared to be attempting to penetrate the base perimeter.
Vandenberg game warden Jim Mercier stopped a known activist at the Miguelito Canyon entrance to South Vandenberg.
The man was wearing old military-uniform pants and was carrying supplies and maps of the base, Mercier said.
"He looked like he was ready for a hike," the warden said. "He may have been trying to actually come on base or he may have been taking notes to come back later."
Either way, Mercier said, the man never actually set foot on base property so he was simply directed to leave.
Later, a call came in from an observation point that several people had jumped out of a red van at the base's southern perimeter.
As a base UH-1N Huey helicopter flew by, the people reportedly jumped back into their van and departed the area.
Mercier and his partner, Carolyn Curry, responded to check the area on foot. After surveying the area, Mercier reported that it was all clear.
"I did see a rattlesnake, though," he said.
"This is not the most friendly country to be trespassing in," Bako said. "Illegal trespassers will encounter many dangers. ... There are poisonous snakes, wild animals and unexploded ordnance from when Vandenberg was an Army training bombing range."
No other trespassers were apprehended.
"We have always been very supportive of peaceful protests outside our gates," Bako said. "But there is a clear distinction between peaceful protest and unlawful entry."