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Peace Games

However far apart the public-relations officials of the U.S. Air Force and the organizers of the Vandenberg Action Coalition may sound on the current war, they agree resoundingly on one thing: Reports of shoot-to-kill patrols roaming the grounds for trespassing peaceniks have been greatly exaggerated. "It was a point of some misconception," said VAC coordinator Peter Lumsdaine a few days before the Saturday rally, when news broke of the offending Vandenberg AFB press release. "They have not said, 'We're shooting to kill trespassers.' They're saying, 'We'll use force as we deem it necessary.' If people are being attacked, that's one thing. But in 21 years of action on the base, we haven't so much as thrown a punch. And the Air Force certainly doesn't want martyrs."

Rebecca Bonilla of Vandenberg's press office told me almost exactly the same thing: "I think there was a lot of misunderstanding there," she said. "If equipment is being damaged or operations are being interfered with, obviously we have to do something. But we try to create the conditions for a safe protest."

A quietly pretty woman with the reassuring voice of a benevolent young doctor, Bonilla politely directed me to the protest site at the Vandenberg gate, where all identifying signs have been ominously covered in black cloth. Due to an altercation with a Dodge SLT pickup truck on the freeway just south of Ventura, I was two hours late to the vigil, which began at 1 p.m.; all I could do was chase down stragglers as they loaded into their cars at the parking lot at the school across the street (I ignored the remaining man on the street corner, a pro-war advocate with a huge cardboard hand pointing "thumbs up" to Bush). Kathryn Ellis, 22, and Kris Guard, 23, both of whom were on spring break from Cal State Monterey Bay, were just pulling away.

"We came down because we thought it would be better to inconvenience the military than the city of San Francisco," said Ellis. "But I don't think we even did that. This thing today was so frickin' small!"

Guard concurred. "There was like one police car for every three people," she said. "All the guards and police were all lined up in riot gear for about 35 people." Three people offered themselves up to be arrested by crossing the green line in front of the gate, but hardly with any drama. "It was really very formal," she said. "It was like they'd rehearsed it or something."

Ellis gave me the brochure of one of the arrestees, a man named Sanderson Beck, who plans to run for president on the Democratic ticket. She and Guard decided against civil disobedience today. "It's not my style," said Ellis. "I thought I might lose my financial aid."

"Plus," added Guard, "I'm supposed to spend tomorrow with my grandmother."

In another corner of the parking lot, Frank Nolan, one of the vigil's organizers, was sitting in his pickup truck, with a slightly higher head count. "I'd say there were about 50," he told me. "And it went well. Three folks were arrested: Sheila Baker, Sister Mary Pat White, and that other guy, the one who's running for president. Sister Mary Pat really prayed over this for a long time. She sees it as part of her religious calling."

When four of Vandenberg's security personnel drove up in what looked like a golf cart and told us they were closing the parking lot, I jumped in Nolan's truck, and we drove across the street, where another wave of protesters was just arriving — "the southern contingent," as one of them described it, fresh from the Santa Barbara peace march. "We're here for consciousness-raising," said Judith Evered, a member of the 88-year-old Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. "That's what my group does, anyway." Evered walked back and forth a few times with about 10 others, and finally returned to her car as the Air Force police drove up with the friendly warning that the base was about to start towing.

"They're trying to tell us there's no place to park," I heard one woman shout. "If this isn't a military police state, I don't know what is!"

Whether competing protests in neighboring cities or the frightening reiteration of Vandenberg's trespassing policy kept participants away, it was not, all told, the most eventful day in the history of activism at the base. In October 2000, more than 200 people showed up to express their opposition to the Star Wars missile-defense system, 23 of whom were arrested, including actor Martin Sheen. Last July, several Greenpeace activists delayed a missile test for a few minutes by infiltrating the base. (Initially charged with felonies, the activists were given sentences of one year's probation after Greenpeace signed an agreement to discontinue civil disobedience at the base.)

Even Bonilla seemed a little disappointed. "We've had as many as a hundred people crossing that green line to get arrested," she said as she escorted me, sweetly but decisively, back to my car on the base. "They think they're disrupting us. But really, they're just giving our security personnel a chance to practice. That's what they do — protect the base — and this is a useful exercise for them in doing that."