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Largest Demonstration and Civil Resistance against
U.S. Missile Test in almost 30 years

by Jim Haber, Coordinator, Nevada Desert Experience

The United States Air Force test-launched a first-strike, nuclear-capable Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) early in the morning on February 25 despite the largest anti-test demonstrations in almost 30 years. The launch took place in the dark fog of night at 2:46 a.m. from Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) on the central California coast to the other end of the Ronald Reagan Missile Range in the Marshall Islands over 4000 miles away.

Testing warhead, bomb and delivery systems all violate the spirit of working towards nuclear disarmament to which the United States has obligated itself. The February 24 protest began at 5 minutes to midnight—the current setting of the “Doomsday Clock” of the Federation of American Scientist's Bulletin of Atomic Scientists—in the hopes that public pressure would force President Obama to turn away from his pro-nuclear budget (with increases for both nuclear weapons and power). The test-launch of ICBMs makes hypocrites of U.S. foreign policy planners who demand a stand down of nuclear ambitions from countries we're hostile to, while furthering the upgrade of our own weapons of mass destruction. The quantity and quality of U.S. nuclear weapons dwarf all others; we must not wait for other nations to pull back but must increase the rate of dismantlement of our own nuclear weapons.

Daniel Ellsberg, who as a military analyst for the RAND Corporation in the 1960s developed strategic plans for the Secretary of Defense MacNamara and who later leaked the lies of Vietnam war planners in what became known as the Pentagon Papers, crossed the line at the base and was taken into custody along with 6 other men and 8 women in an act of civil resistance. “They cannot be allowed to test these lightning rods of doomsday without arresting American citizens. We need to push this. It takes public pressure through education and public protest,” Ellsberg said at the rally before entering the base. Twenty-nine years ago, Ellsberg was also arrested at VAFB with hundreds of others who went into the back-country of the huge base to disrupt launch plans for another ICBM, the MX missile which ultimately was not deployed, largely due to public pressure. Ellsberg continued by stating, “No one in this country should have their hands on the destruction of the world. We can't trust these folks with the future of humanity.”

(As a student at nearby UC Santa Barbara, the author also went back-country in 1983 at Vandenberg and was arrested along with Ellsberg and 55 others at the U.C.S.B.'s administration building in opposition to the continued management of the U.S. national weapons laboratories by the University of California.)

Ellsberg also pointed out that Cold War deterrence was based on various lies and mistakes like when U.S. plans were based on the thought that the U.S.S.R. had 1000 missiles but actually only had 4 at that time. Current war plans continue to be based on misrepresentations, including those regarding Iraq, Iran, North Korea and the ongoing nuclear programs of Israel, Pakistan and India.

Our peace actions and civil resistance at VAFB, and at the Nevada Test Site, Y-12 Plant in Tennessee and elsewhere in the expanding nuclear “bombplex” all are part of an international effort to wake up the public and our leaders to the immorality, illegality and stupidity of maintaining nuclear capabilities. The U.S. program encourages horizontal proliferation. All nuclear weapons must be eliminated. “Theirs” are bad; ours are at least as horrific. The move to make ICBMs dual use—meaning they carry nuclear or non-nuclear warheads—further increases nuclear danger by potentially confusing adversaries into thinking they're under nuclear attack.

Quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr. are sadly and prophetically apropos in many situations. In this moment two stand out: “The choice is not between violence and nonviolence, but between nonviolence and nonexistence.” Also, “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”

With about a hundred demonstrators braving the damp cold of the designated protest area outside of Vandenberg, other important attendees crossed the line in “anti-test”: David Krieger, founder of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and his wife Carolee committed their first-ever acts of civil resistance and were exhilarated by the experience. Cindy Sheehan who's son was killed as a soldier in Iraq and who has become an outspoken peace activist also was cited and released. Judy Talaugon, a grandmother and descendant of the local Chumash people blessed and welcomed the protesters. Importantly, Paul O'Toko, an elder from Micronesia and founder of Indigenous Stewards International, brought a sizable group including several of his children although they did not engage in the trespass itself. Fr. Louis Vitale OFM, a frequent presence at VAFB and other demonstration sites said, “I would gladly give my life even to delay a missile launch.”

The last test-launch of a Minuteman III was a rare failure necessitating the destruction of the missile mid-flight. A subsequent test scheduled for September 21, 2011, the U.N.-designated International Day of Peace, was postponed as a growing chorus of international opposition was decrying the contradiction of a peace-loving nation testing such a thing on that special day. The next test-launch is now scheduled for March 1, extremely soon after last Saturday's test. March 1 is the anniversary of the tragic “Bravo” test of a hydrogen bomb in the Bikini atoll for which the swimwear received its name due to the brightness of the 20 megaton blast. That test dropped radioactive fallout on the people of Rongelap, leading to catastrophic health and genetic problems that continue to this day, necessitating the on-going evacuation of their island. It also sparked the Japanese anti-nuclear movement which had been prevented to exist under the U.S. occupation that followed World War II. The Lucky Dragon fishing vessel, a Japanese ship, was also caught in the fallout of the March 1 test, another day that deserves to be retired from nuclear development plans. (And don't they all?)

Jim Haber is the Coordinator of Nevada Desert Experience (NDE) which organizes interfaith resistance to nuclear weapons and war from its home in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Video of line crossers taken by videographer Ben Johnson with Occupy Santa Barbara

Photos of the Vandenberg demonstration taken by Mary Lou Anderson and Jim Haber

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