For 17 years, on the first Wednesday of every month, Dennis Apel has participated in protests against missile testing outside the main gate of Vandenberg Air Force Base at the intersection of Highway 1 and Lompoc-Casmalia Road. Apel and his fellow protesters believe strongly that there is a grave environmental impact on local shores and to the Marshall Islands (the destination of the test missiles). As a result, he has been arrested several times, spent two months in prison and has received a permanent “ban and bar” from participating in the protests.
Apel rejects the government’s “ban and bar” restriction on public highways, arguing that it infringes on his First Amendment right to assembly. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Apel to hear more about his experience as a dedicated objector to local missile testing operations.
Apel is involved in Supreme Court case No. 12-1038: United States of America, Petitioner v. John Dennis Apel. The case, scheduled to be heard in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 4, will deal with public roadway easements and entering a military installation after a commanding officer has ordered a person not to enter.
The federal government argues that the roadway through which Highway 1 runs is an easement and that it has sole jurisdiction, despite the fact that the California Highway Patrol and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department also have jurisdiction over the same stretch of road. This case has been fought at the Circuit Court level (where the judge found for the federal government) and in the Ninth Circuit Court (where the judge found for Apel, stating that the right-of-way running through Vandenberg for Highway 1 was granted to the State of California and, in turn, to Santa Barbara County). As a result of the Ninth Circuit Court’s ruling granting jurisdiction to the State of California and, specifically, Santa Barbara County, it is alleged that the base does not have the exclusive right of possession and cannot therefore bar people entry for peaceful assembly.
Apel and his peers have protested monthly for nearly two decades in the hope of persuading local citizens and the federal government that there should be an end to missile testing and an abolition of the use of nuclear weapons. Protesters have historically stood behind a thick green line while holding signs such as “Have Our Weapons Brought Us Peace? — No Weapons in Space.” Occasionally, a protester will step over the line; when this happens, he or she is given a two-minute warning to return to behind the green line.
In 2003, as war with Iraq was gearing up, Apel had his own blood drawn and put in a plastic vial, which he then sprayed on the Vandenberg Air Force entrance sign as an act of civil disobedience, as we would be effectively spilling the blood of innocents. This resulted in Apel receiving a “ban and bar” order, meaning that for three years he could not protest in the area outside of the base.
In 2008, Apel crossed the green line and refused to obey the order to return. For this infraction, he was given what is called a lifetime “ban and bar.” (Click here to read his statement on the Voices for Creative Nonviolence website.)
While Apel accepts the permanent ban, he believes that, as a citizen of the United States, he has a First Amendment right to gather in public to march, protest, demonstrate, carry signs and otherwise express his views in a nonviolent way on the public highway outside the main gate. He continues to go to the protests on the first Wednesday of each month.
While Apel is concerned about the Supreme Court’s forthcoming ruling, his main concern is that most of us are not aware of the multiple threats related to launching test missiles from Vandenberg (about 71 miles from downtown Santa Barbara) four to five times a year. Although his concerns are many, four major ones are:
» 1) The pollution of ground water surrounding the Vandenberg area. Rocket fuel utilized during the missile launches contains ammonium perchlorate, a toxic ingredient, which seeps into the earth contaminating the ground water. Page 34 of a 2005 document produced by the Government Accountability Office states that the ground water at Vandenberg has 515 parts per billion of perchlorate while the EPA’s safe range is 4 to 6 ppb.
» 2) The devastation created at the targeted site of the missile launches, Kwajalein Atoll, and its indigenous people. ICBMs are test fired four or five times a year from Vandenberg to the Kwajalein Atoll, which lies about 200 miles southwest of Guam. The Atoll is made up of nearly 100 fragile coral islands surrounding a 2,300-square-kilometre lagoon — the largest in the world. Because they are not fired in answer to a threat of attack, but are tests, they are not loaded with a nuclear payload. Instead, depleted uranium is used as a substitute because its weight can mimic a nuclear warhead. Depleted uranium (DU) is weakly radioactive but is "persistently so" because of its long half-life (approximately 4 billion years).
Research on the use of depleted uranium in Iraq has found higher incidents of cancer and birth defects. As long ago as December 1996, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark stated in a talk at the U.N. Church Center in New York: “Is it acceptable by any human standard that we would permit one shell of depleted uranium to be manufactured, to be stored, to be used? No! Stop it now!”
The United Nations has called several times for the prevention of the use of depleted uranium. Acting on the advice of the U.N. Environment Program in December 2012, the U.N. General Assembly passed a fourth resolution related to DU, which had called for a precautionary approach to the use of DU due to ongoing uncertainties over its long-term environmental behavior. The resolution was supported by 155 states with 27 abstentions; as with previous texts, the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Israel opposed. The United States has little transparency or accountability regarding its use of DU weapons.
Now, researchers are making connections between how slowly the United States responded to the toxicity claims and research of Vietnam War veterans and the people of Vietnam and the similarities of abnormalities that are being seen because of the use of DU in Iraq.
» 3) Fear that if the Supreme Court ruling is in favor of the federal government, protesting outside any military installation in the United States would become illegal. If this becomes the case, First Amendment rights would certainly be curtailed.
» 4) Concern about our continued military spending. Our military budget is a staggering $600 billion per year and seems to have unending needs. Each of the four or five unarmed missile tests from Vandenberg costs about $21 million, according to Air Force officials.
It is impossible not to be struck by Apel’s earnest authenticity when talking with him. He and his wife, Tensie, are committed to putting their beliefs and values into action. His passion does not lie just in being a protester against Vandenberg Air Force Base, but on issues of equality and social justice. The couple and their two children live in Guadalupe and along with other volunteers have run Beatitude House (run on the principles of the Catholic Worker Movement) for more than 17 years. The organization serves mostly immigrants, farmworkers and low-income families.
The Beatitude House is situated in an old Victorian home in Guadalupe, which is outfitted with donated furniture, appliances and beds and is committed to serving Guadalupe's low-income residents. The Guadalupe Catholic Worker’s mission is to make food, clothing and furniture available to people and to help provide medical and social justice advocacy.
At a recent talk given by the Apels in Santa Barbara, they spoke about their compassion for others and how it has been a grace in their lives. Through their Thursday evening free medical clinic, Tensie has become aware of nine women strawberry pickers who have been diagnosed with cancer. She considers it an honor to walk beside them in their journey through their treatment and dying.
Both Dennis and Tensie used the phrase “compassion is a great protector of our own soul,” meaning that they both realize that as humans we are not always capable of being compassionate in all situations. Working with marginalized people has softened their hearts and opened them to great reverence for those whom they serve. Both note that they have received so much more than they have given in their deeply rewarding service.
Neither Dennis nor Tensie receive a salary for their work at Beatitude House. They get a small stipend for incidentals, and each month they trust that the necessities of rent and food will be provided by donors. For clothing, they depend on the donations to Catholic Worker.
Because of their financial situation, there is no money to hire an attorney to argue Apel’s case with the Supreme Court. The court has appointed Erwin Chemerinsky, who is the founding dean and Distinguished Professor of Law at UC Irvine and the Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law at the UC Irvine School of Law, with a joint appointment in political science. Apel said he is extremely grateful to Chemerinsky and his team of eight attorneys who are preparing this pro-bono case.
The Apels will travel to Washington, D.C., for the hearing on Dec. 4. Prior to the hearing, the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes will host a prayer service for them at 1:30 p.m. this Sunday at Grace Lutheran Church, 3869 State St. (next to Panera Bread). All are invited to join in standing in solidarity with Apel.
— Harriet Burke is a member of the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes, which celebrates Mass at 5:30 p.m. Saturdays at First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara, 2101 State St. Click here for more information, or call 805.252.4105. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are Burke's own.