Demonstration ends with 27 arrested

By Robyn Suriano and Tony Boylan
FLORIDA TODAY, Oct 5, 1997
Re-printed with permission of Florida Today

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Blowing kisses and waving to a cheering crowd, 87-year-old Peg McIntire broke the law Saturday for what she said was the sake of peace.

McIntire was the first to walk illegally through the gates of Cape Canaveral Air Station, where about 800 protesters pushed against the base's metal fence in opposition to NASA's nuclear-powered Cassini mission to Saturn.

She was among the 27 people who ended the peaceful, four-hour demonstration in handcuffs. Their charge: Trespassing.

"We've done everything that we could legally," McIntire of St. Augustine said. "We've petitioned, we've stood outside these gates with signs, we've gone door-to-door. There's nothing left to do now but go over that fence."

The demonstration and its carefully orchestrated acts of civil disobedience were the final event in a series of protests held since March outside the base, where Cassini is to be launched Oct. 13 aboard a Titan rocket.

The $3.3-billion NASA mission will use 72 pounds of radioactive plutonium to generate electricity for the probe's science instruments during a four-year study of Saturn, its rings and moons.

Cassini's critics worry the cancer-causing material could be released in accidents during launch or in 1999 when the spacecraft flies by Earth to gain momentum for the journey to Saturn.

They are not convinced by NASA's steadfast assurance that the plutonium is safely packed in canisters that have been proven sturdy enough to survive extreme accidents.

"I feel like we're playing Russian roulette with the Earth and our families and our children," said Ohio resident Becky Sinnett, who was among the arrested demonstrators. "We're only human, and we all make mistakes."

On a higher level, the protesters claim Cassini will make it easier for the Pentagon to use nuclear power on future space-based weapons by getting the public accustomed to the use of plutonium in orbit.

With their convictions embedded, the demonstrators were not deterred by Friday's announcement that Cassini had cleared its last political hurdle and received White House approval for launch.

That was why a diverse crowd of young and old - some traveling from as far as Utah and California - still claimed victory.

"We've done what we wanted to do. We've broken the sound barrier, so to speak," said Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice, a Gainesville-based group that organized the protest.

"People are talking about it now, people are debating it. It's out there now, people are concerned and they're going to let NASA know it."

The demonstration began around noon with a rally staged on a grassy field one mile outside the air station'sgates. Protesters arrived by bus and carload, stretching blankets on the ground and unpacking lawn chairs.

Parents assembled playpens in the shade, while others set up tables to hand out pamphlets and newsletters. A variety of agendas were on display, from support for socialism to legalizing marijuana.

One sign read: "Miami, FL. Young Socialists say remember: Karen Silkwood, Three Mile Island, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl. No Cassini! No Nukes!"

Other tables were laden with literature lionizing Cuban communist guerrilla leader Che Guevara, exposing corruption in various government agencies, and opposing U.S. military intervention worldwide.

Protesters also geared up for the day by listening to live folk music and few tunes made famous by the rock band Grateful Dead.

Next to the stage, artist Scramble Campbell of Orlando painted a folk art mural, using 3-D effects by outlining parts of the design with fluorescent paints.

His handiwork depicted Mother Earth hosting two rocket launches, one solar powered, one nuclear. He called it "No Nukes in Space."

The bulk of the protesters were in their late 20s and early 30s, but there were people spanning all generations.

"Many people are not aware of what is going on," said Paola Agudelo, 20, a student at Miami-Dade Community College. "I want to help spread the word and let them know this involves everyone.

At the other end of the spectrum was Archie Goodwin, 75, of Hollywood. He served in the U.S. Air Force in Italy in World War II before joining the peace movement during the Vietnam War.

"If you trust the government, you're some kind of nut," said the semi-retired accountant, cupping his ear to hear over the din of the crowd.

Just away from the center of protest sat Guy Blevin, perched on a Harley Davidson motorcycle embellished with this message: "Jesus is Love."

"I'm here just basically to give support to the people who came out here," said Blevin, 39, of Bithlo. "We know they're scared and confused, like all of us. NASA is gambling with human life. It's just a matter of time before something happens."

The rally broke up shortly after 3 p.m., when the group walked down State Road 401 to the station's gates.

Led by a bagpipe player and a group of elderly women carrying a "Grandmothers for Peace" banner, the contingent stopped just short of the base's gates.

While an Air Force official warned the crowd over a speaker system that they could not enter the installation legally, guards opened the gate a crack so the grandmothers - under previous arrangement - could slip in.

After McIntire and eight others walked through, the gate was closed and other protesters followed by climbing over the fence.

They all were met by waiting deputies, who stood behind a row of Florida Highway Patrolmen dressed in riot gear.

Barbara Wiedner of Elk Grove, Calif., was among the grandmothers who led the protesters in civil disobedience. The 68-year-old founder of the International Grandmothers for Peace group stopped counting her arrests at 20.

She hopes her first visit to the Brevard County Detention Center sends a message to people everywhere.

"I think it really says something that we're doing this," Wiedner said. "We are responsible, law abiding citizens and we don't do this casually. People have to realize that there's something terribly wrong here if we're willing to do this."

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