As a newly erected holding pen stood ready nearby, a record 1,200 nuclear protesters were arrested here Saturday for trespassing at the start of a planned 10-day siege of this weapons testing range.
About 2,000 protesters cheered while authorities herded the trespassers into the 28,800-square-foot fenced enclosure near the southern entrance of the nuclear preserve, 65 miles north of Las Vegas.
Inside, the trespassers linked arms and draped American flags from the barbed wire-rimmed fence before being bused by Nye County sheriff's authorities to another location for processing on the misdemeanor offense.
Highly Decorated Veteran
One of the first arrested was David Pankey, 43, of Coos Bay, Ore., a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who retired from the Army in 1985 after 21 years of service.
"This is a nice cage--built by Americans," joshed Pankey from inside the enclosure.
Handcuffed and clutching a small American flag, he shouted for other protesters to "cross the line and come on in!"
The arrests followed a rally that marked the start of nonviolent actions dubbed "Reclaim the Test Site." The event is being sponsored by the American Peace Test, a national anti-nuclear group.
Orchestrating the arrests were about 100 sheriff's deputies, 50 Nevada Highway Patrol officers and an unknown number of Department of Energy security officials, who used helicopters, motorcycles and camouflaged dune buggies to track down the hundreds of trespassers who managed to evade a wall of guards manning the area near the entrance.
Activist Jessie Cox was one of many who chastised authorities for using "the cage."
"This cage that has been built in the desert appears to be a detainment camp for nonviolent protesters," Cox said. "We are not only concerned about its use, but about the historic precedent that the image of a stalag-like structure conjures up."
But Chris West, a spokesman for the Department of Energy, which manages the test site, said the enclosure, which cost $35,000, was needed to control ever-increasing numbers of protesters here.
There have been 3,610 people arrested here since the first demonstration was held in 1957, authorities said. But 3,217 of those arrests were made in 1986 and 1987.
"We are sorry this is happening," West said, "but we can't just let people go haphazardly anywhere they want on the test site."
Still, Nye County prosecutors stopped filing charges against most trespassers here a year ago in an effort to ease the county's mounting court load.
"They are trying to use the Nye County criminal system as a forum and we are not going to waste taxpayers' money by giving them that recognition," said Nye County Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeff Morrison. Instead, he said, "the complaint is routinely dismissed and they go on their merry way."
It was not all that easy, however, on Saturday. All of those arrested were bused to the city of Tonapah, about 150 miles north of here, where they were to be booked and released.
'They Will Think Twice'
"This way they will think twice about getting arrested," Nevada Test Site Director Vern Witherill said. "It'll take a lot of (the organizers') resources to get their people back."
The protesters, who came from as far away as New Jersey, New York and Oregon, established a "peace city" of tents, vans and cars in and around an abandoned sand pit covered with cactus and scrub a mile north of the test site near U.S. 95.
The sounds of bongo drums and guitars filled the air of the camp.
Protesters young and old wore 1960s-style hippie garb and dined on vegetarian meals served out of a communal kitchen.
Among them were members of the Western Shoshone Indian tribe, who claimed that the Nevada Test Site was operating illegally on their ancestral land.
"I'm here to stop the things that are going on over there--that is my wish," said Corbin Harney, a Shoshone spiritual leader, pointing toward a range of purple hills in the distance. "They are trying to destroy our land and the human race along with it." Other protesters included author-activist Daniel Ellsberg, labor leader Cesar Chavez, actress Terri Garr and radio personality Casey Kasem.
Department of Energy officials said the rally and protest demonstration made little or no dent on operations at the testing range.