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On the 40th Anniversary of the Catonsville Nine, Free Speech and Air Shows Don’t Mix

May 19, 2008
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On Saturday, May 17, over 112,000 people attended Preakness and another 150,000 people went to the Joint Service Open House and Air Show at Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George’s County. Among the Air Show attendees were 40-odd peace activists. Well . . . sort of. The activists, who were brought together to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Catonsville Nine, didn’t actually make it onto Andrews AFB. They were stopped and turned away at a security checkpoint (and parking facility) at FedEx Field.

The scene at the Redskins’ stadium resembled an ugly love child born of a Super Bowl married to a Christmas Eve at BWI. The line, which ran along side the stadium for more than a quarter mile, broke into 12 smaller lines that clustered before a bank of metal detectors. Security personnel–a mix of civilian and military police–had a massive presence. The posted list of prohibited items on display, in clear view of those in line, included narcotics, skateboards, and weapons, and was curiously edited from its online version. Missing from the posted sign were the words “No Political Activity” which actually appear in boldface font on the JSOH Air Show’s web site. Once attendees made it past the security checkpoint, most were allowed to board shuttle buses that ushered them 10 miles to the Air Force base.

After waiting in line for nearly an hour and a half, the activists, who were delivered to the stadium by a chartered yellow school bus, were turned away at the metal detectors. It wasn’t because of anything they were carrying. It was simply because of the message written on many of their T-shirts: “War is NOT a GAME. Love One Another.”

Great care was taken by the folks at Jonah House and Viva House, the organizers of the memorial event, to ensure that no banners, leaflets, or anything prohibited that could be interpreted as overly instigational would be carried onto Andrews AFB. The memorial planners had a good reason for such subdued protest planning.

The JSOH’s stern precautionary measures are thanks in part to events that took place on the 30th anniversary of the Catonsville Nine. Ten years ago to the day, five Plowshares activists symbolically disarmed a B-52 bomber by beating it with hammers and pouring blood on its bomb-hatch doors in front of hundreds of shocked and alarmed Air Show spectators.

At the action planning (and potluck) held at St. Ignatius Church on May 15, Susan Crane of Jonah House, facilitator of the meeting, made it clear that this was not to be another Plowshares action. She arranged a backup plan, though, since many at the meeting felt that they would not be allowed on the base. If not allowed to board the shuttle buses, they would reassemble in front of the stadium to stage a protest for the benefit of those entering the FedEx Field parking lot, as well as those lucky enough to get a seat on one of the many buses heading to Andrews.

The backup plan went off without a hitch: no arrests, no serious confrontations. Lime green Frisbees, intended as an alternative to war games and bearing the same message as the T-shirts, were handed out to children and passers-by. Friendly horn honks, which came mostly from sympathetic shuttle bus drivers, greatly outnumbered angry shouts and middle-finger salutes.

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