It has become an Orange County tradition, as regular as the swallows' return to San Juan Capistrano and the jammed parking lots at South Coast Plaza at Christmas. It is Wincon '86--more formally known as the Winter Conference on Aerospace and Electronic Systems--where protesters outnumber participants by about 4 to 1.
Aerospace engineers and Defense Department officials gather annually--in Orange County for the last four years--to compare notes on the latest in weapons technology. Peace activists are drawn to the session, mainly to picket and get arrested. Police agencies even check with the protesters ahead of time to find out--give or take a civil disobedient or two--how many arrests are likely to be made during the three-day conference.
And, as most players in the well-choreographed event will attest, it's nothing like turbulent protests of the '60s: Both the pickets and police are polite, and no violence mars the event.
"It's been a relatively calm, orderly process in past years, no resistance whatsoever," said Costa Mesa Police Capt. Robert Moody. "The officers recognize the peoples' right to protest and treat them as human beings. It's all very congenial."
This year's event is Wincon No. 27. All have been held in Southern California. According to conference organizers, the event has drawn protesters only in recent years. Ten protesters at last year's conference--which drew about 1,400 demonstrators on the first night compared to 300 conferees--were convicted in Harbor Municipal Court this month on misdemeanor charges of blocking a public roadway.
By Monday afternoon, the security staff of the Westin South Coast Plaza, where most of the 300 estimated conference participants will stay, was briefed and ready for the first demonstration--a candlelight vigil tonight to precede Wincon's opening activities Wednesday.
"It (the protest) is so organized it's amazing," said Cathy Boire, a hotel spokeswoman. The hotel has increased its security staff from two officers per shift to three, contracted with an outside firm for six more to patrol from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. and arranged with the Costa Mesa Police Department for extra help during peak protest hours.
"I just hate to see this," said Boire, whose hotel has already received about 200 identical postcards to protest its provision of beds and services to those attending the conference.
"Their (the protesters') efforts are so misdirected. We will not turn this conference away. . . . We are in the hotel business," she said. "The fact that the conferees are staying here does not mean that we are hosting the conference."
Moody said that planning for the event usually starts six to eight weeks in advance, with meetings between police and representatives from the conference, the hotel and the peace groups.
Reserve officers will be on standby tonight in case of problems during the vigil. Between 15 and 18 officers will be at the hotel Wednesday morning to handle counter-demonstrations and arrest those who attempt to obstruct buses taking conferees from the hotel to the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro for the classified meetings. Between 10 and 15 officers will be on hand for the same activities Thursday morning, Moody said.
"As they (the protesters) block the buses, we have an officer direct them over to a table, arrest them, get their name and address, photograph them and put them on a bus," Moody said. "As soon as everyone's been arrested and the Wincon buses can leave, we send the bus to County Jail."
Moody said he expects to arrest between 10 and 20 protesters Wednesday and between 30 and 40 Thursday.
Members of the Alliance for Survival and the Catholic Worker social activist group held civil disobedience classes last Saturday and Sunday to instruct participants on everything from the philosophy and history of nonviolence to what to expect and what to bring to jail--identification, some phone change, $5 cash and not much else.
"They used to let you take underwear and socks until not too long ago," said veteran protester Jeffrey Dietrich, a Catholic Worker member who has been arrested at Wincon meetings since about 1979. "In the larger jails, the security is so rigid they don't let you take anything."
Dietrich helped train about 10 people Saturday, telling them that "it's going to take more than just education to initiate change. If we want change, we have to be willing to make sacrifices for it the same way Martin Luther King, the suffragettes and the abolitionists did. It is the willingness to take risks" for a moral and spiritual stand.
Marion Pack, a member of the Alliance for Survival, which is co-sponsoring the protests along with several other peace and anti-nuclear groups, said she hopes that the turnout at tonight's candlelight vigil will be at least as good as last year's 1,400.
Eight weekly vigils with between 40 and 60 participants have already been held outside the Westin this year, and seven busloads of protesters will be transported there tonight from Los Angeles to augment the local demonstrators, she said.
"When we look at the term 'civil disobedience,' we wonder who is being disobedient," said Pack, who just completed her five-day jail term for civil disobedience at last year's conference. "Our country is a signer of the Nuremberg Principles against the manufacture and use of weapons of mass destruction, yet we are engaged in the production of these exact weapons.
"We feel it is our patriotic duty to tell all of the people involved in the arms race--and now the Wincon participants--of this," she said. "We feel we are being obedient to the higher laws of this country."