Shortly before dawn today, nine members of a Minneapolis homosexual group called Women's Vision placed a makeshift ladder against a chain-link fence, threw a rug over its barbed-wire top and climbed into the Seneca Army Depot, reputed to be a major storage area for nuclear weapons.
They escaped undetected, leaving behind a clothesline strung with hearts of purple satin, an American flag and a banner attacking the planned deployment of Pershing 2 nuclear missiles in Europe this year.
A few hours later, more than 50 women, including a nun and the wife of a Minnesota state judge, attached themselves with chains and colored yarn to a depot gate. Singing "We Shall Overcome," they were dragged off by military police, charged with trespassing and released.
Welcome to the latest battleground of the peace movement: "The Women's Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice."
Inspired by Greenham Common, the all-female protest camp in England that is trying to block U.S. cruise missile deployment, hundreds of women from Virginia to California have come together here to take a stand against nuclear arms.
For the most part, the women dismiss the MX debate in Congress, the Geneva arms control talks and the presidential candidates' competition for the nuclear freeze vote. Harking back to the early days of the anti-Vietnam protests, they are trying to build a mass movement to halt the arms race through civil disobedience.
A major demonstration is being planned here for Aug. 1, with thousands of peace activists expected to attend.
The Army is clearly worried. Since the encampment opened three weeks ago, the Army has spent more than half a million dollars upgrading security at the depot. The base's military complement of 500 has been boosted to 800.
Meanwhile, the mood among the once friendly townspeople of Romulus, population 2,600, has turned ugly. Every night for more than a week, as many as a hundred residents have gathered in a parking lot across from the depot's main gate to jeer the women staging marches and candlelight vigils. Sitting in their cars or on lawn chairs, drinking beer, kids in tow, they hurl epithets such as "communists" and "homosexuals."
Wednesday night three protesters were hit by stones they said were thrown by townspeople. One woman, walking back to the camp, heard a voice from the darkness yell, "Nuke the dykes."
Women at the camp said about a quarter of their number are homosexuals. But the issue has been blown out of proportion by public displays of affection that have shocked the residents of this conservative area southwest of Syracuse.
When a local man tried to give the camp an American flag a few weeks ago, the women refused to fly it, deciding instead to make their own individual banners for the Fourth of July. Some of those banners were American flags, but publicity about the incident infuriated the townspeople.
Since then, almost every local family has flown a flag continuously on its front lawn to protest the camp.
"These women are kooks," said Richard A. White, 74, a retired bridge engineer, standing by his American flag. "The Seneca Depot has given a lot of people employment around here. I'm not afraid of the bombs. We've got to store them somewhere."
The Army will not comment on reports that the 11,000-acre base, which it calls an ammunition depot, holds nuclear weapons. A study last year by the Washington-based Center for Defense Information identified Seneca and the Sierra Army Depot in Herlong, Calif., as main storage sites for nuclear weapons on U.S. soil.
Townspeople complain that women in the camp beat tambourines and drums late into the night, deface depot signs and take showers in the local carwash.
"They practice witchcraft and lesbianism down there," said Norma Troutman, a hospital therapist, rolling her eyes in apparent horror. "We're a nice community. We believe in God, our country and the Seneca Army Depot. Nobody wants a war. But you can't trust the Russians. When they stop the arms race , we'll stop."
Nonetheless, Troutman, like other residents, seems to enjoy the excitement. Leaning against her station wagon near the floodlit depot last night, she waited with her two teen-agers for the demonstrators to show up. "It's free entertainment," she said.
At the camp, women have pitched tents around a ramshackle farmhouse on 52 acres purchased with the help of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and other peace groups.
Betsy Hobkirk, 23, one of eight paid staff members at the camp, said several "witches"--"spiritual people who use herbs to heal and do rituals in the full moon"--had joined the group and conducted workshops.
The women at the camp are disturbed that townspeople are focusing on their way of life rather than the political issues. But several local residents have been friendly, they say, including a restaurant owner who lent them pots and several youths who joined in a candlelight ceremony.
Hazel Bernard, 29, an attorney who left Petersburg, Va., to practice law on Wall Street, read about the camp and decided to come "because this is a lot more important than corporate security."
"It's hard to believe we'll stop the Pershing missiles from being deployed," she acknowledged. "But we may make people think hard about nuclear disarmament. In the '60s, very few people thought what was going on in Vietnam was wrong. But in the end, it wasn't just students, but people-- moms and dads and grandparents--who were protesting."
Shelley Jane Anderson, 31, one of those apprehended this morning at the depot, is a former Army lieutenant who left as a conscientious objecter "after I heard my superior officers talking not about if there would be another war, but when."
"If you plan for war it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy," she said.
This week, 115 members of Women Against Military Madness arrived from Minnesota. One of its founders, Polly Mann, wife of a state judge, was among those who chained themselve to the fence today.
So was Carol Neuberger, 50, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and a pediatric nurse.
"In the 60s, I was a law-abiding citizen," said the slender, greying Neuberger. "I thought the kids who protested were nuts." But after reading about cluster bombs, she decided to join demonstrations against Honeywell, a Minneapolis manufacturer. She spent 13 days in jail this year for pouring blood on a federal building.
"Women have a lot of strength," she said. "It's going to be women who do something about this madness."