TOP of the NEWS

A Day at the Siege in Waco

By Benedict D. LaRosa

On Saturday, March 19, a team of reporters and photographers from SA News spent the day at the site of the standoff between members of the Branch Davidian Church and federal agents. The following is a brief summary of their observations.

The first roadblock leading to the Branch Davidian compound was manned by three grungy, sinister-looking Bureau of Alcohol. Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) agents in black tactical coveralls, with M-16 automatic rifles and bullet-proof vests. Several neat, polite Department of Public Safety (DPS) troopers were also there. We exchanged pleasantries with the DPS trooper who approached our vehicle for identification. Only law enforcers, the press, and residents who live within the cordoned-off area were allowed through.

Two miles down the road, we encountered other press vehicles parked along the side of the road. They ranged from plain automobiles to motor homes and huge vans. Most had a flotilla of antennae jutting from their roofs. News people scurried like ants from place to place. At the end of the row of 50 or so vehicles was another roadblock manned by a half-dozen DPS troopers. Only law enforcers and local residents got past this one.

The media camp is about two miles from the center of the Branch Davidian compound. Most of the media people seemed bored while waiting for something newsworthy to happen. Since their information comes almost exclusively from the government, there is little to do but wait for the FBI to issue its daily crumbs of news. Occasionally, someone with a powerful enough telescope or field glasses can pick up a message from those in the compound written on a large sheet hung outside the tower. Today the message read, "The FBI broke off negotiations." the exact opposite of what the FBI had said earlier. This is the only means left to the people inside the compound to communicate with anyone other than the FBI. The week before, they tried to flash morse code signals by flashlight at night. The FBI countered by placing floodlights around the compound and switching them on to obscure the flashes.

Every 15 minutes or so, two black, unmarked helicopters patrolled a wide arc around the area. Occasionally a blue-and-white helicopter from the command post a mile closer to the compound did the same. We asked some of the reporters if they knew where the unmarked helicopters came from. No one had thought to ask. The black color and lack of markings told us they are used for clandestine operations. But by whom? The lack of markings indicated that those using the helicopters didn't want to be identified and held accountable, at least to the public, for their actions. An ominous sign, especially in a supposedly free country.

BATF agents and DPS troopers congregate at one of the roadblocks leading to the Mt. Carmel compound. (Photo by Maggie Rice. James Dorau, and Robert Carrier)

We tried to strike up a conversation with the DPS officers manning the inner roadblock. Only one was willing to talk. He has lived and worked within a half-hour drive for many years. Before this incident. he had never heard of the Branch Davidians. "They are such troublemakers, no one I know even knew they were here before now," he told us. He admitted his sympathies were with those in the compound. From his perspective, they had done nothing to warrant such an intrusion. But, he added, there wasn't much he could do about it. He would continue doing his duty.

When asked why he thought the sect members had not surrendered, he smiled and said that he knew they wouldn't once the FBI took over. He felt they would hold out at least another three weeks.

We went back outside the roadblocks to a bluff where hawkers, protestors, and the curious were gathered to catch a view of the siege. You can't see much from there. The area was lined with anti-government signs. One read, "No hunting of religious groups here." Another asked, "Are the Lutherans next?" A third suggested that the "BATF get out of Texas and take Ann Richards with you." The one that attracted the most attention read, "Is your church BATF approved?"

We spoke with several protestors from among the three dozen present. The largest contingent was from the Libertarian Parly of Texas. The Libertarians have held a vigil every weekend since the incident began. Gary Johnson, the party's public relations director, called the BATF raid heavy-handed and unjustified. He went on to say that the siege violates the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution.

We tried to get the opinions of ordinary people in the Waco area. Most blamed the Branch Davidians for the troubles, calling their religious views crazy and their conduct paranoid and dangerous. When asked for specific instances of such behavior, no one could remember any. Perhaps local residents were upset because the city was swarming with DPS troopers who, it seemed, were issuing traffic tickets with wanton abandon.

A number of other residents considered the government's conduct abhorrent. Some said they couldn't believe this was happening in America, that Americans were attacking Americans with such ferocity and with so little provocation. They equated it with Nazi Germany, Stalin's Russia, or some third world dictatorship.

We even went to the Texas State Technical College airport to snoop around. The federal command center is located in two hangars beside the control tower. Why two hangars? A couple of people who service aircraft told us that the FBI and the BATF don't get along. Each has its own command center. Something for President Clinton to look into if he is serious about cutting expenses.

We tried to find the county sheriff, to no avail. We wanted to ask him some questions. Why aren't you handling this matter? By what authority do federal agents come into your county and attack peaceful people? Aren't the agents usurping your authority? What was the identity of the body found 350 yards from the compound a few days after the shootout? Who shot him? What was he doing there?

Traditional religious leaders in the Waco area have been notable for their silence. One of the protestors felt that the reason was a conspiracy between these religious leaders and the government to silence David Koresh, the Branch Davidian leader. When we asked the protestor why he fell this way, he admitted it was conjecture on his part. But he felt it was more than a coincidence that the local newspaper had started a derogatory series on the Branch Davidians the day before the attack, the media had shown up at the site with the BATF agents, and rumors of something happening to the Branch Davidians had circulated in Waco bars the night before. He observed that religious and government leaders have ganged up on non-traditional sects throughout history. We couldn't argue with that. How else would you interpret the silence, he asked. Fear or ignorance, we responded. After all, the government propaganda was overwhelming.

On our way back to San Antonio, we stopped at a Chinese restaurant for something to eat. As we opened our fortune cookies at the end of the meal, one read, "You may have to be patient now — think, listen and heed signs." We thought the first part of the message good advice for the FBI, and the second for the American people. o

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