The following is a report on on-going anti-drone actions by Judy Bellow of the Upstate, New York Coalition to End the Drones and Stop the Wars and UNAC.
2012-11-13 "A Gandhian Wave Meets the Machiavellian Minions of Might"
The Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars has been going out to Hancock National Air Guard Base outside of Syracuse to protest the Reaper drones flown there for about 3 years. Before that, a few activists from Syracuse were already investigating the situation and showing up for biweekly vigils there. We had also started a yearly tableau in front of the main gate to the New York State Fair. This movement has been a long time building. Those showing up for the vigil tend to number in the single digits, while we initially drew 50 or 60 people from Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Binghamton, Ithaca and Utica for our annual Earth Day protests at the base, a handful per city. I created our initial website in the spring of 2010 to announce that year’s protest, and started tracking ‘Drone News’ on the site later that year. I can tell you it was slim pickings back then.
Over 200 people showed up at Hancock on Earth Day 2011, inspired by the recent protest and trial at Creech Air force Base in Nevada. Hancock officials announced that the base would become the domestic center for Reaper maintenance and training for pilots and maintenance personnel. They were on a roll. After our rally, 37 people were arrested for stepping off the curb into the access road. They had lain down in the road with a bloody shroud to cover them. The arrests began immediately, and during the hour or so we waited for the bus to carry us to court, there was kind of a festive atmosphere with people across the street chanting Om, singing peace songs and reciting the names of the victims of air strikes in Afghanistan.
Both the event and the trial, which took about 50 hours, received wide coverage in the regional news. Throughout the year, news coverage of the drones was slowly increasing, as were protests against the drones. More and more activists became interested in the drones, and more people noticed that the drones were flown on local National Guard bases from an increasing number of bases in the Middle East, Southwest Asia and even Europe. Plans were in the works to bring them to the mainland as quickly as possible, and a Congressional Caucus had been formed to support this lucrative project. The shining silver bullet for the War on Terror was being promoted aggressively, and protests were expanding.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism began reporting facts about the drone strikes compiled from on the ground reports as well as national and international news outlets. Their research was thorough and documented thousands of strikes and deaths from nominally secret attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The British NGO Reprieve, founded by Guantanamo detainee advocate Clive Stafford Smith and the newly formed Foundation for Fundamental Rights in Pakistan brought lawsuits for victims of Drone Strikes in Pakistan and the US. The MSN started covering the strikes, first in Pakistan and then in the US. Discussion of the illegality and immorality of using automated aircraft for the purpose of targeted assassination, and the dubious record of accuracy associated with the use of drones in the battlefield and in countries like Pakistan with whom we are not at war.
National groups like the United National Antiwar Coalition and CodePink became involved in the anti-drone campaign, and took it to a whole new level. CodePink began protesting the drones outside the White House and in Congress, while the Know Drones tour dogged elected officials on the campaign trail. Scale model drones started showing at protests across the country, hovering 10 feet in the air, menacing bloody shrouded victims. In the spring of this year, CodePink held a conference on Drones in Washington DC with Pakistani Lawyer Shahzad Akbar from the Foundation for Fundamental Rights as their keynote speaker. While here for the Conference, Akbar connected with Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, who featured him along with Waziri photographer Noor Behram and some of the Pakistani victims of CIA drone strikes on her mainstream television program.
Medea Benjamin, cofounder of CodePink has written a book on the subject of In October of this year, CodePink organized a groundbreaking Civilian Peace Delegation to Pakistan. More than 30 delegates met with Shahzad Akbar and his staff, victims of drone attacks, and other civil society organizations in Islamabad. They also joined an unprecedented caravan to the border of South Waziristan with politician Imran Khan, and later participated in a Muslim style fast to atone for the victims of the US War on Terror in Pakistan.
Members of CodePink, Veterans for Peace and Catholic Worker have been involved in the regional actions at the bases, while the Washington DC Crew has been leading protests outside the White House. Meanwhile, the government is drawing one base after another into the drone program, and making aggressive plans for deployment over the mainland along with expansion of the global network of drone bases. Protests at Hancock, Creech, Beale and Whiteman bases have resulted in arrests. Recently, Brian Terrell a Catholic Worker who was arrested at Hancock in 2011 for attempting to present a written indictment to the guard in the gatehouse and sentenced to 10 days in the county lockup, was arrested again at Whiteman Airforce base for approaching the guard gate with a written letter for the Commander, and sentenced to 6 months in a federal prison.
This year, on Earth Day, a peace march approaching Hancock Airforce base was stopped by the police a couple of blocks before reaching the base and 33 people were arrested for walking single file down the road with signs in their hands. The charges were later dropped ‘in the interest of justice’ after a member of the DeWitt Town Council wrote a letter of protest to the judge stating that the town cannot afford this kind of preemptive policing. Paul Frazier, one of the defendants, said “This looks like the beginning of a Gandhian Wave”. We liked the term. Since then, 2 people were arrested at the biweekly vigil in May for standing across the street from the base with signs. Fifteen protesters were arrested by the front gate of the base on June 28, ten on October 5 and seventeen on October 25.
The government is still rejecting requests for information about the drone program, but the White House has begun leaking information about it. The president has taken responsibility for enabling the decision making process and other members of the administration have elaborated that process. News of the drone program and debate about it are now so prolific that I can’t post it all. The government is still insisting on unrealistic statistics of civilian casualties, but their parameters clearly lead to exactly what the rest of us are seeing.
The drones emerged from an initial veil of secrecy shortly after our 2011 protest at Hancock, and they are now emerging from the glamour of technological brilliance as a fragile, expensive moral and strategic copout with unaddressed technical flaws that doesn’t meet the basic standards of decency, even in war. Instead of clear vision we find error prone guesses based on rough images; accuracy no better than early pistols a couple of hundred years ago. The drones are terrorists, killing innocent civilians, local freedom fighters and maybe even an occasional al-Qaeda terrorist alike. But we will never know for sure because the inconvenience of confronting the alleged ‘militants’ in a courtroom has, along with the expense of putting men on the ground to conduct an investigation, been abandoned.
In September, Stanford and NYU released an academic report, ‘Living Under Drones’ that validates the findings of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the cases presented by the Foundation for Fundamental Rights and Reprieve. Shortly afterward, Columbia released a report with similar, if less ambitious results. Mainstream reporters associated with the antiwar movement are now covering drone actions on a regular basis. Attacks on The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and even on CodePink are showing up in Foreign Policy and other State Department propaganda outlets, but the New York Times and the Washington Post are printing Op-Eds on both sides of the question.
In late August, a continuous wave of people flowed through and past our drone tableau outside the front gate of the State Fair, while the base had drone pilot simulation booth inside. This lucky combination resulted in a moving conversation with a drone pilot for this participant. On September 9th, about 60 people rallied across from Hancock front Gate, which was wide open for a change. The base was having an open house ceremony at the time to celebrate renaming their team from the 174th ‘Fighter Wing’ to the 174th ‘Attack Wing’.
UNAC sent three members, and the Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones sent five with the CodePink Peace Delegation to Pakistan in early October. Since returning, UNAC co-chair Joe Lombardo, along with Leah Bolger of Veterans for Peace and myself have been giving report backs around the country.
A week after returning from Pakistan, I gave a presentation on my experiences in Syracuse. About 60 people attended including several other returned delegates. Early the next morning they went out to Hancock base. Seventeen were arrested, charged with Trespassing and Disorderly conduct and served with Restraining Orders by a Mission Support Commander on the base named Earl Evans. Since none of us had any idea who he was we were kind of miffed. In any case, we have no intention of assaulting, stalking or menacing him, strangling him, committing sexual abuse against him or otherwise violating his person or his family. We further promise not to drop 500 bombs or a Hellfire Missile on his home. But the Gandhian wave is growing all the same.