In the week leading up to Easter 2011, antiwar organizers in upstate New York held a remarkable series of events aimed at grounding the MQ-9 Reaper drones flying over Afghanistan controlled from Hancock Field in Syracuse, one of several drone bases in the United States.
The culmination came on the afternoon of April 22, Good Friday in the Christian calendar, when 37 protesters were arrested for refusing to leave the main driveway into Hancock Field.
I went to Syracuse on April 21 because of my opposition to drone warfare and to bring to the protest an eight-foot long replica of a Reaper drone that I built and have used in rallies in Washington, DC and New York City, among other places. I did not plan to write about the Syracuse protest, but what I experienced was so unusual in the course of my participation in nearly ten years of antiwar actions on Afghanistan and Iraq that I changed my mind.
Get our free emails
I found that the organizers were able to create, for a week, a small world in which people could feel the power of their consciences in confronting official lawlessness and recognized their personal responsibility to do so.
While protesters mentioned the financial cost of our current wars in terms of lost jobs, education and health care, unlike many other antiwar actions, the primary focus in Syracuse was on the illegality and immorality of the wars and killer drone operations and on empathy for suffering and lives lost.
Before discussing the details of the protest that I believe created this world, which – judging from subsequent email traffic – appears to continue to exist in the hearts and minds of the participants, it may be useful to discuss the larger world of US public consciousness regarding war and drones, which the Syracuse action sought to address.
(Photo: Nick Mottern)
“If You Can Threaten People”
Under a grey evening sky on April 22, as I drove south toward home from Syracuse on I-81 after the arrests, I heard the following exchange on National Public Radio's “Week in Politics,” hosted by Robert Siegel, with guests David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times, and Cynthia Tucker, columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Siegel: “I'd like to start with Libya, where, as we heard, John McCain made a visit today. The US is now supplying drones, pilotless aircraft, that is, to the Libyan rebels, ostensibly to better protect civilian lives there. Is Washington guided by some clear policy in the Libyan crisis or just improvising?
“And, if their policy is guiding us, do they apply elsewhere? Say – to Syria. David Brooks, what do you think?”
Brooks: “Yeah, I think there's a policy. It doesn't have to do with the rebels so much. My conversations with the people in the administration are less – emphasize less what they call the defeat track. That the opposition would actually win, than the defection track. That people around Qaddafi would actually begin to defect.
“And that's where I think the drones are interesting. They're a tough call because on the one hand using drones in Libya, drones are really hated in the region. They're seen as a sign of imperial US arrogance.
“On the other hand, if you can threaten people around Qaddafi with the threat of, really, assassination, which is really what it's all about, maybe you can weaken the regime. Maybe they can act to depose Gadhafi. So I think the defection track is more likely. And I do think there is a strategy. We don't know if it will work, of course.”
Siegel: “And you're saying the point about the drones is they can be targeted at a very, very specific target.”
Siegel: “So if you're a Qaddafi lieutenant, you have to worry … “
So, there it was. Brooks, who said he had been talking with officials in the Obama government, saying that the US strategy on Libya hinged on, in part if not totally, the threat of or actual assassination of Libyan leaders via the use of drones.
But no one on the program spoke to the laws being broken by this Obama strategy. Indeed, the legal problems presented by drone warfare are rarely addressed in the mass press.
My research on international law and assassination suggests that there is debate on the legality of assassination/targeted killing, whether by drone or otherwise. It appears that under international law, suspected enemy combatants can be killed in war zones, such as Afghanistan, but not in places that are not officially war zones, such as Pakistan. The killing in the later case can be termed assassination/targeted killing, given that no due process is provided.
Mary Ellen O'Connell, a research professor of international dispute resolution at the University of Notre Dame and vice president of the American Society of International Law, confirmed my appraisal in an email:
“Libya is a war zone – a civil war. The [UN] Security Council has authorized the protection of civilians from being killed, it has not authorized fighting in the civil war. Any decision to target and kill named individuals would generally be inconsistent with the Security Council's civilian protection mandate.”
The use of drones for assassination/targeted killing within or outside of a war zone also presents a legal problem because of drones' poor record of misidentifications that result in killing the wrong people, mostly civilians, including considerable numbers of women and children. In addition, the weapons being used by drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper cannot be considered precise as compared to a sniper's bullet. The Reaper uses Hellfire missiles that can have a kill radius of 200 feet at a minimum, and a Reaper's 500-pound bomb may have a kill radius of 100 to 150 feet.
Obama in a Law-Free Environment?
This means that President Obama is clearly violating international law in using killer drones in Pakistan and Libya, and in Afghanistan, too, when the failures in drones' identification and weapons characteristics are taken into account. This is in addition to using drones to directly wage war on Libyans without a declaration of war from Congress and beyond the United Nations' (UN) “humanitarian” mandate.
Nevertheless, this cruel, deadly lawlessness is commonly ignored in the mass press, leaving the larger world of American consciousness a friendly environment for questions like, “Why don't we just take out Qaddafi?” (Indeed, the term “take out” suggests not only a disturbing acceptance of premeditated murder – assassination – but a total disinterest in legal due process.)
In addition, in what appears to be an unwritten understanding between the major US press organizations and the government, there continues to be a thoroughgoing self-censorship of print and video images of war's wounded, dying and dead.
This is the environment that has enabled US Democratic senators from New York, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, to endorse Reaper drones. Possibly in anticipation of the Hancock protest, Senator Gillibrand went to Hancock on March 25, 2011, and, as reported in The Syracuse Post-Standard, said that, “This technology will save lives.” The report suggested that Gillibrand was shown only the Reaper providing surveillance and not its mode as a missile and bomb launch platform.
In contrast, the protest organizers from the Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars, an organization made up of peace groups in the northern tier of New York, created an environment that emphasized and indicted the deadly work of the Reaper. (The names of organizing and sponsoring groups are listed at the end of this article.)
(Photo: Nick Mottern)
While the protest organizers intentionally avoided taking on the language of any religion, it appeared that the protest did include a number of leaders who could be described as working from the perspective that views the New Testament of the Bible as a social gospel advocating liberation, economic equity and equality. Many of the organizers had experienced arrest on behalf of peace.
It was also an environment that was built on a sense of community, mutual support and antiwar beliefs. It was an environment with no evidence of corporate underwriting.
Planning and Walking
The planning for the protest events began in November 2010 and involved more effort and more outreach than two previous drone actions at Hancock, according to Ellen Grady of Ithaca, one of the organizers. She said she and her colleagues felt it was important get larger numbers involved more generally and including in actions of civil disobedience, because, “A lot of people don't know about the drones.”
The first action of the protest was a visit on April 14 by Grady and about ten others to the Ithaca office of her Congressman, Maurice Hinchey. Grady said that Hinchey's aide, with whom they had meet before, was receptive to their concerns about the drones, but they left the office without a clearcut idea of Hinchey's position. (Hinchey's letter, sent to a constituent in Orange County, New York, lays out his position with respect to drones flying in US airspace and their use in our current wars.)
On Saturday, April 17, a group of four people (three walkers and an accompanying driver) set out from Rochester on an 80-mile walk to Syracuse, with four others joining in for shorter periods. Russell Brown, a former Marine who saw combat in Vietnam, walked the full distance, and said the walk was an extremely moving, worthwhile experience. As the group passed through Canandaigua, Geneva, Seneca Falls, Auburn and Marcellus, talking to people, he said, he found, “A lot of people don't know about drones.”
“That's always surprised me,” he said. “We've known about them for years. You think people know about them, but they really don't.”
The next day, Sunday, April 18, about 100 people initiated a 60-mile walk from Ithaca to Syracuse. Over the course of four days, people left the march, others joined and about 20, including nine children ages six to 15, walked the full distance, according to John Hamilton, who drove a support vehicle for the walkers.
Along the way, they stopped in Dryden, Cortland and Otisco, where they gave programs in the evenings and stayed overnight. “It was a lot of fun,” said Hamilton.
A special part of the walk, he said, was the welcoming of the group by Onondaga chiefs and several elders at the longhouse on the Onondaga reservation south of Syracuse. The group was treated to refreshments in the tribe's community center and then went to the longhouse, the most important place in the governance and spiritual life of the community.
There, Hamilton said, one of the chiefs told the group a story of how the Peacemaker, the messenger of the Creator, decided that the most important thing for maintaining peace would be, “a good mind.” Hamilton said the chief told the group, “What you are bringing now is stronger than any weapon.”
“Almost all of us had tears in our eyes,” Hamilton said. “It was very inspiring.”
The walks, Grady said, “helped people to participate at whatever level they're at.”
Clare Grady said, “We were sustained by good local food, by the beauty of the countryside, the joy of community and the ongoing consciousness-raising among and around us about the drones, our wars and the call for peace.”
The walkers from Ithaca arrived in Syracuse on Thursday morning, April 21, and visited the Syracuse offices of Senators Schumer and Gillibrand. Grady indicated that Senator Schumer's aide seemed unresponsive to their concerns about drones, but Kyla Clark, regional assistant for Senator Gillibrand, accepted their invitation to attend the program that night at the auditorium of St. Lucy's Church. (I asked Clark about her reaction to the program, but she said she could only say that she attended “on behalf of our office.”)
St. Lucy's, a Roman Catholic Church in a low-income neighborhood, has a banner over the door of the main church building that reads “Sinners Welcome.” (St. Lucy was patron saint of the blind and of Syracuse in Sicily, Italy.)
At least 100 people of a wide range of ages, including a number of children, gathered in the auditorium for a potluck supper and speaking program.
The first speaker of the evening was Kathy Kelly, coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, which, the organization's web site says, is, “a campaign to end US military and economic warfare.” Kelly has visited Afghanistan three times, most recently in December 2010. She also has a history of civil disobedience, including trespassing in 2009 at Creech Air Force Base, a drone control center.
Kelly devoted the majority of her talk to providing specific, graphic descriptions of victims of the Afghanistan war whom she had met. She spoke about instances in which children had been killed from the air, some picking up firewood, some looking for scrap metal. “What kind of intelligence are we getting when children can be killed month after month, week after week?” she asked. (Helicopter attacks are sometimes based on drone surveillance images, although, in the cases Kelly mentioned, it is not clear what prompted the helicopter attacks.)
Kelly noted that intelligence reports find few al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan, and she showed maps illustrating the proposition that the US's real goal there is control over oil and gas that would flow into India, Pakistan and China from the Caspian region to the north.
Concluding, she said, “So, we have a duty to protest.” During an arrest, she continued, she was comforted when a soldier told her they would remove her handcuffs as soon as possible.
“That's the mantra I see,” Kelly said. “Get the cuffs off, uncuff ourselves from this bloody obscene war, feel the full force and sorrow of this war…let our empathy spill over, uncuff ourselves by saying we will not cooperate, we won't tolerate, we won't condone … I want to live without war.” Her remarks were met with applause.
She would be handcuffed and arrested the next day at Hancock Field.
Kelly was followed on stage by retired Ann Wright, a retired Army colonel who quit her State Department diplomatic job in Afghanistan over the US invasion of Iraq. Wright has also been arrested for civil disobedience. She is currently working to support the US Boat to Gaza project, which will challenge the Israeli blockade of Gaza later this year. She was part of the delegation to Afghanistan in 2010 headed by Kelly, and she testified in 2010 at the trial of the Creech 14, who were charged with trespassing after protesting drones at the Creech Air Force Base.
Wright began by noting that young people in both Afghanistan and Gaza have written letters to “world leaders,” asking simply that the wars in their countries be stopped. They say, Wright reported: “We want to live a normal life … Is that too much to ask?”
“And yet, here we live in the United States of America, and you go out on the streets of Syracuse or the streets of most American cities, and you would not know that America, warmongering America, is at war, two wars, three wars, four wars, I mean, it depends on how you count 'em out … We have a hundred and some odd military bases, I mean major bases. When we were in Afghanistan, we were told that there were over 400 US military installations in just Afghanistan.”
Wright said that the numbers of drones used by various countries is expanding dramatically. She said that, in a talk at the University of Nevada Law School during the Creech 14 trial, she had said that 20 or 30 companies make drones. After the talk, an audience member told her that her estimate of drone makers was too low, that the actual number globally is about 475. He told her he made drones, “little drones,” small enough to be used by police and also of interest to the CIA.
“This thing that we are facing today, tonight and tomorrow, the drones right here in Syracuse, the drones that are at Beale Air Force Base in California, the drones that are flown out of Creech Air Force base, are a part of the empire of the United States, a part of the death machine of the United States, it's a part of trying to rule the world and rule it so that we don't have to have what they call the boots on the ground. It's dangerous for Americans to go places, yeah, it sure is, we shoot and people shoot back at us. So, let's not put our own soldiers in harm's way, let's do this all by remote control. So, this is really putting our death machine by remote control. It's training these young kids on computer skills … “
She said the drone training is similar to the activities for young people that were offered on the computer equipment in the Army Experience Center, a $12 million recruiting installation at the Franklin Mills Mall in northeast Philadelphia that opened in September, 2008 and closed in July, 2010. The center was described by Philly.com as having enabled visitors to, “engage in mock missions aboard a full-size Humvee and two massive helicopters equipped with Disney-grade simulators,” among other things.
Wright said that people were arrested protesting the center on six different occasions, and, “There is no longer an Army Experience Center in Philadelphia.” After a burst of applause, she said, “And following on that success, I say there will no longer be drones in Syracuse, New York … Stop the drones.” Again, more applause for Wright.
(Kelly's and Wright's full speeches appear on You Tube.)
After the speaking, the audience heard a reading of an indictment for violations of human rights, which was to be presented the next day at the Hancock gate. The indictment was enlarged and fastened to a cardboard sheet, and people were invited to sign; many did. The indictment began:
“We charge the chain of command, from President Barack Obama, to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, to Commander [of Hancock Field] Colonel Kevin Bradley, to every drone crew, with the following crimes: extrajudicial killings, violation of due process, wars of aggression, violation of national sovereignty and the killing of innocent civilians.”
The indictment said that the protesters were required by the Nuremburg principles to denounce the drone crimes and, “to resist them nonviolently.”
The indictment was prepared by Bill Quigley, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, Todd Saddler and Jessica Stewart, with editing by Dannie Burns.
After the reading of the indictment, about 40 people gathered to discuss plans for the arrests the following day. Ideas were presented and accepted or rejected by the group. Alternatives were discussed based on police and military response. Everything was done to achieve a unified action that all agreed on.
Details were important. A woman suggested she wear a “Scream” mask and scream as she knelt in the air base driveway; the group said no. A man wanted to try to sail folded paper planes over the fence of the air base, and this was discouraged. There was a plan to put small stones one by one into a child's wagon as names of victims of the Afghan War were read. Someone expressed concern that the police might view the stones as potential projectiles, and the group adopted a suggestion by Kelly that flowers be used instead.
Grady said later that the organizers expected about 20 would get arrested. It was clear from the discussion and the size of the group on Thursday night that the number would probably be greater.
1. Brooklyn for Peace, Broome County Peace Action, The Buffalo Interfaith Network, Fellowship of Reconciliation, The Gandhi Institute, Historians Against the War, Ithaca Catholic Worker, Metro Justice Peace Action and Education, New York State Direct Action for Peace, Peace Action of Central New York, The Peace Education Project of Buffalo, Peace Now Ithaca, Rochester Against War, ScarfsForPeace, Slocum House, Syracuse Peace Council, The Upstate AntiWar Network, Veterans for Peace: Buffalo Chapter 128; Ithaca Chapter 038; NYC Chapter 034; Woodstock Chapter 058, Vietnam Veterans Against the War – Ithaca, Western NY Peace Center and World Can't Wait.
We charge the chain of command, from President Barack Obama, to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, to Commander Colonel Kevin Bradley, to every drone crew, With the following crimes; extrajudicial killings, violation of due process, wars of aggression, violation of national sovereignty, and the killing of innocent civilians, We charge that these crimes are committed in violation of The Constitution of the United States of America, Article 1, Section 8.11, The Charter of the United Nations Article 2 section 4, The Golden Rule and of international law, to which we are especially bound by Article 6, Section 2 of the Constitution which states, “all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding”.
We demand that they immediately stop these crimes,
And be accountable to the people of the United States and Afghanistan,
We appeal to all United States citizens, military and civilian, and to all public officials, that we are required by the Nuremberg Principles l – Vll, and by Conscience, to refuse to participate in these crimes, to denounce them and to resist them nonviolently.
We charge that the Air National Guard of the United States of America, headquartered at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, home of the 174th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard, under the command of 174th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Kevin W. Bradley, is maintaining and utilizing MQ-9 Reaper Drones for use in combat.
Extrajudicial targeted killings by the use of unmanned aircraft drones by the United States of America are intentional, premeditated and deliberate use of lethal force in violation of US and international human rights law.
The US has used drones for targeted killings in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Pakistan, with no legal basis for defining the scope of area where drones can and cannot be used, no rigorous criteria for deciding which people are targeted for killing, no procedural safeguards to ensure the legality and accuracy of the killings, and no mechanisms of accountability.
In support of this indictment we cite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, who has said that the use of drones creates “a highly problematic blurring and expansion of the boundaries of the applicable legal frameworks – human rights law, the laws of war and the law applicable to the use of inter-state force…. The result has been the displacement of clear legal standards with a vaguely defined license to kill, and the creation of a major accountability vacuum … In terms of the legal framework, many of these practices violate straightforward applicable legal rules.” See United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council Study on Targeted Killings, 28 May 2010.
Let all accused in this indictment understand that our words are spoken nonviolently. All are invited to stop the use of drones and refuse to participate in illegal warfare.