On the morning of Friday, April 22, 2011, protesters of the MQ-9 Reaper killer drone operations at Hancock Field air base in Syracuse, New York, made a “Walk of Transformation” through downtown Syracuse.
The walk, which began at 9 AM in 40 degree temperatures, was, “a way to energize people in the morning,” said walk organizer Paul Frazier before they headed to Hancock Field, where civil disobedience was planned for the afternoon.
Although the flyers for the protest did not say so, the walk was inspired by the stations of the cross, a Good Friday ritual particularly revered by Roman Catholics, in which marchers stop at places representing key moments leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In previous years, stations of the cross walks in Syracuse have visited places connected to suffering, such as the jail, the federal building and the food stamp office.
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The 2011 walk began at the federal building because, said Frazier, it is, “the locus of power,” not only representing the power of President Obama, but also housing the Syracuse offices of US Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
The icon for the walk was a grey, eight-foot-long replica of a Reaper drone, “armed” with four model Hellfire missiles and two 500-pound bombs, a typical weapons load for the real Reaper. It was lifted aloft on a telescoping metal stand with wheels, allowing it to be rolled on the sidewalks and streets. Over the course of the morning, it would be “transformed” at each stop on the walk by being draped with brightly colored red pattern fabric and, finally, a large satiny green cloth. The clothes were hung with signs calling for jobs for youth, health care, conflict resolution – calling for a turn away from war.
The second stop on the walk was the office of the Syracuse Post-Standard because, Frazier said, the newspaper has become much more willing to cover issues surrounding the Hancock drone operations, such as the pressure by Senator Schumer to have an expansion in airspace for drone operations in northern New York, including flying over the Adirondacks.
Brian Terrell spoke at this stop. Terrell said that it has been said that the revolutionary impact of the explosion in the use of drones for warfare has been compared to the explosion of the atomic bomb. However, he said, drones have received far less coverage. He urged that people thank the Post-Standard for their reporting. (Terrell was among 14 people arrested in 2009 at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada as they protested drone operations there. All were convicted of trespassing in 2010. He would be among those arrested in the afternoon at Hancock Field.)
(Photo: Nick Mottern)
“Changed My Whole Life”
Then the procession moved to a downtown military recruiting office, where Russell Brown, a former US Marine who had experienced combat in Vietnam, urged young people to stay out of the military, saying they may be naive, may not know that their basic job in the military is to kill people. Once a person has signed the military contract, he said, it is very difficult to get out of it. Brown assists draft resisters and hosts the blog Adopt Resistance.
Brown told me in an interview that his opposition to drone warfare is based on an experience near Chu Lai, Vietnam in 1967. His battalion came under fire, and it immediately began firing at black-clad figures in a field. When the Marines went to inspect the bodies they found, he said, that they had killed perhaps a dozen women and children; one little boy was alive, with a bullet wound in his head. (The boy was medevaced,” Brown said; Brown did not know whether he survived.)
“If you can make a mistake from a few hundred yards,” he said, how can drone operators at Hancock not make mistakes flying drones 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan?
That experience, Brown said, “changed my whole life.”
He said he saw things being done by soldiers in Vietnam that he knew were wrong, but, “I thought it was just me” who felt this way. “I never spoke out when something was wrong,” he said, an omission Brown said he greatly regrets.
The final stop for the Walk for Transformation was the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The drone replica was parked directly in front of the main door, and the walkers stood around it in a large plaza. At this point, it was partially covered with the printed cloths that had been pinned to its wings, and now it was shrouded in the large green cloth.
(Photo: Nick Mottern)
The speakers here were Father Bernard Survil, a Roman Catholic priest, and Dick Keogh, a former priest, and both decried the silence of religion in the face of the US wars and the drones. To ensure accuracy in reporting the details of what was said, I emailed Father Survil, and he responded that his remarks and those of Keogh were inspired by Franz Jaegerstter; they attended his beatification in 2007. Survil continued:
Franz, with his 8th grade education, refused to take up arms in Hitler's war which he considered unjust. The Catholic bishop of that time advised him to think of his wife and 3 preschool children left without a breadwinner, and that he was in no position to make such a grave judgment concerning a war which German Catholics, including the bishops, were accepting, even if unwillingly. At one point before his execution Franz remarked to the effect, “If the Church cannot take a stand against the current war, better that churches close their doors because they have nothing important to say.” In fact, it took from the 1943 death of Blessed Franz until 2007 for the Catholic Church to admit that Franz had been right and they had been wrong.
It was for this reason that we four, including Fr. Tim Taugher, pastor of St Francis Parish in Binghamton, NY and Mr Jack Gilroy of Endwell, NY set up “The Franz Jaegerstatter People to Break the Silence” www.franzprayforus.org, a web site which we haven't kept up to date.
In my comments out front of the Syracuse Cathedral, I also made reference to Bishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador…who did indeed use his office as archbishop of El Salvador to denounce the injustices wracking his county in the late 1970s, and for which he was assassinated, a fate which he full well anticipated.
In 2008, people in some 12 cities around the USA, including Buffalo, Syracuse, Des Moines, IA and Worcester, MA kept vigil out front of their respective Cathedrals with the intention of reminding bishops especially, because a Cathedral is so called because it is the seat for the teaching authority of the local bishop, to speak out on current wars. The organizers of the Reaper Drone action would do well to appeal to church authorities in Syracuse to speak out on the issue of drones as weapons.
(The Rev. Douglas Cunningham, administrator of St. Patrick's Church in Whitney Point, is assigned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse as a chaplain at Hancock Field, according to a diocesan spokesperson, a post he has held since before drones came to Hancock.)
After the speaking at the cathedral was completed, the marchers departed for ArtRage art gallery, where people were treated to lunch. By this time, additional protesters arrived in preparation for the six-mile walk that was planned to bring them to Hancock at about 3 PM.
The Point of Contact
Hancock Field is a New York Air National Guard base set on a vast plain in the company of small industrial buildings lining East Molloy Road in Mattydale, a hamlet suburb of Syracuse. On the afternoon of the protest, large portions of lawn on each side of the main driveway leading into base had been cordoned off for the protesters with yellow police tape.
Several black Onondaga sheriff police cars had been drawn up into the driveway to separate protesters from the main gate. At least 20 soldiers dressed in camouflage uniforms stood behind the fences on either side of the gatehouse. Some were also dressed in riot gear, wearing black chest-padding and helmets with plastic face shields and carrying long nightsticks. It struck me that they looked liked prisoners looking out from behind the fencing.
By 3:30 PM, at least 250 protesters filled the lawn on the right-hand side of the driveway. Most were from the northern tier of New York, but some came from Brooklyn and other more distant places, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Vermont.
Three television trucks had parked off the highway, and the Post-Standard sent Dave Tobin, who has written a number of articles on the Hancock drones. In addition, there was a flock of video and still photographers.
The first speaker was Elliott Adams, president of the board of directors of Veterans for Peace and a former infantry paratrooper who served in Vietnam, Japan, Korea and Alaska. He addressed the crowd from the tailgate of a pickup truck.
“Drones are adept at assassinations,” he said. “Assassination is illegal because it's immoral. Why do we use these weapons? We have other choices of weapons.” He added that he is opposed to war.
Adams said that when he visited Gaza, Israeli drones, “created a sense of oppression.” He told of a drone attack that killed or injured Palestinian children playing on the roof of their house. He quoted their father, Mohammed, who said that after the explosion, he went straight to the roof, and:
“The first thing I saw was Jamila without her legs; it was like she had been butchered, cut like meat. Her left leg was thrown 100 meters; we gave it to the ambulance later … Isra – I saw her brain. Then I saw Shaza; she was cut through her hip to her stomach. Her leg was gone; she was dead. I told Jamila not to worry, that I would take her to hospital, that I would get an ambulance. Our son Mohammed wasn't on the roof, he was thrown off, onto the neighbor's windowsill. I couldn't believe it, I thought Mohammed's leg was only broken, but they amputated his foot. They cut it halfway up the shin; later, they cut it higher.”
“That sunny, quiet day,” Adams said, “from a drone, Isra, 13, killed; Shaza, 10, killed; Jamila, 14, lost both her legs above the knee; and 16-year-old Mohammed lost one leg.”
Because of the nature of drones, Adams said, there is no information on who they kill. They are, he said, “weapons of terror.”
“It is not enough to condemn the drones or those who use them,” he continued. “If we are citizens of the United States, they are ours: we build them, we fly them and we fire their missiles. Silence is the voice of complicity.”
Adams concluded with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”
Within an hour, Adams was lying in the Hancock Field driveway bound by plastic handcuffs.
The next person to mount the tailgate was Terrell.
“What this [drone] technology has done in a very unique way is, it's bringing the war home,” Terrell said. “The war is being engaged; the war is being waged; war crimes are being committed not on a battlefield in Afghanistan only. They're being committed right here.”
Terrell said that in the trial of the 14 people arrested at Creech, the defendants had argued that they trespassed because the drones present an “imminent threat” and that they were no more guilty than a person who enters a burning building to save a child.
Concluding, he said:
“The threat is imminent; the threat is close; the threat is on the other side of that yellow ribbon. And those of us who choose to cross on to that other side of that ribbon; we are really putting ourselves into the battlefield, addressing the war in Afghanistan in the most intimate way. We are ignoring the police state, ignoring the no trespassing sign, and we are going to that child in that window of the burning house.”
“Remind People of Conscience”
The next speaker was retired Army colonel Ann Wright, who is constantly traveling and speaking about the US wars. She joined the State Department after leaving the Army, but quit her post in Afghanistan in 2003 over the US invasion of Iraq. She has been an advocate for women facing sexual abuse in the military and is currently working on the US Boat to Gaza project that challenges the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
Wright said that the drones are being used to kill people without trial. If drone strikes are precise, then why were those in a wedding party killed?
Pointing toward the Hancock fence, Wright said:
“Here we are training American assassins … American assassins that work right over here … we can rationalize a lot while we're in the military, that we ourselves are not the ones that are doing something … it's for those politicians that have cooked up these policies … but the actual implementers, the ones that pull the triggers, they're not to be held responsible … but then how many of you all have resigned from the military or the government … people who said, 'No, I will not do this in the name of my country. They are criminal acts committed by my country and I will not be a part of it.' … So, here in Syracuse, what we need to be able to do is to be able to keep in touch with the
men and women that work in here, to say we know that you deep down know what you are being asked to do, that you're being asked to become trained assassins, and when you're ready to stop that, we're ready to take you in. We want to take you in … It's so important that every week, as many times as possible, that these signs are out here to remind people of conscience that, in there, that it's time that they act on their conscience … So, as an old military person and an old diplomat, I say, 'Stop the drones.'”
Wright then introduced Kathy Kelly, a coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence (VCNV) who has visited Afghanistan three times, most recently in December 2010.
“Of course,” Kelly began, “what the drones can't communicate to us that we need so much to know, both we here and our friends there,” and she motioned toward the air base, “is the suffering and sorrow of warfare, the suffering and the sorrow and the loss and the bereavement.”
She said that the first time she went to Afghanistan, she stayed in a hospital, where she met a seven-year-old boy undergoing physical therapy for war wounds. “This little one's body had been severely broken and battered; he never knew which side had hit him,” said Kelly.
She also spoke of an Afghani who worked as a driver for US convoys for three years who had lost a leg and suffered a severely broken collarbone from an improvised explosive device (IED). Kelly said that when she asked him what he would do if his village was attacked in the night raids being conducted by the United States, he said, “I would fight to the death.”
And, finally, she spoke of sitting on a bench outside a hospital where she gave blood and encountered a young boy who hobbled up, his head swathed in bandages, and said to a woman sitting next to her, “I have lost my eye forever.”
“And it is a part of the sorrows of war,” she said, “that are understood by people at Walter Reed hospital and in places all across our country where people return from the wars, their lives changed forever.”
She paused, then: “It wasn't so easy on my Irish mother that the first time I was ever arrested, it was for singing an Irish ballad inside of Chicago's post office protesting the 1979 draft registration. I want to share that song with you now.”
Then she began singing a traditional Irish antiwar song, “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye,” which shares the same tune with “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and includes the lines:
Where are your legs that used to run, hurroo, hurroo
Where are your legs that used to run, hurroo, hurroo,
Where are your legs that used to run
Before you learned to carry a gun
I believe your dancin' days are done
Johnny I hardly knew you.
As she went further and further into the song, her sad, sweet trill brought stillness to the air, except for soft singing along from some in the crowd.
When she had finished the song, Kelly turned where she stood on the pickup truck bed toward the police and the soldiers lined up along the fence of the base and addressed them:
“We pledge, my friends, to every one of you, that we want to save the lives of all the people in the war zones and that we want the intelligence that will help us understand the sorrows of warfare. We pledge this to you, we swear to ourselves, we swear to ourselves, all human life is precious.”
Then Ellen Grady displayed and read the indictment for violation of human rights that would be presented at the beginning of the civil disobedience, and she asked if any more people wished to sign the document which was enlarged to fill the face of a cardboard panel about three by four feet in size.
Jessica Maxwell, an organizer with the Syracuse Peace Council, then instructed people who planned to be arrested to come pick up flowers, daffodils from the garden of Ann Tiffany and Ed Kinane, and asked the crowd to clear a path so that these people could “deliver flowers into our little [children's] wagon near the drone [replica] as part of our mourning and solidarity for victims of drone attacks.”
(A video of the rally is available at:
Within minutes, protesters began going into the air base driveway and lying down randomly in a die-in, many covered with sheets sprinkled with red dye. Two of the protesters who would be arrested were in wheelchairs: Jerome Berrigan, 91, brother of antiwar leaders Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, and Mary Snyder, 86.
Terrell, Kelly and Martha Hennessy, granddaughter of Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, took a position in the driveway closest to the gate of the base, with Terrell and then Kelly hoisting the cardboard containing the indictment for the violation of human rights so that the document faced the base. Two police officers stood close in front of them to block any movement of the three protesters toward the gatehouse.
As the protesters lay down, people with cameras swarmed around and among them.
After less than five minutes, when most protesters had laid down in the driveway, Lt. Curtis Dailey of the Onondaga County Sheriff's Office, who was in charge of the police detail, strode over to Kelly, Terrell and Hennessey, saying, “You're under arrest for inciting a riot.” He was speaking to Terrell, who was in the process of being handcuffed by other police. (Lieutenant Dailey said in an interview later that he “fully planned” to charge Terrell with incitement because of Terrell's comment about crossing the yellow tape to “rescue that child in the burning building.” But during the protest, the lieutenant checked the law and found that the charge would be inappropriate because Terrell's remarks did not cause “tumultuous behavior.”)
While Terrell was being led across the median of the driveway toward a police car, Lieutenant Dailey asked Kelly and Hennessey, in what appeared to be a relatively good-humored conversation, to leave the driveway.
I asked Kelly later about the conversation, and she said she told the officer, “We would like to deliver this important information,” referring to the indictment placard she held. Lieutenant Dailey, she said, seemed focused only on whether she and Hennessey would leave the driveway.
When it became clear to him that they intended to stay, he took the placard out of Kelly's hands and tossed it onto the median. He then handcuffed Hennessey, and a female officer handcuffed Kelly; each of the women was led in metal handcuffs to a separate police car.
At the same time, other police were moving among those lying in the driveway and applying plastic handcuffs. Some of the protesters had to roll over onto their stomachs so they could be cuffed. As this was happening some people in the demonstration crowd were singing, “Peace, Salaam, Shalom.”
As the protesters were stood up and seated on the median curb, the driveway became littered with a few red-spattered sheets and daffodils lying starkly on the black pavement. Some of the protesters kept their sheets wrapped around them.
About 20 minutes into the arrests, people in the crowd began to read over a loudspeaker the names and ages of Afghanis killed in the war.
After about 30 minutes, all the protesters were seated on the curb in preparation for being loaded into the sleek, black sheriff's bus. Kelly was put on first.
All during this time, someone beat a small drum.
The crowd had been told a few minutes earlier that the time limit of the permit for the demonstration had expired, and so, they would have to leave. Some people began moving up the highway, and others stood in a line across the highway, some holding signs; one read, “War is Not a Game.”
A number of soldiers remained behind the chain-link fence watching; the riot gear had disappeared.
In about an hour, the arrested were loaded into the sheriff's bus and several police cars and taken away.
The indictment placard, some daffodils and “blood”-stained sheets were retrieved from the driveway by a protester, with police approval.
There was never a chance of the indictment placard being put in the hands of base officials. Lieutenant Dailey told me he was informed that the base would accept no materials from protesters at this action, possibly because of a dispute between protesters and the military that developed at a previous protest over the amount of material being presented.
Hancock Public Affairs Officer Major Jeffrey Brown told the Post-Standard:
“We are proud of the role we play protecting the lives of military men and women on the ground, in harm's way. This state-of-the-art technology saves American lives on a daily basis.”
A list of those arrested appears below. All were released the day of their arrest, except Hennessey and Kelly, who spent two nights in jail because they initially refused bail. They decided to accept the bail that had been raised for them, Kelly said, when they were told by a lawyer assisting the protesters that without bail they might be held in jail until their trial, which might not occur until September.
All those arrested have been charged with obstruction of governmental administration (punishable by a maximum of one year in jail, up to a $1,000 fine and a $205 surcharge) and disorderly conduct (maximum jail term – 15 days; up to a $250 fine; $125 processing fee). At this writing, no trial date has been set.
Some protesters are scheduled to appear in court in DeWitt, New York, on May 3, and another group is to appear on May 18.
After the protest, Geoff Oldfield of Syracuse, son of Julienne Oldfield, who was among the 37 protesters arrested, was charged with criminal mischief for driving his pickup onto the lawn of the air base; it was used for the speakers' platform. The charge carries the same penalty as obstruction of governmental administration. No trial date has been set.
The Struggle for Empathy
The Syracuse protesters, like antiwar protesters around the country, are in a fight to bring the reality of war into the US public consciousness in the face of real but unacknowledged press censorship of images of the wounded and dead.
They are also fighting a callousness and viciousness in society that is arguably engendered by lawlessness at the top of government, evidenced in an aggressive determination to ignore international law that would prevent drone attacks in Pakistan, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama, by continuing the lawlessness of George W. Bush, is arguably encouraging a ruthlessness in public spirit that puts self ahead of all others, all the time, and that infects all politics and interpersonal relationships in the United States.
Religious leaders have been largely silent, not addressing the fear that Americans have of “terrorists” and not explaining that violating laws and religious principles is not the way out of fear, nor have they addressed the ways in which fear has been used to stimulate a pseudopatriotism that is a smokescreen covering the naked US grab for oil and gas resources in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tragically, most religious leaders have maintained silence in the face of the boastful use of torture, the mass killing of what may be more than a million Iraqis by US and “allied” forces, the continued killing in Afghanistan, destruction of the Afghan culture and, now, the drone bombings.
One of the roles of religion is to encourage the human tendency for empathy, the caring of one for the other. Empathy is not only a key factor in bringing peace – it is a key factor in a politics of fairness and shared burdens.
Failure to encourage empathy leaves the field wide open for the most vicious, individualistic and deadly politics, which drive war and which are now the driving force in US public affairs. The MQ-9 Reaper drone, with its ability to effect impersonal, 7,000-mile-away killings, without due process, without remorse and without a chance even for the empathy one might feel on looking into the faces of the dead, seems to be a weapon emblematic of this moment in American politics.
First, they came for the Iraqis and Afghanis and Pakistanis and Libyans. Then, they came for us.
From New York State
Jerry Berrigan, 91
Paul Wittjung, 67
Ed Kinane, 66
Ann Tiffany, 75
Rae Kramer, 50
Julienne Oldfield, 73
Kathleen Rumpf, 59
Rich Vallejo, 24
Ellen Grady, 48
Clare Grady, 54
Marion “Susie” Kyssack, 68
Richard Saddler, 46
Mary Anne Grady-Flores, 54
Dannie Burns, 50
Craver Scibilia, 58
James Ricks, 61
Vickie Ross 56
George Homanich, 63
Jim Clune, 63
Mary Snyder, 86
Elliott Adams, 64
Ian Stone, 17
Patricia Powers, 55
M.W. Wadsworth, 32
Cynthia Banas, 81
Pete Bianco, 32
Harry Murray, 59
Judy Bello, 60
Joan Pleune, 72
New York City:
Beverly Rice, 73
Out of New York State:
Fr. Bernie Survil, 70, Bradford, Pennsylvania
Jules Orkin, 72, Bergenfield, New Jersey
Martha Hennessy, 55, Perkinsville, Vermont
Ann Wright, 64, Honolulu, Hawaii
Kathy Kelly, 58, Chicago, Illinois
Brian Terrell, 54, Maloy, Iowa
Beth Adams, 65, Leverett, Massachusetts