“This has got to stop.”
Judge David Gideon’s words refer not to the use of drones, but the activities of anti-drone activists. He has uttered this phrase from the bench repeatedly in recent months as activists have appeared before him, and the words must have been echoing through his mind as he sentenced Mary Anne Grady Flores, a 58-year-old grandmother from Ithaca, New York, to one year in prison on July 10. Her crime? Participating in a nonviolent anti-drone protest at an upstate New York military base after being ordered by the local courts to stay away from the site. The base is used to train drone pilots and technicians, and to control drone surveillance and strikes in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Such Orders of Protection typically protect victims of domestic violence from their abusers and witnesses of violent crimes from threats of retribution. Grady Flores’ one-year sentence is the result of a strange legal sleight of hand that positions the Hancock Air Base commander, Col. Earl A. Evans, as the victim of protests. Justices in the town of DeWitt, where the base is located, have slapped these Orders of Protection on dozens of activists arrested at Hancock since 2012.
But Grady Flores was the first protester to be sentenced for violating one. Prosecutors in Grady Flores’ case did not seek jail time, citing her role as caregiver for her elderly mother. Apparently, however, Judge Gideon was determined to make an example of her, in the hopes that a long sentence would deter others from resistance.
Grady Flores is now out on bond and has filed an appeal, which may take months to resolve. Her case will be closely watched by the 30 or so activists accused of violating Orders of Protection who await trial. If Judge Gideon hoped to quell resistance with his harsh sentence, his plan seems to have backfired: Anti-drone activists say their resistance and organizing will only increase. What really needs to stop, they say, are the United States’ drone strikes in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
“Mary Anne’s sentence is big news,” says Brian Terrell, anti-drone organizer with Voices for Creative Nonviolence. “The drone program is so blatantly illegal that the authorities have to go to absurd lengths to justify and protect it. They need to redefine words like ‘imminent threat’ and ‘due process’ to cover up the criminality. Here, they have to redefine the meaning of an Order of Protection. I hope that this will bring more people out to protest.”
It has. On July 23 — just days after local activists raised $5,000 to free Grady Flores on bond so she could do media work and prepare for her appeal — seven activists were arrested at the base (including my 74-year-old mother). They carried with them documents they hope to make part of their legal defense, including a People’s Order of Protection, demanding that the 174th Attack Wing of the Air National Guard “stay away from the Children of the World and their families, including their homes, schools, places of play and work.” The judge freed two on their own recognizance and set bonds for the rest, including an unprecedented $10,000 bond for two repeat offenders, including Grady Flores’ younger sister, Clare Grady. All were charged with trespassing, and two (including Clare) were charged with violating Orders of Protection.
Drones, drones everywhere
Predators armed with Hellfire missiles. Reapers armed with Joint Direct Attack Munitions. Global Hawks stuffed with high-tech surveillance equipment. These and other drones are quickly becoming the go-to weapon for budget-conscious war-fighters in Washington unwilling to bear the public scrutiny that accompanies U.S. military body counts. Already, the Air Force is training more drone pilots than old-fashioned seat-in-the-plane fighter and bomber pilots combined.
And struggling municipalities that have reaped little from President Barack Obama’s much-touted “recovery” are eager to host the drone bases as a way of retaining and reviving threadbare military installations in their communities. Hancock is just one of 64 military bases from which drone surveillance or strikes are co-ordinated and carried out. There’s Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, Wright Army Airfield in Georgia, Springfield Air National Guard Base in Ohio — the list goes on.
While weaponized drones keep U.S. military personnel off the battlefield and out of harm’s way, carrying out remote-controlled, long-range assassinations can be deeply psychologically scarring. A 2011 Air Force study found that 42 percent of drone operators report moderate to high levels of stress as a result of their work and attribute those feelings at least in part to the “existential conflict” of long-distance war fighting. And, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, civilian casualties mount. In a January study, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimated that under the Obama administration, U.S. drone strikes have killed at least 2,400 people in nearly 400 separate attacks.
In New York, the protest group Upstate Drone Action has turned its attention even farther north to the Niagra Falls Air Reserve Station, where Reaper drones have recently been deployed. The group staged a “Fly Kites, Not Drones” action on July 6.
The Empire State is not the only community organizing against drone bases. In June, a robust coalition in Michigan organized a 163-mile walk from Chicago to Battle Creek, Michigan, to raise awareness about the establishment of a new node of drone flights there. Battle Creek, the home city of Kellogg’s, has been nicknamed Cereal City, but local activist Joanna Learner warned in an open letter to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) that the drone base could earn the city a new nickname: “The Serial (Killing) City.” More than a hundred people participated in the 12-day walk, many of them first-time activists.
Meanwhile, anti-drone organizers around the world are coordinating their efforts, declaring October 4 the first Global Action Day Against the Use of Drones for Surveillance and Killing.
At her sentencing before Judge Gideon, Grady Flores asked, “Who is the real victim here: the commander of a military base whose drones kill innocent people halfway around the world, or those innocent people themselves who are the real ones in need of protection from the terror of U.S. drone attacks?” The answer is clear.
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Frida Berrigan writes for TomDispatch, Waging Nonviolence and other outlets. Her book, It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood, was published by OR Books in 2015. She lives in New London, Conn., with her husband, three kids and six chickens.