Drone Wars, P1: A Victory for the Home Team?

On Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013,  9 protesters were arrested at the front gate of Hancock Air Base, a control center for MQ-9 Reaper drone attacks in Afghanistan, a country enduring the largest number U.S. drone strikes in the world.  Starting with the arrest of 39 people at Hancock in April of 2011, there have been 7 or 8  Civil Resistance actions at Hancock Base that have resulted in arrests.  Most arrests targeted people standing in the driveway/access road leading to  the Main Gate to the Base, although in April of 2012, 50 people, walking quietly in single file along the side of the road, were stopped by police about 2 blocks  from the base,  and 33 arrested for refusing to turn back.  Most recently, 31 people were arrested at the base  following  peaceful permitted demonstration on April 28 of this year, for crossing the curb into the driveway of the base.

All charges are adjudicated in  the small town, two-judge court in the town of DeWitt, a suburb of Syracuse, NY in which  Hancock is located.  Base personnel work closely with local law enforcement, including DeWitt Town Police, the Onondaga Sheriff’s office and the Attorney General’s office to manage these events, including the astounding issuance of Orders of Protection to more than 50 nonviolent protesters to protect the military installation.   This article explores the adjudication of a group of people of faith who came to Hancock to protest the murder of innocents to show how the legal system of this small upstate NY community has been contorted to protect  ongoing drone operations from public criticism.    

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Thursday October 24, the self identified ‘Ash Wednesday 5’ were acquitted in DeWitt Town Court of Disorderly Conduct charges stemming from an Ash Wednesday civil resistance action at Hancock Air National Guard Base.   It was a  wonderful moment for those of us who have been actively protesting at the base for several years.   More than 40 supporters from from Buffalo, Rochester, Binghamton, Utica, Albany, Ithaca and Syracuse filled the small town courtroom.  It had been a long evening, where the prosecution brought forward the particular policeman or deputy who had arrested each defendant as well as some military personnel, and then each of the five Pro-Se defendants had come to the podium to defend him or herself trough testimony to his or her actions and intentions.  Four of the defendants were new to the DeWitt Courtroom, but  it wasn’t the first time for Ellen Grady, a Catholic Worker from Ithaca who has spent time in Onondaga County Jail on two previous occasions for this same offense.

The prosecutions witnesses established that:  The protesters each held a sign saying either “For Maiming Children, God Forgive Us” or “For Killing Children, God Forgive Us”  while standing at the end of the driveway leading to the Front Gate of the Base, but none of the arresting officers remembered what the signs said; the protesters refused to move out of the driveway when asked to do so, but both the protesters and police were polite and friendly throughout the arrest process; no public traffic was blocked by the presence of the protesters though the first police officer to arrive was confronted and told that he would not be allowed to enter unless he was ready to arrest the War Criminals within.

Col Earl Evans,  who signed requests for Orders of Protection blocking these and other protesters from further access to the Base perimeter testified that the base property extends to the middle of the highway. Col Evans claimed that it was indeed a nuisance for the base to have these protesters outside the front gate though he couldn’t say whether they had actually blocked the gate or whether any vehicle had tried to pass.

The Defendants each testified that their intention was not to annoy, alarm or distress the public, but to end the murder of innocents, to defend International Law and to  express repentance for the crimes  of our society. Linda LeTendre testified that, as a Social Worker assisting Developmentally Disabled Children and their families, she has watched the Social Safety Net collapse under the weight of the Military Industrial Complex.   She said that she had stood in the driveway outside the Main Gate of the Base to uphold the Constitution of the United States and not to cause alarm or inconvenience.

Bill Streit said that as a Catholic Worker he had a commitment to stand with the poor, to protect the poor and to look at reality through the eyes of the poor.   He said that if someone drove down the road, opened fire, and killed local people we would be horrified.   When we respond to killing as normal, we need to repent, to change course.   We are all one, he said.

Carmen Trotta of the Catholic Worker House in New York City  told the story of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement,  leading  series of protests in the 50’s by refusing to go into the Subway for Air Raid Drills.   She said the drills were an act of psychological warfare against the American People.   Dorothy Day, who devoted her life to living and working with the poor, is in the process of canonization by the Catholic Church as a Saint.   He said the government lies about the ongoing wars need to stop, and the action was a symbolic blockade to tell people the killing must stop.

Father Bill Pickard said that he was at the Base to stop a crime from happening.   The Hancock People should be here before you, he said.     There is a mandate for citizens of the U.S. to stand up to government abuses, he said.   Father Bill also mentioned that he is familiar with the inside of a jail after years of working with the poor in prisons, though he never plans to be arrested.

Finally, Ellen Grady testified.   She brought posters with blown up photos of two teenage boys.   First she showed a photo of Abdullai, a member of the Afghan Peace Volunteers.   Abdullai, she said, is alive, and we hope that he will stay alive. The APV, she said, send us this message: “We want to live without War”.    Then she showed a photo of Abdulrahman Al Awlaki.   This boy is dead, she said.   He died for no reason, along with 6 other young people, when a drone struck the cafe where they were eating with hellfire missiles. She said that the 5 were at the base to call attention to War Crimes; that they were not reckless, but determined.   “We will not be complicit with our government’s War Crimes.  [To that end] we were there to get in the way as much as possible.”

In Closing Remarks, Bill Streit told the judge

‘You need us.  You need to hear the other side.’   It is said that the arc of history bends towards justice, so we appeal to you to join the arc of justice”

Linda LeTendre pointed out that no harm was done at the base, and no public annoyance or inconvenience was caused.   She reiterated that the protesters stood on private property.   She went on to say

“The first victims of and unjust law are those who have to enforce it.   Look at the pictures.   If those children were our children or grandchildren, I would take this risk for them too.”

Linda, who was advised by Albany Lawyer, Kathy Manley, who sat with her during the trial, and who provided the specific technical argument on which Judge Jokl’s  decision was based, repeatedly pointed out that they were standing in the ‘driveway’ to the base.    The decision was not quite that simple.  Kathy described the case as follows in an email shortly after the trial:

Our legal argument wasn’t really that the base was “private property” but that the general public wasn’t allowed free access to it, so therefore the disorderly conduct charge could not be used there. To be convicted of disorderly conduct, not only does it have to occur in a “public place” (defined as a place where the public has access) but also, there has to be proof that the defendant’s acts (here, blocking the driveway) tended to annoy, alarm or inconvenience the general pubic (as opposed to base employees or police.) They were acquitted because there was no proof of that.

Judge Jokl said that he didn’t want to acquit them, but he had no choice.   His aides had researched the charge, and The People’s case could not support the charge of Disorderly Conduct. How Ironic is it,that they are ‘The People‘ in this case.  When the ADA questioned his ruling, the Judge responded ‘mens rea’, a legal phrase which I’m told means, ‘there was no intention’.   And so the poorly framed charge was not proven, neither in substance nor intent.    The audience stood and applauded the Not Guilty verdict.  There was a sense that the passionate words and ideals of the defendants had reached the heart of the judge, and changed the course of a 2 year long standoff between protesters and the state over the moral and political legality of the murderous drone  missions regularly piloted over Afghanistan by the 174th Attack Wing in our own back yard at the Hancock National Guard Base. 

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A number of us in the court room for the momentous victory had tentative cause for celebration.   We were the first defendants served with Restraining Orders, Orders of Protection requested by Col Earl Evans, Commander of the Mission Support for the 174th Attack Wing.   The next day, October 25, our OOPs, as we call them, would expire.   A year had passed since our arrest, and the court would be closed on the anniversary/expiration date.  However, Judge Gideon issued a request on that day to 16 of the 17 protesters arrested at Hancock on October 25 the previous year and still awaiting trial, to show up at DeWitt Court the following Wednesday.

I had been thinking of requesting a Bail Reduction Hearing at this point, because a year is a long time to wait for trial on violations like Disorderly Conduct and Trespass.  In fact the court is holding several thousand dollars in bail,  in some cases more than the maximum fine for a violation, while restraining us with the OOPs for a full year.    Now the Judge had requested our presence with 1-3 days notice depending on how far you live from Syracuse, with no indication of his intent. A few months ago we had a lively debate.  On our Restraining  Orders it read that the OOPs would expire in one year or be vacated at the time of our trial if that occurred sooner, so some assumed it would expire.   Others argued that, if we showed up in court, the Judge could and would extend the order.   Both were  essentially correct.

In the courtroom, the Judge extended Col. Evans’ OOPs.  For each person present, he read the constraints in the Order.   Over and over and over he read:

It is hereby ordered that the above named defendant [] will

Stay away from Earl A Evans; the home of Earl A. Evans; the business of Earl A. Evans; the school of Earl A. Evans; the place of employment of Earl A. Evans;

Refrain from communication by any other contact by mail, telephone, e-mail, voice-mail or other electronic or by any other means with Earl A. Evans;

Refrain from assault, stalking, harassment, aggravated harassment, menacing, reckless endangerment, strangulation, criminal obstruction of breathing or circulation, disorderly conduct, criminal mischief, sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, forcible touching, intimidation, threats or any criminal offense or interference with the victim or victims of, or designated witnesses to, the alleged offense and such members of the family or household of such victim(s) or witness(es) as shall be specifically named Earl A. Evans.

Any victim of Domestic Abuse can tell you how important these orders are to protect the vulnerable from irrational, violent, often armed individuals who have already attacked them, often repeatedly.   I suppose our OOPs wouldn’t be so ridiculous if the document weren’t a boiler plate clearly written to protect these  individuals.  In the paperwork provided to those charged with violating the OOPs, and in some of the more recent OOPs, they have  added the words ‘nuisance’ and ‘annoy’ to define our prohibited actions and make sense of  OOPs written to protect the Commander of an ‘Attack Wing’ from peaceful protesters refusing to vacate the driveway outside the gate of a heavily armed Military Base.

Though it’s difficult to see our peaceful protest as violating the specific concerns asserted above,  I might imagine we are a real threat to Col. Evans.  We threaten his worldview, his sense of the integrity of his work, and perhaps his career.  Surely it would look very bad for him if by some chance, the 174th Attack Wing lost it’s license to kill on his watch.

Our trial date is December 12, so we don’t have long to wait for our day in court, not counting the year that has already passed since we stood outside the gates of the base with our placards, and remained in our places after being asked by the police to leave.    We had read an indictment of the political establishment from President Obama to the base commander and other base personnel for violating International Law and the Constitution, and passed a copy to the guard at the gate for Base Commander Semmel.  None of us had ever met or even heard of Col. Earl A. Evans.    I had never seen him in person until he testified at the trial for the Ash Wednesday 5.

At the trial for Ash Wednesday protest, the defendants were declared Not Guilty after the ADA, and Col. Evans stated that the Base owns all the property up  to the center line of Molloy Road, a highway that passes in front of the main gate.   Since the  action occurred along side the road at the end of the driveway that leads into the base, it occurred on private property, therefore the charge of Disorderly Conduct is inappropriate.   When I was convicted with the Hancock 38, a lawyer for some of the defendants claimed that they Disorderly charge was inappropriate because we were in the driveway on private property.  However, the ADA supported by a representative of Base Security claimed that the driveway was, in fact, a public access road.  Since we are charged with both Disorderly Conduct AND Trespass, we aren’t likely to get off on a technicality.

As events unfold it becomes ever more clear that the only real case is the one for a citizens’ arrest, so to speak.     The activities at Hancock Base violate International Treaties signed by the United States, and therefore they violate the Constitution of the United States.    They violate the moral principles of  Christianity and Islam, and the precepts of Humanitarian Law.   The right to peacefully protest is protected by the 1st and 4th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.   These are the bases on which our protests are formulated.   This is the message we want to project.   Being a nuisance or an annoyance doesn’t seem too important in this context.  We call on the court to cease, for a moment, business as usual and attend to matters of overarching significance.

This is the essence of Civil Resistance.    But it is also a reflection of the most fundamental underpinnings of our American Democracy, at least of the one I grew up with.   Sometimes when I am sitting in court, I see Gomer Pyle, back in the 50s, running down the streets of Mayberry crying “Citizen’s Arrest, Citizen’s Arrest!”.   After all, this is America!

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