WASHINGTON — Doug Hughes made international headlines in April, when he landed a gyrocopter, a miniature personal helicopter he’s described as barely larger than a “flying bicycle,” on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Government officials considered the action a threat to national security, but Hughes argues he was simply trying to deliver the mail.
Hughes has been a Florida Postal Service employee in good standing for the past 11 years (up until his direct action, that is), but April 15 was no ordinary day on his rounds. Hughes chose Tax Day to deliver a message to Congress that corporate corruption of politics must stop, because the same corporations spending millions to control U.S. legislators are using that power to prevent themselves from paying their fair share of taxes. He also hoped to highlight efforts by corporate lobbyists to privatize the post office.
With his personal aerial vehicle carrying 435 copies of a fiery letter about corruption, Hughes landed at Congress’s front door and was promptly arrested. Coming months after a series of security violations at the White House, the incident set off a renewed debate in the media about the safety of the Capitol.
Hughes insists that, rather than a threat, his action should be seen as part of a long tradition of civil disobedience that goes directly to the source of the problem. Now, facing felony charges that could mean years in prison, the 61-year old activist plans to use the necessity defense in court in the belief that desperate times call for desperate measures — even when that means violating the Capitol’s “no-fly” zone.
Time to act
Hughes took precautions by emailing the government in advance of his direct action, and he urged fans of his website, The Democracy Club, to contact the White House to ask for both an honest government and for Hughes’s safety. Still, he says he knew it was possible he’d be shot down upon entering the Capitol’s air space or injured by police upon landing.
MintPress News spoke with Hughes last month by phone, before his first court appearance, and asked him what inspired him to take such an extraordinary action.
Hughes explained that he felt forced to reevaluate his life choices after his youngest son, aged 24, killed himself in a vehicular collision that also killed another driver about two years ago.
“He was incredibly bright, he had so much potential. It was completely unexpected, and it was crushing to me emotionally,” Hughes said. “I realized I was crushed because I believed my son could have done so much with his life — and he could have. I wound up doing some soul-searching, where I asked myself what had I accomplished other than passing on my DNA. I’m 61 years old, and I believe I have a moral obligation to pass this world onto the next generation in better shape than I received it from my parents.”
Hughes criticized his generation for failing to uphold this obligation, overall. He said: “We blew it. We are handing the planet off, we are handing the economy off, we are handing off a world in worse shape than our parents.”
With the next presidential election expected to cost $5 billion in campaign spending, and protests from Occupy Wall Street to the tea party proving ineffective, Hughes felt it was time for immediate action.
An urgent message of reform
Hughes stresses that he did not act out of any desire for fame, but he’s being recognized more and more on the street, which he takes as a sign that the meaning behind the gyrocopter landing is reaching people. During his interview with MintPress, he recalled an encounter with a stranger during a recent doctor’s visit: “She said, ‘Mr. Hughes, I don’t know if I agree with what you did or not, but I really appreciate why you did it.’”
It’s average voters like that stranger that Hughes wants back in power, rather than the corporations whose unlimited billions were unleashed by Citizens United. In his letter, he succinctly lays out the current American political landscape:
“In a July 2012 Gallup poll, 87% tagged corruption in the federal government as extremely important or very important, placing this issue just barely behind job creation. According to Gallup, public faith in Congress is at a 41-year record low, 7%. (June 2014) Kerry is correct. The popular perception outside the DC beltway is that the federal government is corrupt and the US Congress is the major problem. As a voter, I’m a member of the only political body with authority over Congress. I’m demanding reform and declaring a voter’s rebellion in a manner consistent with Jefferson’s description of rights in the Declaration of Independence. As a member of Congress, you have three options.
- You may pretend corruption does not exist.
- You may pretend to oppose corruption while you sabotage reform.
- You may actively participate in real reform.”
He goes on to criticize legislators for caring only about their wealthy benefactors, or the profitable lobbying jobs they hope to receive after their terms end:
“The relevant (rich) donors who command the attention of Congress are only .05% of the public (5 people in a thousand) but these aristocrats of both parties are who Congress really works for. As a member of the US Congress, you should work only for The People.”
Hughes believes Congressional reform is the only thing preventing violent upheaval. “The overwhelming tide of distrust for government institutions is fueling sympathy for violent change from citizens who don’t know – nonviolent reform is an option!” he wrote on his website. “Real reform has to be catapulted to the forefront of public consciousness as a defining principle more critical than any partisan issue in order to prevent random violence among us – to be followed by repressive reactions of a frightened government.”
Whether or not Congress heard his words, the government certainly noticed his nonviolent actions — and reacted with repressive charges.
Can ‘necessity’ tip the scales of justice?
In May, a federal grand jury indicted Doug Hughes on six charges for the gyrocopter landing.
“The charges include two felonies: one count each of operating as an airman without an airman’s certificate and violating registration requirements involving aircraft,” wrote Lauren Carroll, a staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, after the court read the charges. “In addition, he was indicted on four misdemeanor counts: three counts of violation of national defense airspace, and one of operating a vehicle falsely labeled as a postal carrier.”
If convicted on all charges, Hughes could face up to nine-and-a-half years in prison. However, if his case goes to trial, he plans to use a necessity defense, arguing that actions like his are the only hope for saving democracy.
According to an explanation published by National Paralegal College, under the necessity defense, a defendant must be able to prove that a genuine threat exists, and that his actions, although illegal, were necessary to stop an imminent harm. Hughes told MintPress the evidence of harm caused by corporate corruption of democracy seems obvious to him and many other activists, but it remains to be seen whether the judge will allow this form of defense.
Historically, from the Vietnam War into modern climate change protests, many judges have refused to allow activists to use the necessity defense. Cheryl Brumley, a reporter from the London School of Economics, describes the necessity defense as “one of the biggest longshots in the law books. Under it, a defendant basically tells a judge: ‘Yes, I broke the law. I admit it. But I had no choice. And you should be merciful.’”
Despite this defense’s uncertain past, two recent cases have signaled a shift in viewpoint from some courts. In September, a Massachusetts district attorney dropped charges against two activists who blocked a coal shipment, saying, “Climate change is one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced.” And more recently, a New York City judge found 10 “Flood Wall Street” activists not guilty out of necessity.
“By ordering protesters to leave the entire Wall Street area, police violated protesters’ First Amendment right to carry their message directly to its intended recipients: the Wall Street bankers who bankroll climate change,” Judge Mandelbaum said in his decision, as reported in March on MintPress News by Shawn Carrié.
Hughes intends to argue that his gyrocopter is too small and lightweight to be covered by the Federal Aviation Administration regulations accompanying his felony charges and that, because of the letters to Congress he carried, he was making proper use of the Postal Service logo. He’s never denied that he violated Washington, D.C., airspace, but rather argues that he had legitimate reasons to do so.
Without the argument for necessity, he won’t be allowed to bring up the motivation for his actions in court at all, which would leave him with few options. “The judge may very well block any reference in the case to why I landed where I landed or what it was about,” Hughes told MintPress. “But if the judge doesn’t allow me to present this defense, she won’t just have her thumb on the scales of justice. She’s sitting on the scale!”
Building solidarity while awaiting trial
On June 22, Hughes refused a plea deal that would have carried several years in prison.
“My position is: No jail time is justified in an act that’s only intended to bring the attention of the media and the voter to the corruption of our federal government,” he said after the hearing, as quoted by The Associated Press.
Fans of his actions created a Facebook group, “Free Doug Hughes,” which now has over 2,000 members, and are also crowdsourcing funds for his legal defense. The outpouring of support surprised Hughes, he told MintPress, though he appreciates it now that he’s facing the loss of his job and mounting legal costs.
At the same time, Hughes seems a little uncomfortable with the attention, reiterating that he’s not seeking wealth or notoriety. “Anybody who knows me knows I’m sincere about why I’m doing what I’m doing,” he told MintPress.
Rather than bringing attention to himself, he wants Americans to be inspired by his actions to reclaim democracy, and support efforts to amend the Constitution. Though Hughes identifies as a liberal, he expressed his respect for the original goals of the tea party movement, stressing that the fight against corruption cuts across all party lines.
“This isn’t a partisan issue,” he said. “We can work together.”
Watch “Gyro pilot Doug Hughes returns to DC via car,” a May 20 video from USA Today: