A group of activists arrested last October after protesting the use of drones are on trial this month on charges of trespassing and disorderly conduct.
A group of 16 activists arrested last October after protesting the use of drones at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse, N.Y., are on trial this month on charges of trespassing and disorderly conduct.
The protesters, members of the Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars, have said they were attempting to educate New Yorkers and personnel at the air base about the effects of drones piloted from the base.
The group says the use of MQ-9 Reaper drones violates international laws and constitutes war crimes. The base was the first in the U.S. to convert from the use of F-16 aircraft to Reaper drones, which can be equipped with 500-pound laser guided bombs and missiles.
Members adhere to nonviolent direct action and have periodically been arrested and even done jail time. They began protesting at the base in 2010. Since then, 50 have been arrested, with some doing sentences of 15 days in jail.
Judy Bello, a spokeswoman for the group, says many of the activists have traveled to Iraq and Pakistan and met with victims of drone strikes.
Bello is one of the 16 currently on trial. She and other activists blocked the base’s gates at its main entrance as part of the protest. All but one of the defendants are representing themselves.
At their arraignment, the defendants were all issued with restraining orders that dictate they must keep a distance from the base and its personnel. Restraining orders are usually issued to perpetrators in domestic violence cases.
Defendant Elliott Adams, a Vietnam veteran, is challenging the restraining order.
“It’s a new tactic. No attorney I have spoken to has heard of it before,” Adams said. “It was used in some PETA cases when activists had threatened individual people. At the start of our case, the colonel himself said in his testimony he did not feel threatened by us.”
Adams believes the restraining order effectively denies the protesters their First Amendment rights. And violating the restraining order could mean a seven-year prison sentence.
“It’s an appalling violation of our First Amendment rights, and something the nation should be up in arms about,” Adams said.
Currently, the group has 50 restraining orders against members. Some have violated them and could face charges that could lead to six months to one year in jail.
International and Domestic Laws
While protesters face trespassing and disorderly conduct charges, they view it in a significantly broader context.
Bello says drones violate international laws such as the Geneva Protocols and Convention, which protects civilians around a war zone. The U.S. ratified those treaties with 193 other nations, and the Nuremberg principles say it is a citizen’s responsibility to expose and impede a nation’s war crimes. If an individual fails to, then that individual is complicit.
Of course, the Obama administration sees the use of drones differently. At a speech at the National Defense University in May 2013, President Barack Obama said the use of drones is covered by both domestic and international laws that were put in place after the 9/11 attacks. Those laws said the U.S. is at war with al-Qaida, the Taliban and their associates, wherever they might be. The speech followed public outcry over the use of drones to commit assassinations of U.S. citizens abroad.
Brian Terrell, a member of Voice for Creative Nonviolence, has been arrested and served jail time for peaceful protesting. He remembers the judge at one his trials saying that domestic law trumps international law. But Terrell says that contradicts the Constitution, which states that treaties the U.S. has ratified become law of the land, and every judge and magistrate is bound by these agreements.
The Hancock 16’s trial resumes Jan. 23.