Attacks from afar
Locals continue drone protests
Nine participants in a peaceful, anti-drone warfare protest at Beale Air Force Base were arrested on federal trespassing charges last Tuesday (Nov. 6). Although not among those charged, a contingent of local activists representing the Chico Peace & Justice Center was on hand and participated in the action.
“We had a discussion the night before about who could get arrested,” said Chico activist Chris Nelson, who has been attending monthly anti-drone “Occupy Beale” actions for the past two years. “Many of us were willing to be arrested and charged in Yuba County, but weren’t ready to get arrested for federal trespassing.”
As per this arrangement, Nelson and fellow activist Cathy Webster were among a group of protesters who blocked the main road into the base, effectively shutting it down for four hours.
“There’s a thin white line near the gate that, if you cross over, you’re on federal land and you’re getting arrested,” Nelson said. She explained that, while she and others held the road near Beale’s main gate, four people were arrested at another entrance. Five others crossed the line at the main gate to show their solidarity. All nine were taken inside the gatehouse and held for about 45 minutes before being released with a citation.
The women said a number of lawyers are working on defending the “Beale 9” pro bono, and fellow activists are anxiously awaiting their day in court.
“Putting this on trial is the most important thing for all of us,” Nelson said, adding that she intends to attend the legal proceedings. “I think we’re going to see a lot more arrests in the near future. More people are becoming aware of the drone situation, and more people are willing to put their lives on hold to help spread that awareness.”
In fact, days earlier, on Nov. 1, 17 anti-drone activists were arrested on the same charges at Hancock AFB outside of Syracuse, N.Y.
The U.S. government argues that use of drone warfare is a lawful component of military actions authorized by Congress shortly after the 9/11 attacks, citing them as the most effective tool in battling terrorists. Drones have carried out surveillance and attacks in the Middle East, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. To date, the United States has about 700 drones in its arsenal, compared to about 50 before Sept. 11. The CIA also has a cadre of several dozen drones, and was recently approved to order 10 more.
Critics say the use of drones is illegal and they are used to carry out targeted killings that are no different than assassinations, which are forbidden by international law. They also cite a high rate of civilian casualties and a lack of transparency in their use.
“They don’t have a very good track record of hitting their targets,” Webster said. “They have a better track record of hitting innocent civilians, contrary to what we might hear in the news. They say they’re being used to fight terror, but they’re actually spreading it.”
“When you see a child dismembered, or your mother killed, how else would you feel but angry and hateful,” Nelson said. “After they hit there’s pieces of people everywhere, and sometimes they’ll send in a second drone strike to hit anyone who tries to help, and those people are killed. This is in rural areas where no one is keeping track. It’s basically a war crime, and we’re perpetrating it on people we haven’t even declared war on.”
Webster said operating a drone can be an impersonal activity.
“Drone pilots sit in a room thousands of miles away and operate them much like you would a video game,” Webster said. “They’re operating on intelligence that there are terrorists in the area, but they really have no idea who they’re attacking.”
Hunter-killer drones are not piloted from Beale, but Northrop Grumman Global Hawk surveillance drones, responsible for gathering intelligence and targeting, are.
Two high-profile drone incidents have hit the news since President Obama’s Nov. 6 re-election. Drones struck alleged al-Qaeda militants, killing at least three people outside the Yemeni capital of Sanaa Nov. 7. On Nov. 9, Iranian officials announced they’d fired at and repelled an American aircraft from that country’s airspace Nov. 1. The United States confirmed the aircraft was an “unarmed” Predator drone, but claimed it was in international airspace.
As of Nov. 9, official numbers from the U.S. military indicate 333 drone strikes have been carried out in Afghanistan in 2012—far more than in any previous year. About 1,500 U.S. and U.K. air strikes have happened in Afghanistan since 2009, with more than 1,200 being American attacks.
“Obama is not backing off because he isn’t getting told by the people to do so,” Nelson said. “The American people need to understand how far away we’ve moved from conventional warfare, and that we’re putting all our eggs in one basket with this drone program.”