Standing tall

Two Chico women face federal trespassing charges in their peaceful fight against drone warfare

Chicoans Cathy Webster and Chris Nelson are headed to federal court next week on trespassing charges related to their drone protests at Beale Air Force Base.

Chicoans Cathy Webster and Chris Nelson are headed to federal court next week on trespassing charges related to their drone protests at Beale Air Force Base.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Nine years ago, local activist Cathy Webster served two months in prison for an act of civil disobedience. While she has no desire to spend more time behind bars, that experience didn’t deter her from continuing to protest peacefully. Next Tuesday (Jan. 12), she’ll once again go before a federal judge—in Sacramento—on trespassing charges. She was most recently arrested, alongside four others including fellow Chicoan Chris Nelson, at the end of September at Beale Air Force Base. They were protesting drone warfare, as they’d been doing once a month for the past several years, and the day’s theme was immigration and the refugee crisis.

“We choose a theme each month, to keep the protest fresh,” Nelson explained during a recent interview. The monthly demonstrations outside Beale were based on a movement called Campaign Nonviolence. “We use acts of nonviolence to teach people to connect the dots between the military, climate change, poverty and social injustice,” she said.

The protesters don’t “cross the white line” and trespass on military land every month, but sometimes they feel that getting arrested will make their voices louder. For Nelson, her arrest on Sept. 29 holds special meaning. It was exactly a year after her husband, Michael Pike, died. Pike had been a Green Beret in the Vietnam War and the two had long protested together in the name of peace.

“I wanted to honor his memory by doing that,” Nelson said. It was the fourth time she’d been taken into custody, and the sixth or seventh for Webster. Nelson faced trial early last year for trespassing at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, but the judge ultimately dropped the charges.

What Webster and Nelson are so angry about is the American military use of drones to kill foreign enemies around the world. The biggest problem, they argue, is the collateral damage, which oftentimes includes children. At the same time, the American servicemen and women pulling the trigger suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder just as badly as if they were in actual combat—and the culture it’s breeding is dangerous.

“The reality is, it’s a toy to them,” Nelson said. “According to military whistleblowers, they refer to the children as ‘bug splat.’”

A cache of secret documents obtained by online journalism site The Intercept show that drones are consistently responsible for the deaths of unarmed, nontargeted civilians and that despite civilian status, they are certified as an “enemy killed in action,” or EKIA.

“When the Obama administration has discussed drone strikes publicly, it has offered assurances that such operations are a more precise alternative to boots on the ground and are authorized only when an ‘imminent’ threat is present and there is ‘near certainty’ that the intended target will be eliminated,” The Intercept reports. “Those terms, however, appear to have been bluntly redefined to bear almost no resemblance to their commonly understood meanings.”

Further, four Air Force whistleblowers penned a letter to President Obama following the terrorist attacks in Paris. They opened the letter with this: “We are former Air Force service members. We joined the Air Force to protect American lives and to protect our Constitution. We came to the realization that the innocent civilians we were killing only fueled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like ISIS, while also serving as a fundamental recruitment tool similar to Guantanamo Bay. This administration and its predecessors have built a drone program that is one of the most devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world.”

As a nurse and peace activist, Nelson says these revelations are too heinous for her to sit idly by.

“I feel that this is so much against my own moral code,” she said. “I can’t abide what we’re doing right now. And the American people don’t seem to understand.”

That’s why she and Webster travel to Beale Air Force Base once a month, to try to communicate with the military personnel there about their concerns. Every month, they deliver a letter to the base commander. They’re always assured the letters will be delivered, yet they’ve yet to receive a response. So, to further communicate their message—to the military but also to the American people—they decided they were willing to get arrested.

“You can write letters, you can call your Congress people,” Webster said. “But the rest of the world doesn’t know about that. We thought, ‘We need to do something outrageous.’ So we got arrested. A lot of people think that makes us crazy. But we’re not. We’re very clear in our intent.”

On Tuesday, the Chico women will each enter their pleas. They both intend to plead not guilty. A trial likely will not take place for another couple of months, Webster guessed. Both are willing to serve prison time, though Webster said because of her previous conviction and two-month sentence, she could face up to six months in prison for a second offense. Nelson has not spent time behind bars, but she says she’s following the lead of Webster and the late Chico activist Dorothy Parker, who, at age 77, served 57 days in federal prison for protesting an American school many believe breeds terrorists.

“I’m always worried about the unknown,” Nelson said. “I’m 68 years old, and these challenges I face leading up to my death are stepping stones toward my own completion. For Dorothy Parker, the hardest part [of prison] was not being able to get out—not getting a lot of yard time. Cathy has managed pretty well. I don’t know if I’m as calm and strong as she is, but I’m committed to using the rest of the life I have left for good.”