Activism

Woman Sentenced to Prison for Photographing a War Protest

‘We are losing a generation because of drones’ says activist Mary Anne Grady Flores.

Warplanes have long been based at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse, NY. But in 2009, something new arrived: MQ-9 Reaper drones that were flown remotely over Afghanistan, dropping missiles and bombs and unleashing terror.

Organizers in Upstate New York started protests soon after the drones arrived and founded Upstate Drone Action in 2010. In 2011, one longtime activist and member of the Catholic Worker movement, Mary Anne Grady Flores, 57, joined the struggle. As part of the “Hancock 38” in April that year, she was arrested for protesting at the base’s main entrance by participating in a die-in to illustrate the indiscriminate killing of civilians overseas by drones.

She was arrested again in October 2012 for another act of “civil resistance,” as she puts it, not “civil disobedience,” to uphold the U.S. Constitution and international treaties the U.S. signed. That led to Grady Flores and the 16 others being placed under court orders restricting their protest rights. Frustrated by the protesters’ persistence, a base commander, Col. Earl Evans, sought and received an orders of protection — usually reserved for domestic violence victims — which was used over time to bar approximately 50 protesters from the base’s grounds.

In February 2013, Grady Flores stood in the public intersection beyond the driveway leading to the air base taking pictures of the eight protesters participating in an Ash Wednesday action. Those witnessing were asking for forgiveness for what we as American citizens are doing with killer drones. She was later arrested across the street and down the road for “violating the order of protection.” A higher court has found the use of the order invalid.

But on July 10, DeWitt Town Court Judge David Gideon gave Grady Flores the maximum sentence of one year in jail for a second-degree criminal contempt charge, leaving a courtroom of supporters in shock. He defended his harsh sentence by claiming that she “would simply thumb her nose at the law once again.” DeWitt Town judges are planning on holding 20upcoming trials from August 2014 through 2015, threatening to send each activist to one year in jail.

On Wednesday, July 23, eight protesters went back to the air base to issue their own “people’s order of protection” on behalf of drone victims around the world. Seven were arrested and charged with trespass. Two of the protesters — Grady Flores’ sister Clare and Martha Hennessey, granddaughter of Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker — were charged with violating their orders of protection and are being held on $10,000 bail. All of them refuse to post bail and remain in jail pending their Aug. 6 court dates.

“These judges are out to try to stop the protests on behalf of the base,” Grady Flores said, who is out on $5,000 bail pending her appeal.

Grady Flores spoke to AlterNet about what motivates her to protest against drones, the connections she sees between our foreign and domestic policies, and what gives her hope.

Alyssa Figueroa: You joined these anti-drone protests in 2011. What made you start?

Mary Anne Grady Flores: That question brings me back to my childhood.  I grew up in an Irish household and was taught our music and culture that's deeply rooted in resistance to 800 years of British occupation of our island.  The rebellion song were sung and stories were told, while my parents participated as Catholic Workers in the civil rights movement and the movement against the Vietnam War. While in jail last week, I shared stories with one of the African American guards who said,"This is a tradition, right?" I said "Yes".  She said, "I get it."

Drones are a critical issue for people in the countries that are under attack, and it's important for those of us in the States to make the connections between poverty, racism and colonialism. As many black and Native feminists have pointed out, the violence that has historically and continues to be perpetrated inside the so-called borders of the United States sustains American imperialism abroad.

I began my closing statement from my January 2014 drone trial by acknowledging one of the core crimes of the United States and I’d like to share an the opening excerpt from that:

“I begin with the prayer that the non-violent witness, to stop the killing of other brown people on the other side of the world by drones at Hancock Airbase, be an offering to the healing begun by the Two Row Wampum Renewal, reminding us to honor treaties made with the Six Nation Confederacy, here, and honor the global treaties created for peace for all peoples.”

The other core crime that must be acknowledged is the racist economic system of slavery that this country’s white elite benefited from, and that all whites still benefit from under the regime of continued white supremacy.

So, we need to be making connections between how the State uses colonialism, racism and poverty to push people into the prison industrial complex, which works as a means of State repression and deprives entire communities of basic human rights.  The State entangles people in that system, including not only incarcerated people, but their families and dependents. The United States is doing the same thing in other countries to black and brown people. The very existence of U.S. military systems, including nuclear weapons and the drone program, require robbing the poor here and now in this country.

So, as Dr. Cornel West says, we need to connect the dots: racism, poverty and militarism. Drones are very central to U.S. foreign policy. We’re becoming more aware that this same policy is going to be directed toward us as the drones are being tested in six states. So the same drone used in Afghanistan, the MQ9 Reaper drone — it’s a weaponized drone, carrying hellfire missiles and can carry up to a 500-pound bomb — that same drone is being tested right here in upstate NY at Griffis Air Force Base, which is just a little bit north of Syracuse. And that’s only one of many places where they are being practiced with here in the United States.\

Why is that happening? Why are the drones being used in all the Border States by immigration enforcement and ICE to pick people up? Why does Texas have every police department using drones? And they’re not the only police department using them. The drones are here.

While I was in jail, I received an article that was sent from Pittsburgh, and it described the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game. There were 36,000 people in the stadium and all of them had gone through metal detectors to be secure and have a safe crowd. And then one of their favorite ballplayers hit the ball out of the park. Well they not only saw that ball, they also saw a drone flying above the stadium. There are very few rules right now, hardly any legislation made concerning the safety and the use of drones, especially in urban areas.

But to go back to the use of drones in other countries, we understand that people have said we are losing a generation because of drones hovering over villages and cities in other countries. And this is what U.S. policy is. People in countries where the U.S. uses drones no longer go to weddings, they no longer go to funerals, they don’t send their children to school because these things are buzzing over them, causing trauma to everyone. Societies and cultures are falling apart being under this terror, this scrutiny and threat everyday. And that’s something we Americans need to become aware of. We have to start with the three A’s: awareness, and acceptance that this is what our government is doing, and then take action to stop this insanity.

AF: You’re 57 years old and a grandmother of three and a lot of the anti-drone activists taking action at Hancock airbase are 60+. Is there something you're seeing that others aren’t seeing?

MAGF: I think the reason there may be less young people involved is because of the pressures that they are under today. Young people are under the huge school debt, and so people are bound to jobs as soon as they get out of school. And mass incarceration is a real and threatening presence. There’s no breathing room. People are having to work two or three jobs. So here’s the poverty piece that Cornel West was talking about. Today most people are under such severe economic pressure just to survive doesn’t leave much time to participate in dissent if there is something going wrong. Dissent is a sign of a healthy society.

I think that’s one reason, but it’s not the only reason. There are major distractions within our society. People are not aware because of our media. They’re not aware of what U.S. policy is about. You’re not hearing enough about the militarized use of drones, enough for people to have any sort of outcry. There was a great statement that was put out by the latest action yesterday, naming who is dead in the latest of these drone strikes.

I think it’s really important that all ages, everyone get involved, and realize that we’re all connected here. It’s U.S. tax dollars that are paying for the drone program.

AF: You have a history of activism. In the past you have participated in nonviolent resistance in Palestine and Puerto Rico, as well as working as an organizer for the United Farm Workers Boycott back in the ‘70s. How does your anti-drone activism connect with the other activism you’ve done?

MAGF: Well, in the past two weeks, in the case of Palestine, drones are central in the horrible attack on Gaza, by Israel. Israel is one of the leading producers of drones and users of drones. The fact that is that Israel uses the drones along their apartheid wall, just as we do with preventing immigrants at our US border. All of the different technologies are being shared by the countries signed on to keeping empire in place.

So I think it’s critical that people pick their heads up and understand that we have parallel after parallel after parallel, no matter what the issue is — whether it’s the liberation of Puerto Rico, or the immigrant rights movement, or even the displacement of Central American children arriving today in the United States.

The activism that I was a part of back in the '80s, the solidarity with the people in Central America, the opposition of U.S. support of dictators in Latin America — we’re feeling the aftermath of decades of that policy right now in seeing this massive exodus of children from Latin America and the increase in violence within these societies because there’s a vacuum and a dismantling of their societies economically and militarily. And then the influx of drugs that has taken the place of economies that are more sustainable. Now we have the result of families sending their children out of their homes to increase their likelihood of survival. So we’re seeing the effects of U.S. imperialism, where the primary effected people are criminalized for acts of basic survival.

The issue of drones is just one symptom of the perversion of U.S. policy for decades, many decades. I think it’s really important we look at the arc of what our policy has truly been about. The NSA’s illegal tracking and vacuuming of all our information because they don’t want any dissent toward any of this. The 1971 Raids of the FBI offices in Media, PA exposed COINTELPRO, a program through which the FBI infiltrated, plotted to disrupt, and coordinated assassinations against members of the Black Panther Party; infiltrated and moved to disrupt the American Indian Movement and the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, and the Catholic Left, among many other groups. My dad, John Peter Grady, of the Camden 28, was the number one suspect of that infamous FBI raid, having 200 FBI agents tailing him for years afterwards.

After 40 years I learned the truth. Dad used to say, “I neither confirm nor deny that I did it.”  He took that secret to his grave when he died in 2002. My siblings and I were surprised to hear that Dad was not involved, and we laughed hard when we learned who’d done it, thanks to my Dad’s good friend Betty Medsger, former staff writer at the Washington Post, one of people who’d initially received the documents from the burglars. Anyway, that was the environment I grew up in and it's been confirmed by Snowden that we’re in it still and to a much greater degree.

So the march toward total global domination has become much more apparent to me anyway, and I hope to many. Many may not be fully aware of it just how other peoples in other countries weren’t aware of it, but political repression and other forms of state violence are increasing in the United States, not decreasing.

AF: Do you have hope that your resistance will be effective in stopping drones and U.S. militarism?

MAGF: I say we have to have hope. At the bottom of my emails, I have a quote from Howard Zinn speaking about hope. Maybe you can publish the whole thing.* I think it’s all we have. And I would say, I’m not responsible for the whole picture. I’m only one tiny part. And I say that I hope that people understand that we have to do this resistance in community, in fellowship, and with joy and celebration of life that we do have.

I’m not responsible for the outcome. I’m only responsible for doing the work here and now on the day to day. And that those small droplets of water in the pond — there’s points where there’s so much water that accumulates, it overflows and fills the fields and irrigates the plants. We can only do our little part.

When I was in prison, I was reading the Daily Scripture, which really feeds me as a Catholic Worker. And I was grateful to see from the book of wisdom asking what it is we’re expected of. There’s so much love and leniency by the creator, but we’re also expected to pick up and do what we can and not be lazy about this stuff. The call is real.

*”To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory” – Howard Zinn

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet. 

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