How Activists Are Striking Back Against Drone Warfare

The following is an excerpt from Medea Benjamin's new book, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, published by OR Books.

You may not have heard of the "Creech 14," but they have a special place in the heart of the anti-drone movement. If you saw a photo of the group, you might think they had just walked out of Sunday mass; indeed, some of its members are priests and nuns. But whether clergy or not, all are spiritually rooted in a theology that calls on people of faith to stand up against injustice-in deeds, not just words.

And so on April 9, 2009, the group of fourteen activists entered Creech Air Force base-where teams of young soldiers remotely operate many of America's killer drones-protesting what they considered war crimes taking place inside. As they crossed onto the base, the group invited staff nearby to share a Good Friday meal with them. They were then told to leave, and when they refused, they were arrested, charged with trespassing and held in jail until Easter Sunday.

While the action was noteworthy, the most remarkable part was not anything that took place that day, but the trial itself, which did not begin until over a year later, on September 14, 2010, at the Clark County Regional Court in Las Vegas, Nevada. There, the defendants turned what would have been a mundane case over a minor misdemeanor into a broad debate about the use of drones. They decided not to be represented by lawyers but to represent themselves. They also invited three expert witnesses to speak on their behalf: Ramsey Clark, who was US Attorney General under President Lyndon Johnson; Center for Constitutional Rights legal director Bill Quigley; and Ret. Army Colonel Ann Wright.

The defendants took turns questioning the witnesses, establishing the fact that drone strikes kill a large number of civilians; that people have the right, even the duty, to stop war crimes; and that according to the post-World War II Nuremberg principles, individuals are morally and legally bound to disobey orders that entail crimes against humanity. They cited the history of protesters who broke petty laws, from the nation's founders to the Suffragists to the civil rights activists who illegally sat in at lunch counters. "In the long run, we honor them for obeying a higher law, for helping to bring us toward justice," said Quigley.

In a surprising turn of events, at the end of the trial Judge Jansen declared that the issues at stake were too important to make an immediate ruling and gave himself four months to analyze the case. On January 27, 2011, the judge handed down his twenty-page decision. He found the group guilty of the crime of trespassing, concluding that they had been unable to prove their conduct was compelled by true "necessity." But he gave the defendants credit for the time they had already spent in jail and declared them free to go. "Go in peace," were Jansen's final words.

While the defendants were hoping for a non-guilty verdict, they knew they had won a victory no matter the ultimate ruling. As defendant Brian Terrell said in his closing statement, "Some have noted that the trend toward using drones in warfare is a paradigm shift that can be compared to what happened when an atomic bomb was first used to destroy the city of Hiroshima in Japan. When Hiroshima was bombed, though, the whole world knew that everything had changed. Today everything is changing, but it goes almost without notice. I hesitate to claim credit for it, but there is certainly more discussion of this issue after we were arrested for trespassing at Creech Air Force Base on April 9, 2009, than there was before." 

The transcript of that trial was so riveting that it was later turned into a play that is being used by religious groups as an educational tool. And the Creech 14 inspired similar protests, including one clear across the country in upstate New York.

On April 22, 2011, over three hundred activists organized by the local Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars descended upon the Air National Guard Base at Hancock Field in Syracuse, New York. They chose the location because the National Guard at the base had been remotely flying weaponized Reaper drones over Afghanistan since late 2009.

As they approached the entrance, thirty eight of them-two in wheelchairs-draped themselves in white cloth splattered with fake blood and dropped to the ground, a dramatic "die-in" intended to represent civilians killed in drone attacks. Dozens of police rushed in to intervene. After protesters refused to get up, they were forcibly removed in handcuffs.

The "Hancock 38," as they came to be known, were charged with obstruction of traffic and disorderly conduct. When they went to court on November 3, 2011, they, too, got former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark to testify on their behalf. Clark insisted that drones inherently violate the laws of the United States and international law, and that the crimes the Hancock 38 had been charged with paled in comparison to the crimes the defendants were trying to stop.

Outside the courthouse, dozens of people staged a mock drone attack, complete with a three-dimensional drone model, someone "manning" the drone from behind a computer, civilian victims covered in fake blood and a man labeled "Al Qaeda Recruiter" who was using the deaths to gain more recruits.

The final verdict of the case was delivered December 1, 2011. Judge Gideon found the defendants guilty on two charges of disorderly conduct, with sentences ranging from fines and community service to the maximum penalty of fifteen days in jail. The judge admitted that he had spent "many a sleepless night" before making his decision and that he learned a great deal during the five-day non-jury trial. "Ultimately, the defendants have arguably accomplished that which they sought by their actions-the drawing of acute attention to their message," he concluded.

The Creech 14 and the Hancock 38 are just two examples of the growing US protest movement against the use of drones. In Pakistan and Yemen, people are pouring out into the streets by the thousands to condemn drone attacks that have devastated their communities. But in the US and Europe, where the effects of the drones are hidden from public view, activists have been slowly shaping the foundation of an anti-drone movement. Still in its early stages, the movement lacks clear strategies with tangible goals. But as it evolves, it may well prove to be as successful as earlier campaigns to ban landmines and cluster bombs.


One of the best ways to build an activist base is to focus on local connections to drone warfare. Fran Quigley, a professor, lawyer, and journalist, had been researching the disturbing trend of robotic warfare and decided to see if his home state of Indiana was involved.

After submitting several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) applications, he was surprised at the number of connections he uncovered. In West Lafayette, a company called Lite Machines had a multimillion-dollar contract with the Navy to manufacture a mini-drone. Rolls Royce in Indianapolis was making the engines for the Global Hawk. In Indianapolis, battery maker EnerDel had a $4-million-dollar contract to make batteries for drones. The engineering faculty at Purdue was doing research on drones, as was the Naval Surface Warfare Center in south central Indiana. And in Terre Haute, the Air National Guard was helping to pinpoint targets for drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "There's nothing special about Indiana in this field," said Quigley, "so I presume that if you did the research, you'd find significant drone activities going on in universities, small factories and research parks all across the country."

"Our state needs jobs, but I hate the fact that people of good conscience may be sucked into the military-industrial complex process of creating machines that contribute to the death of innocent civilians," said Lori Perdue, an Air Force veteran and Indiana member of CODEPINK. "If we could create green jobs instead of war jobs, I bet the guy working the line making jet turbines would rather be building a wind turbine."

Quigley and the local activists have been educating students and plan to organize demonstrations outside the drone warfare support sites.

A group in Iowa didn't even wait until the local factory started working on drones to protest. As soon as they got wind that a company called AirCover Integrated Solutions was going to partner with the University of Iowa to build small surveillance drones in Cedar Rapids, they began protesting. Company President James Hill said the protesters were misdirected, that the drones would be used for good purposes like searching for people lost after earthquakes, finding wandering patients with dementia and looking for suspicious packages in stadiums.

But protesters think the drones will really be used to spy on the public, including folks like themselves. "The prospect of having drones flying around, spying on people, is kind of horrific," said Nate Adeyemi, one of the local organizers. "It's such an infringement upon the human right to privacy." The group is also protesting the university for its involvement and the local officials who gave the company a loan.

Another target for activists has been the organization that lobbies on behalf of the industry, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). The group created in 1978 "to promote and support the unmanned systems and robotics industry." The organization has ballooned to include 1,400 members-all anxious to feed at the government trough. Activists have crashed their press conferences, conventions and fairs.

Given their close connections in Congress-the companies give millions in campaign contributions and get, in return, billions of tax dollars-AUVSI can even show off its wares right inside the Capitol. At an exhibit hosted by the Congressional Drone Caucus in September 2011, activists broke up the lovefest, unfurling white sheets covered in fake blood and falling to the floor, moaning and writhing in pain. "Stop the killer drones," they wailed, while another protester carrying a large cardboard drone made a loud buzzing noise as he zoomed around the room. Startled, the Congresspeople, staffers and corporate employees were forced to stop their conversations-until the police arrived and escorted the group out of the building.

While protesters are busy naming and shaming companies, some of the nation's best legal and human rights groups have been taking the issue of drone warfare and extrajudicial assassinations to court. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner over the government's decision to put US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki on a hit list and freeze his US assets. They brought the case to a US federal court on behalf of Anwar al-Awlaki's father, hoping to prevent the targeted killing of his son. 

They lost the case on procedural grounds, but the judge was disturbed by the "serious questions" raised by the practice. "Can the executive order the assassination of a US citizen without first affording him any form of judicial process whatsoever, based on the mere assertion that he is a dangerous member of a terrorist organization?" the judge inquired.


Drones strikes are wreaking havoc from Pakistan to Gaza with little outcry from the citizens living in the "democracies" that are dropping the missiles. But while protests in the West are still in their embryonic stage, a growing group of activists are at least starting to educate the public, ask questions of their governments and companies, and demand answers.


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.