Notable Anti-Drone Activist and Grandmother Sentenced to Prison for Photographing Protest
This story originally appeared in The Ithaca Voice.
Gasps filled the courtroom when the sentence for drones protester Mary Anne Grady Flores was announced last Thursday.
An onlooker let out an astounded, “No!” Someone else whistled in disbelief. Others looked away.
Grady Flores, of Ithaca, pursed her lips and slowly nodded her head. The judge read aloud the rest of the sentence — one year in jail, the maximum punishment possible for violating an order of protection. The lawyers for each side made a few more requests.
Then it was time for Grady Flores, 58, to be taken away. Some of her supporters started crying. They began singing a Christian peace song.
The handcuffed grandmother of three was escorted out by a sheriff’s deputy. Right before they disappeared into a back-room, Grady Flores turned to her friends and family.
She was smiling.
A controversial order
Grady Flores had been told to stay away from Col. Earl Evans, the mission support group commander at the 174th Attack Wing of the New York Air National Guard.
She was also not supposed to go to either his home or the place he works: The Hancock Field Air National Guard Base near Syracuse.
The court “order of protection” had been given to Grady Flores after she participated in a demonstration outside the base in October 2012. A few dozen protesters, who have held several rallies at the base to decry the use of drones in overseas operations, were hit with the order.
The New York Courts say an order or protection is issued “to limit the behavior of someone who harms or threatens to harm another person.”
But the protesters say they have struggled to make sense of how it applies to them: What had they done to be considered a threat? And why did the leader of a powerful military operation need protection from mostly elderly, non-violent protesters?
“I’m 64, and I was one of the youngest ones,” said James Ricks of the demonstrators, who include senior citizens reliant on walkers and canes. “They know that we’re not a threat.”
Equally confounding, the protesters said, was that none of them had met the person they were supposed to stay away from.
“A lot of us were saying, ‘If he walked up to me in the street, I wouldn’t even know the man,’ ” Ricks said.
The order of protection was even overturned in the case of Daniel Finlay, 73 — one of the protesters — by an Onondaga County judge who called it flawed and a violation of habeas corpus, according to The Syracuse Post-Standard.
Whatever its merits, and for whatever reason, the order stood for Grady Flores. So when she was again arrested in February 2013, she faced the charge of second-degree criminal contempt — which carried the possibility of up to a year in jail.
When the trial started, Ricks said, he didn’t think it would be possible for Grady Flores to get the full year-long sentence.
“I thought maybe two months, maybe four,” Ricks said, “and then I thought, ‘Maybe he’ll make an example and slam her.’”
Prosecutors and Judge David Gideon have defended the one-year sentence, saying that they had no other way to punish someone who repeatedly broke the law.
Doing so was necessary to show that the court would “no longer tolerate her willful actions in violation of the orders of this court,” Judge Gideon wrote in a decision explaining the sentencing.
Grady Flores is a lifelong activist with deep historical roots in civil disobedience movements. The arrest – and subsequent sentence – falls on a woman who has in some ways been prepared since before adolescence to cope with its consequences.
But that, supporters say, hardly makes the sentence easier to swallow.
Ricks, the fellow protester, said he was in the courtroom when the ruling was announced. He watched as Grady Flores’ mother, who is in her 80s and relies on her daughter for support, needed help to stand up after the ruling was announced.
Tears rolled down his cheeks.
“I was in absolute shock, just sitting there for a few minutes,” Ricks said. “And I was angry.”
The Camden 28
The FBI spoke with Grady Flores’ family. But they weren’t there for her.
Grady Flores was still a teenager when her father pulled off one of the boldest acts in the history of American civil disobedience.
John Grady was one of the famed “Camden 28,” a group of Vietnam War protesters that engineered a raid on a Camden, NJ, federal facility that destroyed thousands of draft records, according to The New York Times.
Mary Anne, then 14, learned of her dad’s arrest. John Grady was charged with seven felonies and faced a prison sentence of more than 60 years.
A member of the “Catholic left,” John Grady had run for Congress and participated in several acts of civil disobedience. But the Camden action, which drew international press coverage, was of another magnitude.
“The trial wasn’t easy on us as a family,” said Ellen Grady, Mary Anne’s sister, in an interview. “All of it was hard on the family.”
John Grady was acquitted — in part because the trial was viewed as a referendum on the Vietnam War. The family moved to Ithaca, where John Grady taught sociology at Ithaca College.
John Grady later left Ithaca. His legacy of activism didn’t.
“That’s where we come from, and that’s where our family comes from,” Ellen Grady said of her father.
A history of activism
If John Grady’s struggles discouraged his daughter from activism, she didn’t show it.
After a short stint at Ithaca College, Mary Anne Grady Flores was soon on the West Coast organizing farm workers. She came back to NYC shortly afterwards and participated in boycotts of the lettuce, grape and wine industries that later culminated in the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act.
She settled down in NYC and married a man from Guatemala. When she and her husband divorced, she moved with her four children back to Ithaca to be closer to family.
Grady Flores became involved in an effort to end pollution and Navy bombing in Vieques, Puerto Rico, and spent some nights in a jail in Puerto Rico, according to Ellen Grady.
Much like their eldest sister, various members of the family — five siblings in all — have risked serious prison sentences.
In the 1980s, Claire Grady was arrested after breaking into a hanger at an air base and battering a B-52 with hammers, The Times said.
Claire Grady was arrested again along with her sister Teresa in 2004. They had broken into an Army recruiting center and poured four ounces of their blood on the walls to protest the Iraq War.
Meanwhile, the Grady siblings have had professional careers and raised families. For about 15 years, Mary Anne has owned and run the catering service La Cocina Latina, which offers Latin food to the Ithaca area.
The Ithaca Times profiled the business in 2011.
“At the Cornell conference Grady Flores catered for in late April, more than just the beans were raved about. One man in particular, who started off with a modest helping of each selection, came back for seconds with a huge smile,” The Ithaca Times said.
The story makes no mention of Grady Flores’ history of activism. Like her siblings — brother John Grady owns Ithaca car repair shop Shade Tree Auto — Mary Anne has had to choose at times between leading an uninterrupted life and fighting for the causes she believes in, according to relatives.
“She has a catering business, which lends itself to flexibility; but, certainly, sacrifices have had to be made,” said Laurie DeFlaun, John Grady’s wife.
Laurie DeFlaun said the sentence promises to be difficult for Mary Anne for financial, physical and emotional reasons.
“The whole thing is not easy, but she had to plan for the worst — even if she did not hope for it,” DeFlaun said.
Ash Wednesday, 2013.
“A group of us who were Catholics decided to go back to the base and begin Lent by asking for forgiveness as American citizens for what our country is doing with drones,” Ellen Grady, Mary Anne’s sister, said. “We asked Mary Anne to come to take photographs.”
Because of the order of protection, Grady Flores was tasked with taking photographs from the road beyond the driveway leading to the base, Ellen Grady said.
Ellen Grady said that Grady Flores “was never blocking the driveway” and that she remained on what was clearly a public street (see prosecutors’ divergent account below).
At one point, Ellen Grady acknowledged, Grady Flores entered the driveway so she could be taught how to snap photos on an iPhone.
“Yes, there is a moment where Mary Anne puts her foot over to say something, but she’s not there for minutes and minutes,” Ellen Grady said.
“She was in the roadway where she thought it would be okay to be.”
Aside for the short moments where she was shown how to use the camera, Grady Flores stayed on a stretch of the road that anyone passing by would reasonably consider separate from the base property, her sister said.
“She was not part of our protest,” Ellen Grady said.
It was at around then that the protesters — who were standing in the driveway — began being arrested. Ellen Grady was put in the back of a police car. As she was being driven out, she watched police stop her sister along the road.
“I said, ‘Oh, no, what are they stopping her for?’” Ellen Grady recalled. “There was nobody with her and nobody to support her.”
A little later, Ellen Grady — still in custody — got an update via the police scanner. Her sister was being taken to the courthouse.
Those arrested for the protest were given tickets and released. Mary Anne, who her supporters say had no intention of being arrested that day, was held on $2,500 bail.
It is true that Grady Flores was not arrested on the driveway that leads into the base, said Jordan McNamara, the Onondaga County assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case.
But video evidence presented in the trial clearly showed that she had stepped into base territory earlier in the protest, before law enforcement arrived, McNamara said.
“She walked over to where the protesters were and stood there for minutes,” McNamara said. “It wasn’t like a two-second thing: It was minutes and minutes and minutes of time where she stood with these people.”
McNamara said he doesn’t believe that Grady Flores thought she wasn’t on the base property.
“Yes, she was taking pictures; yes, she was arrested across the street,” McNamara said. “But, yes, she violated the order of protection.”
Onondaga County prosecutors say they were not being unduly harsh in asking for the year-long sentence.
“We tolerate the protesters,” said Rick Trunfio, first chief district attorney for the county. “We get it: They want to break the law to make a point.”
Grady Flores’ case was different, Trunfio said, because she violated an order of protection.
“Now, you’re not talking about civil disobedience; you’re talking about violating an order of the court,” Trunfio said. “She wantonly violated an order of protection.”
McNamara, the prosecutor, wouldn’t elaborate on the merit of the order of protection, saying, “I believe it’s valid because I believe it was validly issued under the criminal procedure law.”
The Hancock Air Base said it couldn’t comment about the proceedings. Grady Flores is appealing the sentence.
A judge makes a point, or five
Grady Flores’ case has nothing to do with First Amendment rights.
Instead, it’s about a woman who has repeatedly shown a willingness and desire to flout the laws of the government. It’s about someone who has blown past repeated warnings and slaps on the wrist and gives no indication that she’ll stop breaking the law.
That, at least, is the interpretation DeWitt Town Court Judge David Gideon lays out in a five page- ruling accompanying his sentence.
In it, Gideon sides with the district attorney’s account of Grady Flores’ role in the protest.
“As has always been the position of this Court and the understanding of the officers … Had the defendant remained across the street from the property, she would not have been arrested,” Judge Gideon said.
Here are Gideon’s five principal arguments, as identified in a reading by The Ithaca Voice:
A – Grady Flores needs to be prepared for the consequences of her actions, which in this case include breaking the law.
Grady Flores’ apparently altruistic motives —and the fact that she was not acting violently — do not mean she can escape repercussions for her actions, Judge Gideon said.
“The present case … involve nothing more than a defendant willing to ‘break the law’ to seek publicity for her cause,” said Gideon, who declined a request for an interview with The Ithaca Voice.
“Publicity at any cost, without any regard for the rules of society.”
B – The defendants knew they were committing a crime.
During testimony, Gideon says, “it was disclosed that ‘planning’ sessions are held prior to the demonstrations whereat the risk of arrest is discussed and the participants are grouped according to who is willing to be arrested versus those who are not.”
“To this court, it seems abundantly evident that if one knows the risk of arrest, then the activity being contemplated is most likely illegal.”
C – The pre-sentence investigation report failed to acknowledge several key facts.
Before sentencing in criminal cases, probation departments are tasked with writing a “pre-sentence investigation report” that examines the defendant’s likeliness to re-offend.
Gideon blasts the Onondaga County Probation Department’s report on Grady Flores. He said it tried to conclude that the crime “is not that big of a deal” and fails to mention that Grady Flores had repeatedly refused to pay the court’s imposed fines.
The judge also faults the probation department for not noting that Grady Flores had “declared to this Court her pride in carrying on the tradition of her parents.”
D – Grady Flores is likely to reoffend because she doesn’t care about the law.
Judge Gideon uses the metaphor of Grady Flores as a child in his ruling.
“This Court has observed a constant testing of limits, and as we as children learn while growing up, the testing of limits can be a learning process with boundaries and consequences to be had,” he writes.
He later adds: “It is the opinion of this Court that this defendant would simply thumb her nose at the law once again if the Court would sentence her to either a Conditional Discharge or Probation; that she would fail, once again, to abide by the same as, in her opinion, she does not agree with them.”
E – It doesn’t matter why Grady Flores was at the protest.
Ellen Grady has said that her sister had no intention of being arrested at the event.
That doesn’t really matter, Judge Gideon says in his ruling, because she stepped on the base property.
“Whether the defendant was present for, as she testified, for (sic) emotional support, publicity or otherwise, she clearly admitted that she was there on the property of the 174th Attack Wing. That is in violation for the Order of Protection of this Court previously issued,” the judge says.
“To this court, if the defendant was there only to take pictures, she could have adequately done so across the street using a zoom or otherwise. She obviously chose not to.”
“Was it worth it?”
After their demonstration in 2003, some of Ellen Grady’s family members went to jail in the “Saint Patrick’s Day Four” protest at a U.S. recruiting base.
One of the protesters sent to jail learned his brother had been diagnosed with cancer. The jailed man’s attempt to see his dying brother went nowhere. By the time the protester was released, his brother was dead.
Meanwhile, the demonstration — like hundreds across the country — did nothing to slow or stop the Iraq invasion.
Grady Flores and others joined up with the Syracuse Peace Council around five years ago to begin staging protests outside the Hancock Air Base.
Back then, few people were aware of the drone strikes, said Ellen Grady.
But the protesters made a lot of noise. They held a “die-in” to simulate what drone strikes were like for their victims. They marched from Ithaca to the airbase. They lobbied Congressional representatives and performed “street theater.”
And they got arrested.
“Is it worth it? I don’t know,” Ellen Grady said. “We don’t know how effective we’re ever going to be, and people want to measure that all the time.”
“But I think each one of us has to live with our consciences. …
“How do you live in America right now and sleep at night if you don’t say something?”