Thirty-one of 38 accused activists were found guilty on Thursday for their role in a protest against U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The activists were arrested on April 22 at the New York Air National Guard base at Hancock Field near Syracuse, New York, after trespassing to protest the MQ-9 Reaper drones, which the 174th Fighter Wing of the Guard has remotely flown over Afghanistan since late 2009. The protesters draped themselves in white clothes splattered with blood-red pigment and then staged a "die-in" at the main entrance to the base. They said their act of nonviolent civil disobedience aimed to visualize the indiscriminate killing of civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan by drones operated by personnel sitting in front of computers thousands of miles away. The group calls themselves the Hancock 38 Drone Resisters. Following the guilty verdict, four of the activists were sentenced to 15-day terms in prison while a number of others were given fines and community service. We speak to Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. attorney general turned outspoken human rights activist, who testified at the trial that the drones violate international law. We’re also joined by Harry Murray, one of the Hancock 38 and a co-defendant in the trial. "Having a drone control center established at Hancock Air Base has really brought the war home to central New York," Murray says. "Having people who are actually killing human beings in Afghanistan working right in Syracuse really makes Syracuse and upstate New York a war zone." Clark says drones are "a weapon of extreme provocation and extreme danger, extreme inaccuracy... International law, I believe, does prohibit the use of drones." [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Thirty-one of 38 accused activists were found guilty on Thursday for their role in a protest against U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The activists were arrested on Earth Day, April 22nd, at the New York Air National Guard base at Hancock Field. The defendants trespassed onto the base to protest the MQ-9 Reaper drones, which the 174th Fighter Wing of the Guard has remotely flown over Afghanistan from Syracuse since late 2009. The protesters draped themselves in white cloths splattered with blood-red pigment and then staged a die-in at the main entrance to the base. They said their act of nonviolent civil disobedience aimed to visualize the indiscriminate killing of civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan by drones operated by personnel sitting in front of computers thousands of miles away. The group calls themselves the Hancock 38 Drone Resisters. Following the guilty verdict, four of the activists were sentenced to 15-day terms in prison, while a number of others were given fines and community service.
Among the protesters’ supporters has been former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Early in November, speaking to the judge presiding over this non-jury trial, Ramsey Clark testified for over four hours, telling the court the drones violate international law.
To discuss the case, Ramsey Clark is here with us in our New York studio. We’re also joined on the phone from Syracuse by Harry Murray, one of the Hancock 38 and a co-defendant in the trial. He is a professor of sociology and anthropology at Nazareth College, where he also serves as a director of the peace and justice major.
I welcome you both to Democracy Now! I’d like to start with Harry. Your reaction to the verdict?
HARRY MURRAY: Well, we were disappointed in the verdict, not exactly surprised, because Judge Gideon, more than most judges I’ve experienced, took time to listen to and grapple with our arguments about the larger issues, particularly international law, but also we got into some wonderful discussions about the nature of civil disobedience, the evils of the drones, and even the nature of law and his responsibility as a judge.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now—
HARRY MURRAY: I think—
JUAN GONZALEZ: Go ahead.
HARRY MURRAY: For many of us, the most disturbing thing was sort of the uneven nature of the sentences, because we had a feeling that we all did the same thing, and the way that some folks got singled out for more—more harsh punishment was unsettling.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, this was an unprecedented trial for such a small community in upstate New York. Could you talk a little bit about the scene? What does this courtroom normally deal with, what kind of cases? And how did the judge react to so much attention and so many huge issues being raised in his courtroom?
HARRY MURRAY: Well, DeWitt Town Court is—you know, is a small town court—it wasn’t the city court in Syracuse—used to dealing with much more traffic violations, shoplifting at the local mall, those kind of crimes. And the judges, the two judges, are both part-time judges, so it’s an evening court. Judge Gideon, I think, was rather—was enthusiastic, and I think he found the case interesting and challenging legally, morally and intellectually, in a lot of ways. And so, I think he entered into the discussion of the larger issues more than most judges, you know, that I’ve experienced. I remember one judge from years ago who told me, "You raised a lot of interesting issues. I’m not going to discuss any of them. Guilty." Whereas Judge Gideon really entered into the discussion. And even Mr. McRoberts, the prosecutor, for a while towards the end of the trial, started entering into the discussion of the larger issues involved, which I found extremely rare for a prosecutor.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to bring in Ramsey Clark into the conversation. Your decision to go up there to testify in this case, and how the judge reacted? You spent four hours on the stand?
RAMSEY CLARK: Well, the decision to go up was easy. I’ve represented the Berrigans, who were the source of this. They came, by the way, from Syracuse many years ago. I started representing them in 1970 in cases against Trident nuclear submarines and any other military evil that the country has known. So, this was a fertile place for such a trial. And actually, Jerry Berrigan, one of the brothers, was one of the defendants, 91 years old. He was out there. But he was not physically strong enough to endure the trial, and the judge dismissed him, one of the fair acts that happened in the court.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Gideon’s willingness to have this whole discussion of international law violations that you were raising admitted into the courtroom?
RAMSEY CLARK: I think the court’s going to have to hear them. This is the second court, by the way. The first one was out in Las Vegas, where there’s a U.S. military air base that is guiding drones, as well. And that judge had great difficulty, and when he finally convicted, he dismissed the charges, essentially, by sentencing with time served, which was nothing. This judge felt some need to impose sanctions to the maximum of his authority on five of the defendants: 15 days in jail. Surprising.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yet, at the same time, he said, when he rendered the decision, that he’d spent many a sleepless night before making his final verdict. And he also said that, quote, "Many issues were raised (during the trial) that were not heretofore contemplated by this court on a personal level, and for which this court personally acknowledges a new and different understanding, making the decision...that much more difficult." He seemed to say that he believed that the protesters had been able to make their point, but that at the same time that, for participating in civil disobedience, there is a penalty that he felt that they had to pay.
RAMSEY CLARK: Well, he may have done that, but he came down rather harshly, it seemed to me. The judge in Las Vegas imposed no sanctions on any of 40-odd defendants. They are some of the same defendants. But they were exercising fundamental human rights in the interest of preservation of society, freedom of speech, and the right to petition your government, right to peacefully assemble. I mean, how is it that at Zuccotti Park we tolerate an enormous interference with traffic in the area for months and months without arrests, and here at a base that’s killing people halfway around the world—assassination, really, and extremely dangerous in terms of provocation of a whole people.
During the trial, the day after I testified, in fact, the New York Times had an editorial about a guy who was working on peace in Islamabad. He had met with a family the day before. And the next—not the day before—they had left to go back up to the frontier territories. An 11-year-old boy was killed in a car driving back home. And we had 20-plus troops, soldiers, of an ally, more or less, Pakistan, killed by our drones. Incredible. I mean, they’re assassination and murder weapons, and they create more fear and anger, because they come out of the blue. You don’t feel safe anyplace. You’re not safe anyplace. They’ll chase you down anyplace. And it’s a weapon that ought to be prohibited. It’s a criminal weapon. And—
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yet President Obama just said yesterday that he will not apologize for the attack. And the issue of these drones and the—what is happening around the rest of the world, as they see the willingness of the United States to basically go into any country it feels necessary to do so with these drone attacks?
RAMSEY CLARK: Yeah, we totally disregard the sovereign territory of a big country, Pakistan, a major country, and basically say we’ll kill anybody there we decide to, without consultation, so watch your step. It’s a weapon of extreme provocation and extreme danger, extreme inaccuracy. Its ability to address a single individual is nonexistent. It kills whoever happens to be around, and it also kills sometimes when there’s no one around except a bunch of people in a meeting, because you’ve got the wrong target.
But the decision to murder or to assassinate anybody, anyplace, to send one of these things out, is itself a crime. You can’t—you can’t do that. It’s not war. It’s not a war zone. It’s not soldiers. You’re killing families, and you’re increasing hatred, a danger for our society. International law, I believe, does prohibit the use of drones. It has to be respected, because others will have drones. What kind of world will we live in then, when people—it’s like flying kites. They love to fly kites in Afghanistan. It’s like flying kites. Everyone has drones, and no one’s safe. You kill at will wherever you want to on earth.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Harry, Harry Murray, I’d like to ask you about the decision to do this protest, the impact on the peace movement in the upstate New York area as a result of the arrests and the highly publicized trial, but first, your decision to get involved and the selection of this particular base for the protest?
HARRY MURRAY: Sure. Well, my decision to get involved comes out of a decades-long involvement with the Catholic Worker Movement and the teachings of Dorothy Day on nonviolence, and really out of decades of working with homeless veterans since the 1970s, seeing the results of sending young people off to war and just so many of them unable to ever adjust to normal society again, which I guess is something that many people would say, "Well, that should make you support drones, because drones save the lives of American troops, and they can kill remotely." But I think that drones really increase the risks of war, because drones make attacking people in other countries, extrajudicial killings, as Ramsey says, cheap and easy. It makes it very easy for the president to make a decision to just try to take out someone in, you know, almost any country in the world. And the number of countries in which we’ve been using drones has been expanding. And as Micah Zenko points out in his book Between Threats and War, what that does is really kind of increase the risk of the number of incidents that could possibly start a more major war. And so, you know, it’s putting everyone at more risk.
We chose this action—actually, for the last few years, there has been a really wonderful collaboration of peace communities in upstate New York—in Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Ithaca, Albany—and having a drone control center established at Hancock Air Base has really brought the war home to central New York in a way that hadn’t been true since the Seneca Army Depot closed down a couple decades ago. Having people who are actually killing human beings in Afghanistan working right in Syracuse really makes Syracuse and upstate New York a war zone, because, according to international law experts or the law of war experts, the drone pilots sitting at Hancock are legitimate war targets. They are combatants. And therefore, according to the law of war, they are legitimate targets, at least as long as they are in uniform, even if they’re off base, which really brings the war home. Syracuse becomes a war zone. And, you know, this killing is being done not only with our tax dollars, but it’s being done by our neighbors as they are living here. And so, there was—we felt a great need to come together from across upstate New York to try to raise our opposition to this drone center.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Ramsey Clark, this whole issue of these wars continuing, and because there are so few Americans that are directly related to or involved with someone who is fighting in the war, that there seems to be far less consciousness or far less consistency in the antiwar movement in the United States certainly than there was during the Vietnam War period. Your sense of how the wars have drifted from the national consciousness vis-à-vis all of, obviously, the economic problems in the country?
RAMSEY CLARK: Well, the draft made an enormous difference, because that touched home. And World War II, we fought with soldiers that were drafted overwhelmingly. Vietnam, by that time there was high discrimination. You know, black kids didn’t get college deferments, and they were taken in a much higher degree. That’s the reason that the Berrigan brothers, when they raided draft boards, would go into areas where poor kids’, Chicanos’ and African Americans’ draft records were and destroyed those records. So, the college kids were deferred, kids from the suburbs. That’s taken—so we’ve got an all-volunteer army, if you want to call it "volunteer."
It’s a—we’ve got a high number of non-citizens in it. We offer citizenship, high number of Latinos, some in violation of treaties. Latin American countries didn’t want their sons to serve in the U.S. military, because they’ve been invaded by the U.S. military too many times. They didn’t want to see them on their streets pointing guns at them, their own kids. And yet, we’ve had enormous numbers in Iraq, sometimes ten, fifteen, twenty thousand, out of a much smaller army than we had, say, in World War II or even in Korea or Vietnam, that were aliens promised citizenship sometimes, promised other benefits, and paid better than they could be paid otherwise in work they could find. So we’re recruiting non-Americans, to some degree. And an all-professional army is not the ideal for a democracy. You want—if you have to have an army, you want it to be represented by your people, who believe in your country and stand up for your country, not by hired guns.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And this—the way that the Obama administration has sought to portray itself as an administration that is seeking to end these wars but is dragging out the removal of troops over so many years, in effect maintaining the war while saying that it is seeking to end it.
RAMSEY CLARK: Well, not only sustaining it over—it should never have been begun in the first place, but sustaining it over an absurd length of time, just trying to cling on there in the hope that something will happen, the other side will collapse, but also expanding it. I mean, we’ve—if you look at what’s happened, there’s Iraq, and then there’s Libya, there’s Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria under the gun, heavy guns, terrible geopolitical pressure on them, and Iran waiting in the list. And here we are speeding toward Myanmar now, because we see it as a new border, new border state, between China and the U.S. and one to be fought over and exploited hopefully. And it would be right on the soft underbelly of China, It has a common border with former India. So you’ve got war continually expanding, war in the Philippines and elsewhere—and nearly always against Muslims, which is something to worry about. We keep expanding the war against Muslim states, and we’re losing any hope for reconciliation with a billion-and-a-half people if we don’t change our policy.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Ramsey Clark, a lawyer and former U.S. attorney general under President Lyndon Johnson. Harry Murray is one of the Hancock 38 and a co-defendant in the trial that was just concluded in upstate New York. He’s a professor of sociology and anthropology at Nazareth College, where he also serves as a director of the peace and justice studies major.