Drones on Trial: Quotes from the Hancock 38

compiled by Christina Sterbenz5

From the February 2012 PNL #811

Retired Col. Ann Wright speaks at the Nov. 3 press conference. Behind her is a copy of the citizens’ indictment brought by drone resisters to Hancock on April 22, 2011. Photo: Chris Sabas

In April 2011, the “Hancock 38” peacefully approached Hancock Air Field in DeWitt, New York. They intended to bring a written citizens’ indictment to the military base for violating international peace laws with the use of MQ9 Reaper drones, but they never got the chance. Their indictment confiscated, they approached the gate and lay down in protest. They came to exercise their right to free speech and left with charges of disorderly conduct.

The trial excerpts below show that the defendants and their attorneys not only proved the Hancock 38’s innocence, but the drones’ illegality. Judge David Gideon, however, found every defendant guilty and immediately sentenced four to jail. He assigned fines, court fees, and community service to the rest. Ever persevering in their civil disobedience, many refused to comply and must return to court (see box).

Free Speech

“And then, clad in bloody shrouds, they peacefully, quietly, and solemnly lay down on the driveway leading to the base to symbolize the innocent victims of the reaper drones. Symbolic speech, Judge, that’s what it was. That’s what everyone recognized it to be,” said Attorney Sam Young, representing defendant Kathleen Rumpf.

 “The military, the police, and the prosecutors may have not liked the message that these folks were trying to convey. You, yourself, may not like it or agree with it. It may have made them uncomfortable; it may make you uncomfortable, but that does not make it any less protected,” said Young.

 International Law

“When I was a teenager, which was many moons ago, the United States was in a crisis. 58,000 US soldiers had been killed in Vietnam. Over two million Vietnamese had been killed. The United States citizenry had come to their wits end, and the consciousness of the nation was shifting …. My father participated with many other Catholics, clergy and lay people in direct actions of tearing up draft files of our soldiers that were to be drafted from our poor inner cities that were going to be sent to Vietnam. These files, it turned out we learned, were the only copies of these young men’s names that were to be sent to Vietnam. My father was arrested when I was fourteen in 1971. And for this action he was facing 47 years in prison …. As a result of the judge’s decision to allow the issues of foreign affairs and acknowledge Article 6 [of the Constitution], the [Camden 28] were acquitted in a historical decision—because the truth was allowed in the courtroom,” said defendant Mary Anne Grady Flores.

 “The US is in daily violation of its commitments under the UN Charter. Violations of the Charter are war crimes. Many people are being killed illegally—lynched—by the US government. We use the term lynchings intentionally, to remind you of that long chapter in US history where domestic lynching was tolerated, and also, equally important, that in the past longstanding traditions of law have been drastically changed,” said defendant Pete Bianco.

“From my significant exposure to war I have learned two important things. One is that IHL (International Humanitarian Law) is terribly important in restraining the most heinous and inhuman of acts which occur in war and make war so horrible. The other, more important, lesson is how simple it is for a system to convince good people to not enforce or comply with IHL….

Let me be clear about the long-term, delayed cost of failing to comply with IHL…. You and your squad hit the dirt because there was suspected enemy activity. Through a break in the brush you see something moving. Over your sights you see it looks like a woman, and it looks like she is carrying a baby. You ask should you open up and fire on her. Your orders are that this is a free fire zone and all people are considered the enemy…. Instead of asking is she in a free fire zone you should have asked your command is it legal to force a population to leave their homes and ancestral village under threat of death…. If I had asked the right questions, if I had followed the right law, only our imagination can say how many innocent lives would have been saved.

That was an opportunity to support IHL. I failed the test. These opportunities come and we are tested. Even Judges occasionally get tested. They, like me, will face pressure by the system and social pressure making it hard to comply with IHL—but in the balance hangs the lives of hundreds or thousands,” said defendant Elliot Adams.

Reaper drones

“Since April 22, when our action occurred, drones have killed between 250 and 360 human beings in Pakistan alone according to the New America Foundation. These numbers probably don’t include the deaths of 16-year-old Tariq Aziz and his 12-year-old cousin, Waheed Khan, who were killed on Monday, the day before our trial began,” said defendant Harry Murray.

“Drones also create the threat of a new arms race. Drone technology is much easier to develop than nuclear weapons technology. A number of nations besides the US have already developed them, including Israel and China. The specter of a world in which both state and nonstate actors can launch drones to target any individual they wish, remotely controlled from half a world away, is a nightmarish world, a world we do not wish to bequeath to our children. Furthermore, drones make Upstate New York a war zone…. What happens when a suicide bomber decides to target a legal combatant, a drone pilot at Hancock when they are sitting at a soccer game, watching their kids play soccer?” said Murray.