A crowd of over 50 people in New York’s DeWitt Town Court broke out into cheers at 10 p.m. yesterday when Judge Robert Jokl issued a not guilty verdict for five members of the Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars. The five pro se defendants — including Ellen Grady, Bill Streit, Carmen Trotta, Bill Pickard and Linda Latendre — were on trial for disorderly conduct, stemming from a symbolic blockade of the National Guard 174th Attack Wing at Hancock Airfield in Syracuse, N.Y., earlier this year.
The defendants’ action took place on February 13, 2013 — Ash Wednesday — when together they stood in the driveway to the air base holding signs that described drone activities and the murdering of children around the globe. During the action, Latendre read a statement that said, “We come to Hancock Airfield this Ash Wednesday to repent for the actions of our government and to ask God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of the people we daily terrorize with these drones.”
The 174th Attack Wing at Hancock Airfield is responsible for the maintenance and operation of MQ-9 Reaper drones. These unmanned combat flying machines have recently come under the international spotlight for illegal killings of U.S. citizens, as well as innocent civilians overseas in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The defendants were clear in their position, stating, “Due process is a bedrock of our country. When we use drones we become the judge, the jury and the executioner all at once.”
During the first half of the trial, the prosecution brought five military and civilian officers to the stand whose testimony focused on the technical aspects of the arrests, including where the protesters were standing and whether or not they were blocking access to the base. The defense, on the other hand, highlighted international law surrounding extra-military operations, as well as their own spiritual and philosophical callings to resist drone operations with nonviolent direct action.
All five of the defendants self-identified as people of Christian and Catholic faiths, guided by Christ’s radical message of living with compassion and love for all. Rev. Bill Streit is a member of the Catholic Worker for over 25 years. In his personal statement, Streit said that the spirit of the Catholic Worker and their action is “living out the works of mercy, giving help to the needy, and in essence standing with the poor and protecting the poor.”
For Linda Latendre, another of the defendants, she explained that during her 30 years as a social worker, she watched the visible toll that extreme military spending has had on some of the most vulnerable people in America.
“I have watched the fabric and safety net for the people who cannot speak and care for themselves crumble under the debt of the military industrial complex,” she said.
In closing, the defendants addressed Judge Jokl directly, asking him to “join the arc of justice” and find them not-guilty of disorderly conduct. In order to reach a guilty verdict, the district attorney had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the five defendants had acted with reckless intent to cause significant public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm. This would have most likely resulted in a fine and jail time. The prosecution, however, failed to meet its burden of proof, and despite “wanting to find them guilty,” Judge Jokl ruled with the defense, and the crowd cheered.