On April 2, Creech Air Force Base was the site of three arrests for civil disobedience in protest against drone warfare. Less than an hour drive from Las Vegas, a small army of pilots operate drones flying over Afghanistan and Iraq from the base, which has become a regular stop on the annual Sacred Peace Walk — a Nevada tradition that has historically focused on opposing nuclear weapons testing. The arrests were just the latest episode in a growing movement to ground America’s drones. Creech itself was also the scene of a national protest mobilization last month.
On March 6, more than a hundred people from 18 states converged on the base as part of a week of Shut Down Creech actions organized by a coalition of groups, including Code Pink, Veterans For Peace and Voices for Creative Nonviolence. The aim of the action according to Toby Blome, from the Bay Area Code Pink, was to shut down the base — or at least disrupt its operations by blocking the points of entry and egress during the shift change of the drone operators — for as long as possible and to “help build an ongoing campaign that ultimately will lead to regular, annual mass mobilizations at Creech Air Force Base until drone warfare ceases.”
The demonstrators had organized themselves into four affinity groups, which deployed themselves sequentially to simultaneously block the east and west gates of the base off U.S. Highway 95. Rechristening U.S. 95 the “Drone Victims Memorial Highway,” organizers erected markers along the road with the names and ages of victims. When one group was arrested and cleared from the roadway, another took its place. Protesters distributed literature to base personnel and engaged them in conversation. Some of the protesters, holding signs denoting the names and ages of children killed in drone strikes, staged die-ins while others chalk-outlined their bodies. The action managed to largely prevent entrance into the base for up to an hour during the morning shift-change. Thirty-four people were arrested in the morning hours and given misdemeanor charges.
“The real effects might not be easily measured, but it is no small thing that many drone operators got to work late that morning,” said Brian Terrell of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. “Admittedly, this is a small victory, but one that needs be built upon to close the base entirely.”
Concurrently, a television ad calling upon drone pilots to refuse their assignments aired in Las Vegas from February 28 through March 6 on CNN and MSNBC, among other networks. Numerous media alerts were distributed by the individual participant organizations before and during the week of action.
“Ultimately, in spite of a lack of response by some mainstream and alternative media,” said Blome, who helped organize the mobilization, “we did still get quite impressive media coverage overall.”
A story about the action in the Las Vegas Review Journal included a photograph of Arizona activist Dennis Duvall dressed as a bloody drone pilot holding a sign with photos of three child drone victims from Pakistan. “These truthful images are almost always censored in mainstream media,” Blome said, “so it was very daring for the editor to allow it, and he deserves much praise.”
The Shut Down Creech actions built upon years of prior protest work. In 2009, Terrell was among those who first initiated civil disobedience actions at Creech, getting arrested and helping to launch the global protest campaign. Since the arrest and trial of those arrested, dubbed the “Creech 14,” there have been numerous actions over the past few years at Creech and other bases around the country out of which the drones are operated. The Franciscan priest and peace activist Louie Vitale was also among the demonstrators in March who had been part of the Creech 14. Another arrested with Vitale in 2009 was Kathy Kelly, who is presently serving a three-month sentence at a federal prison camp in Lexington, Kentucky, for delivering a loaf of bread and a letter at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri last year.
Blome said that she was inspired by witnessing the Creech 14 trial in Las Vegas. Since then, she has helped to organize annual protests at the base and she participated in the Code Pink peace delegation to Pakistan in 2012.
The anti-drone activists confront a challenging political environment. Polls indicate solid public support for the use of drones, though this approval is declining. Terrell has seen skepticism of drone warfare within the United States increase since he began organizing on the issue over half a decade ago. “Support is clearly eroding,” he said, “and our work, along with reports by academics, legal experts and journalist — and people in the streets in Pakistan, Yemen and other places — all contribute to this change.”
On March 4, Veterans for Peace released an open letter to drone operators and support personnel at Creech Air Force Base that read: “Military personnel have the right and the responsibility to refuse to participate in war crimes, according to international law, U.S. law and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And then there are the higher moral laws. If you decide to refuse illegal orders or to resist illegal wars, we are here to support you.”
Disruptions like Shut Down Creech may contribute to an already high turnover rate for drone operators in the U.S. military. Pratap Chatterjee recently reported that drone pilots are quitting in record numbers. There are some 1,000 drone pilots in active duty with the U.S. Air Force — about a quarter of that number quit every year.
The movement is also international and growing, both in countries targeted by drones and those involved in these attacks. Widespread hatred in Pakistan of the drone program has been consistently reported and has been a recurring political issue in Pakistani elections, spurring the creation of the legal organization Foundation for Fundamental Rights to represent surviving family members of drone strikes. In Yemen, the National Organization for Drone Victims was founded last year by friends and family of victims of drone strikes to advocate for changes in Yemeni government policies and to call upon it to begin investigating drone deaths.
The German Drohnen-Kampagne, or Drone Campaign, sent a message of solidarity to the Shut Down Creech demonstrators and noted that drone operators must route communications through Ramstein Air Base, making Germany complicit in the drone assassination program. The campaign observed that a February 2014 European Parliament resolution demanded that the European Council and the European states “ensure that the Member States, in conformity with their legal obligations, do not perpetrate unlawful targeted killings or facilitate such killings by other states.”
Meanwhile, in Britain, the Royal Air Force base at Waddington became the first control center in Europe for drone warfare in 2013. In response, the Drone Campaign Network has formed to organize public opposition to the British government’s participation in drone flights over Afghanistan.
As anti-drone actions continue across the country at numerous air force bases implicated in the remote-piloted warfare, forging strong international ties among anti-drone activists may ultimately prove essential to changing drone policies in Washington. As Terrell noted, he became active in opposing drone warfare after hearing accounts of drone victims from close friends who had visited Afghanistan and Pakistan, which made “the harm and terror they cause not an abstraction.”
For now, U.S. drone activists are doing their part to make the consequences of drone warfare more apparent to the pilots who launch them remotely, and an American population that remains ill-informed. Terrell takes a broad view of anti-drone activism, stressing its cumulative impact. “Last Friday’s action did not get much national media attention, but it rocked the local scene,” he said. “Protests at Hancock base in Syracuse, New York, also get a lot of local media and much effective public education happens there. We have been very effective in getting discussions going in many local venues around the county. This all adds up.”
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