Rage Against the War Machine

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Hoda Ali Mohammed Nasser. Age 5. Female. Zayda Ali Mohammed Nasser. Age 7. Female. Noor Aziz. Age 8. Male.

These names and 150 others hang from a string held by five activists, standing downtown on a busy Friday afternoon. While the names, ages and genders change, the last words printed on every laminated sheet are the same: “Killed by a U.S. Drone Strike.”

Along with 20 or so others distributing leaflets and carrying signs with slogans such as “Ground the Drones” and “Do the Drones Hear the Cries of the Children Dying on the Ground?” these five belong to a group of political activists in Santa Cruz who have come together to bring attention to the U.S. drone program. Anti-drone vigils like this one last April are the most visible result of their efforts.

While this particular vigil was a relatively small event, it parallels something much larger — an increasingly vocal and organized opposition to the U.S.’s use of lethal drone strikes. That opposition has been picking up steam, both nationally and internationally, for the past few months.

“This is just the Santa Cruz expression of a movement that’s happening all across the nation,” said vice chair of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Santa Cruz County chapter Steve Pleich.

The U.S. has been using unmanned aerial vehicles — more commonly known as drones — for reconnaissance purposes since the Vietnam War. It was only after the events of 9/11 and the global war on terror that followed, however, that drones were given the power to kill.

Since 2001 the U.S. has launched hundreds of lethal drone strikes, the vast majority under the Obama administration, resulting in a death toll that runs into the thousands. Human rights groups claim civilians account for at least 800 of those killed in such strikes.

Hailed by many in the military and intelligence communities as a way to combat suspected terrorists while minimizing American casualties, drone strikes abroad continue to garner broad support from the American public. In a Gallup Poll released in March, 65 percent of Americans polled said they supported the practice. In the same poll, 50 percent of respondents said they follow news about drones “not too closely” or “not at all.”

There are signs that such broad support may be beginning to shift however.

Last February a series of controversies put the U.S. drone program in the spotlight and spurred activists across the country to take action. The episode began with Congress’ refusal to approve Obama’s nomination of John Brennan to the post of CIA director. Brennan, formerly Obama’s top counrterrorism advisor, was the lead architect of the secretive drone program. Congress refused to approve his nomination until the Obama Administration released more information about its legal rationale for killing American citizens with drone strikes.

To date four American citizens have been killed in drone strikes under the Obama Administration, a fact highlighted by Senator Rand Paul when he filibustered Brennan’s nomination for 13 hours, drawing further attention to the drone program.

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink — a social justice movement that has been at the forefront of organizing anti-drone protests across the country in recent months — said the events sparked a newfound interest in U.S. drone policy.

“[Brennan’s nomination] was a very galvanizing moment,” Benjamin said. “It was a chance to shine a light on the [drone] policy.”

In Santa Cruz the first anti-drone vigil was held at the Town Clock on President’s Day, Feb. 17, roughly a week after the Brennan hearings.  The vigil was organized by Sherry Conable — who founded the Santa Cruz chapter of CodePink in 2003 — and longtime activist couple Mike and Maureen Smith. Its goal was to highlight the role President Obama has played in expanding the drone program and to call attention to the civilian deaths caused by it.

“[Obama] personally reviews the kill list every week,”  Conable said. “He knows the program repeatedly kills innocent civilians, and yet he signs the authorization papers. This is terrorism. This is violence that targets innocent people who had nothing to do with the conflict in question. We didn’t want President’s Day to go by without addressing what’s being done in our name.”

Conable said that while she was concerned about the U.S. drone program before President Obama took office, it wasn’t until recently that she felt organizing protests in opposition to it would generate results.

“It was only when it finally exploded with the Brennan hearings and drones got all of that national attention that it felt to me like there was an opening, something to run with,” Conable said. “After that it really felt like people were willing to stand up and be counted.”

The activists who showed up to that first anti-drone vigil on President’s Day soon joined forces with the Santa Cruz chapter of the Women in Black (WiB), an international anti-war movement. In Santa Cruz the WiB has held an anti-war vigil in the city every Friday for over a decade, ever since the group was founded in 2003 in response to the Iraq War.

Illustration by Caetano Santos.
Illustration by Caetano Santos.

Calling themselves Santa Cruz Against Drones (SCAD), the WiB and Santa Cruz drone activists now devote the first vigil of every month to opposing U.S. drone strikes. Since February, the activists have distributed leaflets and set up props — including tombstones with the names of children killed in drone strikes — while they gather on Pacific Avenue to bring their message to the crowds.

While activists in Santa Cruz gathered downtown, similar efforts erupted all over the country in April, when several groups came together to organize a month-long series of anti-drone protests from Washington D.C. to San Francisco. Led by CodePink, the newly formed Network to Stop Drone Surveillance and Warfare (NSDSW) sponsored protests and acts of civil disobedience in over 30 states during those “April Days of Action.”

“It has been very exciting to see the birth of a movement,” said Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of CodePink. “This movement that didn’t exist before is now totally on the national and international scene.”

Benjamin said drones have captured the attention of so many activists due to the questions raised by their unmanned nature and the central role they now occupy in the global war on terror.

“[Drones] are special in that they allow the government to keep us in a perpetual state of war without the American people even realizing it,” Benjamin said. “They also allow the targeted killing of Americans and non-Americans to take place without any kind of judicial process.”

Phillip Crawford is a lawyer and president of the Board of Directors of the Monterey Peace and Justice Center (MPJC), which took part in the April Days of Action. Crawford said a key reason he opposes the drone program is the lack of transparency in the legal rationale used to justify the targeted killings it carries out.

“Obama is the first president in American history to say he has the right to kill an American citizen without a trial, without even charging them with a crime,” Crawford said. “Aside from slavery, I can’t think of anything in American history more violative of basic constitutional guarantees and human rights.”

In an effort to foster discussion about the U.S. drone program, Crawford arranged to have Marjorie Cohn, former president of the National Lawyers Guild and an outspoken critic of drones, speak in Santa Cruz on April 20.

“I think it’s a really exciting time to be working on this issue,” Crawford said. “CodePink has really made it a priority nationally and other groups have followed suit, so this seemed like a good opportunity to educate people.”

Cohn has written numerous articles and given several speeches on the illegality of drone strikes under international law, and is currently working on a book about the same topic.

“If you read the Obama administration’s legal justifications for these strikes,” Cohn said, “it starts to sound as though his policy is simply to kill instead of capture whenever it’s more convenient to do so.”

Many of those opposed to the drone program are also concerned that the computer-operated, virtual nature of these weapons can trivialize or obscure the very real casualties they inflict.

Speaking at UC Santa Cruz on April 12, journalist and Salon.com founder David Talbot addressed this desensitizing aspect of drone warfare in an interview after his talk.

“The anonymity of this way of delivering death around the globe, the remote control aspect of it,” Talbot said, “divorces the country, the population, the citizenry from these acts of war. It just feels like a video game, so we don’t feel the responsibility that we should.”

Talbot is currently writing a book about the U.S. drone program titled “The Professor and The Executioner,” which focuses on President Obama and John Brennan.

While drones may represent the bleeding edge of modern warfare, in Santa Cruz the efforts to oppose them have grown out of much earlier movements. Almost all of those currently involved in the anti-drone actions have been peace activists for decades. Peter Klotz, the co-founder of the Santa Cruz Resource Center for Nonviolence (RCNV), said this is in keeping with an anti-war tradition that has deep roots in the city.

“I’d say there’s been an anti-war constituency in Santa Cruz ever since Herb and Elliot Foster, the founders of the Santa Cruz Friends, vigiled on the Post Office steps against the Vietnam War in the sixties,” Klotz said. “At the Town Clock alone I can remember rallies against U.S. intervention in South America, the wars in the Middle East, nuclear disarmament, you name it.”

Many of the activists said their work in recent years has centered around the war on terror, beginning with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan over a decade ago.

“People demonstrated in the millions all around the world, and in Santa Cruz thousands were out on the streets,” Klotz said. “We thought we could prevent that war, but tragically we weren’t able to.”

Santa Cruz and its progressive activist community were at the forefront of opposing those conflicts. The city made national headlines in 2003 when local activists, led by Sherry Conable, persuaded the City Council to pass a resolution opposing the war just months before U.S. troops landed on Iraqi soil. Later that year, the same group of activists convinced the City Council to pass a measure calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush. Santa Cruz was the first in the nation to take those actions, and was quickly emulated by other cities across the U.S.

Nevertheless, Klotz said the energy and outrage that marked the early 2000s died down considerably in the following years, both in Santa Cruz and nationwide, as a sense of fatigue and hopelessness began to set in among protesters. As the years went on the weekly anti-war vigils that had once attracted hundreds of protesters saw their numbers dwindle to a dedicated core of a few dozen activists.

Still, the war left a legacy of discontent that caused many — in Santa Cruz and elsewhere — to continue organizing and looking for issues that could recapture the public’s attention long after the larger movement had faded away.

Medea Benjamin, a leading figure in the national anti-drone movement, also traces her work on drones back to the Iraq War, when she co-founded CodePink in 2002 in opposition to it.

Her fight against drones began in October 2012 when she and 31 other CodePink activists travelled to Pakistan’s Tribal Areas, the front line in the CIA’s drone war, in an effort to better understand its repercussions.

After speaking with Pakistanis who had lost children and siblings in botched U.S. drone strikes, Benjamin became convinced that the hatred and resentment they caused was undermining U.S. efforts to curb terrorism.

Upon returning Benjamin immediately began work on a book, “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control,” and soon made drones the main focus of her work with CodePink. She has since gone on to spearhead the national anti-drone movement, and her efforts continue to have a deep influence on Santa Cruz’s anti-drone activism.

While both the anti-drone protesters in Santa Cruz and across the nation agree that their work is only beginning, many of them remain convinced that their efforts are producing change, however incrementally.

“People are still being killed, Obama is still meeting on Tuesdays and deciding who’s going to live and who’s going to die, with no charges, no trial, no nothing,” said Maureen Smith, who’s been at the heart of organizing the Santa Cruz anti-drone vigils. “So to some extent that part hasn’t progressed, but making people more aware has progressed.”

Benjamin said the next step for the national anti-drone movement will come in November, when CodePink and other groups will co-host an international anti-drone conference at Georgetown Law along with the The Nation newspaper.

Maureen Smith, who will be attending the conference, said even though she’s seen many movements falter over the years, for now she’s hopeful the recent organizing around drones will retain its momentum.

“I don’t know if people just feel discouraged or what, but there’s so much that needs to be done,” Smith said. “Drones fit into a lot of categories — it’s an anti-war issue, it’s a privacy issue, it’s a human rights issue. Already things have gone further than I expected them to go.”