On Trial Today in Nevada

Today, September 14th, fourteen of us, including four priests, stand trial in the state courthouse in Las Vegas, Nevada on charges of criminal trespassing. The government seeks to jail us for walking on to Creech Air Force Base, about an hour northwest of Las Vegas, last year on Holy Thursday, April 9, 2009. We walked onto the base with nothing but a prayer and a call for the end of the U.S. drone fighter bomber program, which is headquartered there in the desert. We went to Creech in a spirit of gentleness, but also of protest. It’s time for the U.S. to end its killing of brothers and sisters in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
Needless to say, our call—and the gift we offered of a letter, roses and pizza—were rejected. The police arrested us and put us in handcuffs. Then they hauled us to Las Vegas and booked and tossed us for the night in to the local jail. Next day, on Good Friday, they set us free. But now the government is intent on pressing full charges, hoping to put an end to this anti-drone movement. A nation whose foundation is militarism and war cannot brook dissenters from a different moral order.
It’s an old story. Punish those who nonviolently speak out for justice and peace. Incarcerate those who stand up or sit in and perhaps that will snuff out the fires of the peace movement. But thank God, as Dr. King once said, truth crushed to earth always rises. Active nonviolence spreads like a contagion. Love and truth break through like blades of grass through a cracked pavement. Hidden movements begin to flourish, movements of transformation, disarmament and healing.
I do not relish getting arrested, standing trial or facing jail. But in a world of war, nuclear weapons, extreme poverty, corporate greed, executions, global warming and empire, the courtroom must be faced, just as these drones need to be addressed. “Social change does not come about in the classroom or the pulpit,” Gandhi once said. “It comes about by standing in the courts, in jails and sometimes on the gallows.”
Our drones go on bombing and killing innocent people in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, so we went to Creech, walked on to the base, knelt down in prayer. And now we go to court in a spirit of creative nonviolence, and even in court we’ll denounce these inhuman death machines and call for their abolition. We go because we have no choice.
“When we read in the paper about these robotic attacks we are usually told where the drone strike took place and how many militants were killed,” co-defendant Kathy Kelly wrote the other day.
“But then it often turns out that the victims were simply local people, not militants in any sense. The blood and the smell of charred bodies are realities on the ground, but are simply small images on a screen in front of the drone operator on the air force base. I believe the American people need to know what we are doing, and understand why the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan cannot see us as part of the solution. This is why I want to focus attention on the drones, and why I am willing to appear here in the courtroom.
“Since I am aware of what really happens when a drone attacks, I want to step forward to let the facts be known. The U.S. claims to be in Pakistan and Afghanistan because we want to help the people and deliver them from extremists, but this is not what is happening. The drone attacks have killed hundreds of people during this past year, and few of them militants, most of them simple people. The horror of these attacks ensures that the U.S. appears to be a menacing country. ‘The hatred is rising,’ Safdar Dawar, a Pakistani journalist told us in May of 2010. ‘It’s a big problem,’ he continued, ‘and we can’t understand why people in your country don’t know more about the drone usage. Where is your democracy?’”
The other co-defendants are: Dennis DuVall; Renee Espeland; Judy Homanich; Fr. Steve Kelly, SJ; Mariah Klusmire; Brad Lyttle; Libby Pappalardo; Sr. Megan Rice, SHCJ; Brian Terrell; Eve Tetaz; Fr. Louie Vitale, OFM; and Fr. Jerry Zawada, OFM. Fr. Louie Vitale was recently released after six months in prison for protesting the “School of the Americas,” and has another upcoming trial for protesting weapons testing at Vandenberg AFB in California. Fr. Steve Kelly was informed last week that the Federal government has placed felony charges against him and four other activists for a plowshares disarmament action at the Trident Submarine Base near Seattle last November 1st. He and the others face ten years in prison.
We will begin the day with a rally and march to the courthouse. In court, we intend to argue that, under international law, we are obliged to oppose these “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” the official name for the drones. We also plan to show the court that by entering Creech AFB we were enacting our first amendment right to assemble peaceably for redress of grievances.
One of the first issues before the court will be our request to include former U.S. Attorney Ramsey Clark, Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights Bill Quigley and Colonel Ann Wright, a former U.S. diplomat posted in Afghanistan, as expert witnesses. Clark will demonstrate that “usage of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles based at Creech Air Force Base to kill ‘high value targets’ constitutes extrajudicial executions and fails to afford all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.”
As P.W. Singer writes in Wired for War: the Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (the definitive book on the drones, Penguin, 2009), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles like the MQ9 Reaper drone are used by the Pentagon not only for surveillance, but to kill and blow up buildings in Iraq and Afghanistan. Defying international law, the CIA uses the Reaper to assassinate and blow up buildings in Pakistan. The Pentagon and CIA adore these new weapons. With no pilot or crew, no U.S. military officers can be injured or killed. They can be directed by young officers thousands of miles away. Forty other nations are racing to develop similar drone programs.
Welcome to the future.
On the day of our action, for hours drones flew low in front of us. It was an astonishing sight to see these black predators hovering over the beautiful Nevada desert. What terror must they invoke as they fly over the villages of the helpless poor in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq?
The drones are the sons of nuclear weapons. They offer a bleak future—a sky full of black death, hovering over the earth. Our modest gesture—prayer, roses, and of course, pizza—advocated another future, a future of peace, without drones or nuclear weapons.
If the judge allows our great friends to offer expert testimony, we will hear in detail what these drones are doing, and how they violate international law and Nuremberg Principles. But I’m also concerned with what they are doing to us. Since violence is a downward spiral, their unimaginable violence will certainly come back upon us like a boomerang. One day, drones will fly over our own country.
More, they signal our spiritual death, the loss of our humanity. The children of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq do not threaten us; it’s this self-destructive spirit of war within and among us which is killing us. We need to repent of these weapons and discover a new spirit of love and compassion within us.
Being hauled into court, Jesus taught, is our chance to give witness. If I’m able to take the stand, I’ll testify that I went to Creech Air Force Base because I’m a follower of the nonviolent Jesus who went to Jerusalem and confronted his empire, and my friends and I were trying to do the same.
I’ll cite the nonviolent Jesus as my expert. “Love your enemies that you will be sons and daughters of the God who lets the sun shine on the good and the bad and allows the rain to fall on the just and the unjust,” he taught in the Sermon on the Mount. If we continue to kill our enemies and rain bombs down upon them, I’ll say, we are not sons and daughters of the God of universal love. We are, rather, sons and daughters of the false gods of death. I will then urge the judge to dismiss the charges or find us not guilty, and join our campaign to rid the planet of these weapons, that we might be peacemakers, sons and daughters of the God of universal love and peace.
After that, I’ll invite him to join us for pizza. Why not? We live in hope.
Alas, such talk will probably not be allowed. In that case, our witness will be our nonviolent presence, the love in our hearts for unseen sisters and brothers in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, and the prayer that rises among us, first at Creech, and now in the Las Vegas courthouse: “God of peace, give us a world without drones, bombs, nuclear weapons, or war. Give us your spirit of nonviolent, universal love that we might relieve human suffering, welcome your reign of peace with justice, and be worthy to be called your beloved sons and daughters.”
Please join us in prayer.