MARYSVILLE, Calif. -- Outside the guardhouse at the main entrance to Beale Air Force base, about 10 demonstrators gathered on a recent Wednesday to protest the deployment of what is probably the military's most prized and stealthy weapon — the drone.
They stood for hours outside one of the base's five gates — at Beale, pilots are trained to man the Global Hawk surveillance drone with a computer mouse — holding banners that attempted to drive home their message in a few words. One banner read, "Stop Killer Drones." Another listed the names of children and adults, and their ages, who have reportedly been victimized by drone strikes.
Hailing from Chico, Grass Valley, the Bay Area, Sacramento and Marysville, the demonstrators had shown up Jan. 30 for what is a monthly, two-day vigil at Beale. Most planned to spend the night near the base and return at 5 a.m. Jan. 31 as Beale staff began arriving for their shifts.
The protestors position themselves in a center highway divider, offering anti-drone fliers to people in cars entering and departing the base. On this late January Wednesday, most drivers ignored them; some sneered and if they were leaving Beale, gunned their motors and sped past. A few times, a driver honked in support or gave a friendly wave.
Drones — unmanned aerial vehicles ("UAVs") — that are directed from a remote location for surveillance or missile launches, have recently become a major mainstream media story. There have been reports of drone warfare in countries like Somalia and Yemen; reports of a memo that justifies the targeting of Americans suspected of terrorist activity; reports of secret bases and plans for new bases.
The matter of clandestine campaigns will take center stage today as the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee opens the confirmation hearing that will probably place John Brennan at the head of the CIA. Brennan is the face of drone warfare, just as the drone has become the weapon of choice in America's 21st century wars. As chief counterterrorism adviser to President Obama, Brennan designed a major expansion of drone programs.
Drone supporters tout what they say is the weapon's precision, the ability it gives the military to target terrorists for assassination without risking American lives. Protestors point to what they say is the instrument's imprecision, the toll drone attacks have taken on innocent bystanders and the wrath such attacks provoke in other countries.
In a flier, the protestors quote a university study showing that 474 civilians, including many children, have been killed in Pakistan alone.
A fledgling resistance movement is emerging around the country, where groups of protestors demonstrate at bases like Beale, Creech and Hancock. (At Beale, pilots man only surveillance drones, and Beale sometimes points out that its drones are used for disaster relief and humanitarian missions.) Anti-drone groups have formed the No Drones Network to coordinate their efforts.
But in working to build an anti-war movement for this century, protestors face an unprecedented challenge: most Americans have never seen, touched or been harmed by a drone. The introduction of robotic weaponry has been one more step in distancing Americans from the reality of war. How to measure the human, political and financial costs of highly-secretive military campaigns worries members of Congress, the media and activists.
On Jan. 30, I hitched a ride to Beale with Chico peace activist Chris Nelson and interviewed her about her commitment to the drone protest cause as we traveled the 58 miles south to the base.
Nelson readily admitted that their protests have garnered almost no media attention; The Sacramento Bee ran a story only when the Oct. 30 vigil drew about 60 people, and nine were arrested in an act of civil disobedience. (The protestors call their arrested colleagues the "Beale 9.") Another large action is planned for April or May.
But Nelson said she tries not to miss the smaller, quieter vigils. "I think you have to be steadfast in peace work," Nelson said. "You have to be a place-holder. If you don't do anything, it eats at you and lessens your humanity."
Nelson argues that drone wars have provoked such terror in communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan that people are afraid to gather for weddings and funerals. In fact, there are well-documented stories about celebrating civilians being mistaken for terrorists, and some researchers believe the number of such casualties has been grossly underestimated.
As we circled the base, we passed serene rice fields blanketed by swans and geese. But as we neared the guardhouse on foot, conversations were sometimes interrupted by the tearing sound of low-flying reconnaissance planes above us.
On the road to Beale, the Global Hawk is advertised on a billboard that reads: "The value of securing the globe 32 hours at a time." Clearly, the small plane with a rounded head that can remain airborne for so long is a source of pride at the base. Beale is located about 8 miles east of Marysville in the rolling prairie of the Northern Sacramento Valley.
I suspected this protest would draw people like Nelson — people old enough to have been shaped by the openly-confrontational Vietnam War era. The Vietnam War was the last war to stalk our streets and invade, indiscriminately, our homes. It demanded sons and brothers. It tested our confidence in our leaders as pieces of it played on television's nightly news, as anti-war protests played in newspapers and magazines, as evidence of deception mounted.
To my surprise, there were at least four protestors at Beale under the age of 40. Two of the youngest were from Occupy groups in Sacramento and Sutter counties. Most of the protestors indicated they were disturbed by the abstract nature of drone warfare, their fear that it leads to an utter lack of accountability.
"When I was in Iraq, we had to look Iraqis in the eye to kill them," said 29-year-old Roger Lewis, a Sacramento man who was with an Army signal battalion during his 2003-2004 tour and showed up Jan. 30 for his first anti-drone vigil. "Now, airmen sitting on a sofa playing a video game can kill 20 people. Children are still getting killed.
"These planes do low-altitude surveillance, working in conjunction with the Reapers," Lewis said of the Global Hawks. "If enough of our soldiers say this is wrong, maybe the higher ranks will do something about it."
Flora Rogers, 39, first came to the vigil one year ago to support the protestors. The vigil soon became both a test of her commitment and an exercise in the loss of innocence when she was inadvertently arrested last May.
Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan had joined the group for an afternoon, and the protestors erected a memorial for Sheehan's late son Casey, who was killed in Iraq. At the close of the vigil, Rogers approached the guardhouse with one of the memorial bouquets. She planned to gift the flowers to a guard.
Rogers was swiftly handcuffed and cited with federal trespassing. "They were pretty aggressive with me," Rogers recalled. "They really wanted to intimidate me." The charge was dropped only after many months and much anguish on her part.
After the Jan. 30 vigil, the protestors gathered at a house in Marysville and dined on black beans, fruit salad and homemade muffins. They celebrated a birthday as if they were long-time friends. Toby Blome, in particular, was satisfied.
Blome, 57, helped start the vigil in November 2010 with several Bay Area friends. The guards tried to push the demonstrators far from the base, obliging them to stand on the highway where drivers never slowed. As Blome pressed to move the protest closer, she was at one point handcuffed. She recalls talking with a young airman about the things they both loved — freedom, democracy, free speech.
Eventually, the protestors claimed turf closer to the gates. Then they began an overnight encampment, tossing down sleeping bags in a parking area off the highway.
Earlier that Wednesday, as she was standing outside the base's Doolittle Gate, a driver pulled over and engaged her in conversation. He pointed to the "Stop Killer Drones" banner, and said, "The military is just laughing at you."
They exchanged views over a 20-minute period.
There had been no swarming hordes chanting in unison, no television cameras, no moments of angry confrontation that would be broadcast to the nation. But they had done the work of place-holders.
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