Dressed as angels, people stage a die-in, reenacting a recent funeral procession interrupted by a killer drone attack that murdered and injured many innocent mourners in the Middle East. Photo by David Kupfer.
Twenty-five anti-drone activists from all over the nation were arrested for blocking the roadway at the entrance of Creech Air Force base forty-five miles northwest of Las Vegas on March 31 and April 1. More than 100 activists had gathered for the annual Shut Down Creech demonstration at the base, which is the main home for the operation of unmanned drone vehicles overseas. According to government documents, Creech houses the command and control facility used to engage in daily Overseas Contingency Operations of remotely piloted aircraft systems that fly missions across the globe.
With a stream of unmanned drones flying overhead, activists of all ages, most affiliated with the groups Veterans for Peace, Code Pink, and Nevada Desert Experience, engaged in a series of nonviolent civil disobedience actions in protest against President Obama's Drone Assassination Program.
Since 2009, activists have demonstrated annually against the base’s unmanned spy planes. Every year, they’ve held vigils at the entrance during the morning and evening commute of personnel involved in drone warfare. This year, waving Earth and peace flags, demonstrators held aloft banners reading: “U.S. drone warfare is terrorism,” “Drones fly, Children Die,” and “Muslim Lives Matter.” One activist created seven caskets labeled with the names of nations where the U.S. government has used drones: Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, and Libya.
The protests delayed workers coming to the military base for their shift for a brief amount of time. Las Vegas Metro Police and the Nevada Highway Patrol worked to clear the blockades and restore the flow of traffic.
Eight elderly Veterans for Peace members were arrested at the gates of the base Thursday morning, taken to jail in Las Vegas and later released. On Friday, the first incident occurred at 7:00 a.m., when a group of six children, ages nine to eighteen, and eight adults dressed as angels performed a mock funeral to demonstrate the gruesome "double tap,” a procedure used by the military drones to attack family members during a funeral procession for a previous drone victim. A ballerina led the procession, laying red roses in the road followed by the other children carrying a casket into a restricted area at the main gate and re-enacting a strike, spilling baby doll and adult mannequin body parts onto the road. The children avoided arrest, but the adults were taken into custody after they refused to leave the roadway.
Other activists blocked the highway and two other base gates, delaying Air Force personnel from entering the base and leading to more arrests. As soon as military personnel re-opened the main base gate, two more waves of activists breached a barricade near the gate and blocked the road, which stalled gate operations for another hour.
All those arrested were cited and released. These activities were done to protest the Obama administration's drone warfare program that has led to many civilian deaths and, according to activists, violates international law.
“We’re not against the military,” one activist said. “We’re against the misuse of the military.” For Shirley Tung of Phoenix, 80, it was her fourteenth time out to the Nevada Desert protesting drones and nuclear testing. “I don’t want to see innocent people killed. Even if all we accomplish here today is to get people on the base to talk around the water cooler, to get a few people questioning their consciousness about what they are doing, then our time here demonstrating is a success. They see our dedication, and it causes some questioning. That’s how it begins.”
The Air Force says it takes every measure possible to minimize civilian loss in missile strikes from unmanned aircraft systems. Major Cristin Marposon, a spokesperson for Air Combat Command at the Pentagon, said the work “is especially challenging because the adversary purposely mingles with noncombatants to increase the risk of civilian casualties.”
But the activists disagreed that any loss of civilian life was acceptable. “We are killing a lot of children, and I think that is wrong,” said Holly Severson of San Francisco. “I am willing to put my body on the line to bring attention to this issue and try to change the policy.”
“This is a way to bring to people actually operating drones the consequences of their actions,” said retired U.S. Colonel and Code Pink activist Ann Wright. “The presence of an activist force has had an impact on the consciousness of those who have spoken out about this program, the whistleblowers. Having been in government for forty years, I know having citizens speaking out has had an impact.”
Wright noted that President Obama has had to comment on the drone program, the “kill list” for which he personally oversees. As she sees it, “Obama ought to be impeached as this is unconstitutional, he does not have the authority to do this.”
Also at the event was Professor Joseba Zulaika of University of Nevada at Reno’s Center for Basque Studies. “I’ve no doubt 90 percent of the drone strike deaths were citizens not involved in terrorism activities,” he said. “Few politicians acknowledge this. They think the drones save lives, but they do not recognize the consequences of the local reaction and subsequent growth in Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other blowback actions. I think the drones have a lot to do with the ability of those groups to recruit.”
Zulaika has been researching this topic for thirty years, and the more he has looked at the issue of terrorism, the more he says he’s realized that terrorism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “It is like the Middle Ages and the witch hunts, the more they knew the more they believed,” he said. “It creates a frame of mind that unconsciously produces enemies. The system needs to be fed the terrorism myth so there is an imperative to create an enemy to justify spending trillions of dollars, that’s the power of ideology. No exorcism will dispel the fantasy of terrorism.”
Rize Oliveira plants roses at the feet of a line of Nevada Highway Patrol members just prior to activists' arrests for blockading the entrance to Creech Air Force Base on Friday. Photo by Sharat.
Earlier in the week, a symposium called “Inside Drone Warfare,” was held at the University of Las Vegas’ School of Law. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace and Knowdrones.com, the event focused on the impacts on whistleblowers and on families of civilians killed by overseas airstrikes from remotely piloted aircraft controlled by operators at Creech Air Force Base and other military installations in the United States. (The event can be viewed at http://livestream.com/accounts/18502735/events/5089751.)
“I’m up here for those kids that I helped kill,” declared former Air Force drone program communications technician Cian Westmoreland. He said his research showed that 359 civilians were killed during operations targeting terrorists and their leaders when he served in Afghanistan in 2009 with the Air Force’s 73rd Expeditionary Control Squadron.
“I don’t think drones win a war,” Westmoreland said. “What we’re essentially doing is we’re fueling hatred. Every time it creates hatred in the families. There’s just anger and sadness.” Many surviving family members turn to radical organizations.
As a technician for the U.S. Air Force in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Westmoreland set up a station that relayed data for targeted drone strikes. He believes he contributed to the deaths of hundreds of civilians. “I did a lot of damage with what I did and it was very civil,” Westmoreland said. “The thing that scares me most about war is not necessarily the brutality of it but the civility of it.”
Another speaker, Christopher Aaron, a former counterterrorism officer for the Central Intelligence Agency’s drone program, said after one drone strike he was involved with, “I came to a conclusion that we cannot change ideological radicals by dropping bombs on them. It just does not work. We are absolutely . . . sowing the seeds for the next round of people to hate us, the next round of terrorists, as people within the intelligence community call them. We’ve set ourselves up for the next round of war, causing more harm than good.”
The White House plans to release a report documenting drone casualties: “We know that not only is greater transparency the right thing to do, it is the best way to maintain the legitimacy of our counterterrorism actions and the broad support of our allies,” President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, Lisa Monaco, said during a speech in early March.
But multiple speakers at the symposium criticized the government’s accounting of civilian drone-strike casualties, saying there are vastly undercounted. Many independent reports, including those from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, places civilian casualties in the high hundreds.
Through 2013, “drones have killed about 58 known militant leaders in Pakistan and 35 in Yemen,” according to PolitiFact, using numbers drawn from the group New America Foundation. “In just those two countries, drones have killed between 2,861 and 4,452 people in all—civilians and unknowns, in addition to militants, according to the foundation’s study.”
David Kupfer has contributed to The Progressive since 1993. A Northern California writer, his work has appeared in The Sun, Bay Nature, Earth Island Journal, Whole Earth, and elsewhere.