Standing up to Drone Diego

Rick Greenblatt reports on mobilizations against drone warfare from coast to coast.

Vets for Peace members take part in a San Diego protest against the drone wars (Rick Greenblatt | SW)Vets for Peace members take part in a San Diego protest against the drone wars (Rick Greenblatt | SW)

SAN DIEGO, the city with the dubious distinction as the drone production capital of the world, was home to Drone Diego, four days of protest actions and meetings from April 4-7. Drone Diego was part of the National Days of Action Against Drones, a coordinated series of anti-drone events being held during April across the U.S., from Hawaii to Maine and Washington state to Washington, D.C.

The actions in San Diego were designed to bring attention to the role that drones now play in facilitating wars for empire, drone use in the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, and also the threat to civil liberties posed by domestic drone use (video of many of the Drone Diego events).

The events were organized by a coalition of groups, including the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice, San Diego Veterans for Peace, the Peace Resource Center of San Diego, Code Pink and Women Occupy of San Diego, and endorsed by about 30 other organizations. In addition to local participants, people came from elsewhere in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Washington, D.C. Participants included both longtime peace and antiwar activists as well as newer activists. The four days of action in San Diego brought together about 200 activists. Individual events usually had from 50 to 100 participants.

Drone Diego protests were held at production facilities for General Atomics (manufacturer of the Predator and Reaper drones, which may be armed with Hellfire missiles) and Northrop Grumman (maker of the Global Hawk surveillance drone) as well as outside the home of General Atomics CEO Neal Blue.

The Drone Diego days of action started with an April 4 march in front of the General Atomics (GA) production facility in Poway, a San Diego suburb, organized by Veterans for Peace (VFP). Local VFP activist and Vietnam-era vet Dave Patterson, speaking on the street outside the GA facility, explained why we were there:

President Obama is not king. President Obama should not have the right to be judge, jury and executioner. He is killing people when he decides, where he decides, and he is doing it in places where we have not declared war legally. This is wrong. We need that to stop. That's the point of our messages.

The other message is that domestically, we expect them to deploy thousands of drones within the next couple of years, likely for domestic law enforcement, likely paid for by our federal tax dollars. And then they become the long arm of the law, working with the federal government, and we become a surveilled state, where we have to be careful where we go and who we talk to.

One of the most entertaining events of Drone Diego came the following morning, when Code Pink staged a street-theater event outside the home of GA CEO Neal Blue, complete with their own working pink drone (video). As Medea Benjamin, Code Pink activist and author of Drone Warfare, explained:

We are taking the money that belongs to our children's education, to our parents' health care, to rebuilding the infrastructure of this country, to turning us into a green economy, and instead, we are using it on killing people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and now going into Africa. And this is not the kind of world we want to live in. And Neal Blue represents everything that is wrong with this country right now.

Friday's events continued with a demonstration outside GA corporate headquarters in La Jolla, Calif., followed by a street protest outside the Northrop Grumman facility in Kearney Mesa. The day ended with an evening of eating and socializing, along with a "No drones" illuminated sign over the freeway, organized by the San Diego and Fresno Overpass Light Brigades.

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THE APRIL 6 schedule included a demonstration at the San Diego waterfront (near the decommissioned Midway aircraft carrier, now a pro-war military museum), video showings from Alternate Focus, and an evening panel discussion.

Pedro Rios of the American Friends Service Committee started off the panel by observing that the history of the U.S.-Mexican border is one of increasing militarization. Pointing out that the Border Patrol already has access to 10 drones, Rios went on to say:

The trend has been, over the course of time, that the militarization of the border has been such that now we have drones operating, and of course they [aren't armed with] the same type of missiles they have in other parts of the world, but nonetheless it's a slippery slope, not only for our own liberties and constitutional protection...The idea that the government can use drones as surveillance, the type of imagery that will be placed into some sort of unknown database, I think should raise a lot of questions from the general public.

As a panelist, I emphasized that an understanding of the American empire is essential to an understanding of the role of drone warfare. The result of the Iraq war was a defeat for U.S. imperialism, in spite of the privatization of large parts of the Iraqi oil economy. The Obama election in 2008, I said, meant that:

policies changed but the underlying conditions that gave rise to those policies remained the same. There was clearly the understanding that the "boots on the ground" strategy needed to be reconsidered. And I think this is where drones--and also Special Forces like the SEALs trained here in Coronado and the Green Berets in the Army--play a role. They play that role in what has been called, since the year 2000, the need to dominate the strategic spectrum. The result of that is what a number of people call the "Obama doctrine," and that's the changing face of empire.

Medea Benjamin spoke about the limited congressional response to Obama's drone policies. She also recounted her recent visit to the World Social Forum in Tunisia. According to Benjamin:

We had a workshop on drones that we thought would just be a kind of educational thing. There were people from 15 different countries that showed up, and during the workshop they said, "We need to create a global anti-drones network. Let's start right now."

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THE DRONE Diego actions were a result of local activists from existing organizations such as the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice coming together with national organizations, such as Code Pink and the United National Antiwar Coalition. Outreach included traditional methods, like networking and press releases, as well as our website, Facebook page, Twitter (#dronediego) and livestreaming (here and here). Because some of us had been doing antiwar work together for several years, we had established organizational ties, creating a foundation that allowed newcomers to join us and make important contributions.

The list of other cities holding anti-drone events is impressive--Honolulu, Hawaii, to Brunswick, Maine, from Seattle to Tallahassee. In New York City, Grandmothers Against War launched the month of actions with a demonstration in Manhattan on April 3. On April 9, there was another demonstration in Manhattan, this one to protest the Cornell University-Technion partnership (Israel's Technion is a principal technical resource for the Israeli drone industry).

Other cities holding demonstrations and forums include Rochester, N.Y., Atlanta, Milwaukee, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., New Paltz, N.Y., St. Louis, Boston, Whiteman Air Force Base, Raytheon Systems in Tucson, Ariz., Madison, Wis., Denver, Colo., the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia. Details of these and other events may be found on the KnowDrones and No Drones Network websites.

One of the most important upcoming actions will be held April 26-28 in Syracuse, N.Y., and nearby Hancock Field. Hancock is a drone piloting base that has been the site of several actions over the past year, some of which have resulted in arrests for nonviolent civil disobedience. Upstate New York activists have been organizing this as a focal point of anti-drone actions and hope to bring in supporters from throughout the Northeast.

The national impact of a coordinated series of events has been amplified by the recent congressional hearings regarding the appointment of John Brennan as Obama's new CIA director. Brennan, a principal architect of the drone war strategy and a defender of CIA torture during the Bush years, has been controversial even in Washington establishment circles. His confirmation hearings led, for example, to a 13-hour filibuster by Republican Senator Rand Paul.

As a result of this, the press has shown greater interest in our protest activities than it might have otherwise--locally, nationally and internationally--including a story in the UK-based Guardian and a report on the RT network. This has led to the beginnings of anti-drone actions in Germany, while in Pakistan, a frequent target of CIA drone attacks, there have also been protests. Pakistani anti-drone activists have posted to the Drone Diego Facebook page, documenting the death and destruction caused by drone attacks.

For antiwar and social justice activists, anti-drone protests serve a useful educational role by informing people about drones and the dangers they pose. The growing frequency of their deployment goes beyond the effectiveness of drone-industry lobbyists, who no doubt have been persuasive in marketing their products to federal and local governments. Today, drones are an especially useful tool for U.S. war makers intent on expanding the reach of the U.S. military but hesitant to put troops on the ground because of the political and economic costs.

Drones allow the military to cross borders, carry out assassinations and terrorize populations. For anti-drone activists to succeed, we need to link the fight against drones to other social movements--and ultimately to challenge the underlying logic of free-market competition that gives rise to military conflict.