Court Witness: Speaking Out for Truth and Life

Two Faces of Drones: Weaponized

From the November-December 2013 PNL #829

by Ed Kinane

Mamana Bibi, a 68-year old midwife and grandmother, was tending her okra garden on the afternoon of October 24, 2012. Out of nowhere, Mamana was struck and dismembered by two Hellfire missiles from a US drone. Minutes later nearby children who had witnessed the attack, were also attacked by missiles, their shrapnel wounding nine.

These are two of many US drone strikes against civilians investigated by Amnesty International in North Waziristan. Mamana’s killing is recounted in Amnesty’s October 2013 76-page report, “Will I Be Next?: US Drone Strikes in Pakistan.”

On October 29 Nabila spoke to a session of the US
Congress, the first drone survivor ever to do so.
Image: Amnesty International

It is such incidents – multiplied across the Islamic world – that motivate Upstate Drone Action to work to expose drone war crime. We focus on Hancock Air Base, home of the aptly-named 174th Attack Wing of the New York National Guard just outside Syracuse. Hancock is the regional hub for the weaponized Reaper drone. It trains pilots and mechanics who fly those lethal robots over Afghanistan…and who knows where else. It’s all hush-hush.

In our various civil resistance actions at Hancock since 2010 there have been well over 150 arrests and several bench trials in the DeWitt Town Court. These have entailed numerous jailings with thousands of dollars in fines and bails still outstanding. The more recent arrests also entail dozens of Orders of Protection (OOP) meant not to protect vulnerable women and children, but the very opposite: to suppress our outcry on behalf of victimized women, children and other non-combatants. (Demonstrators at Hancock who violate their OOP may reap lengthy prison sentences.)

The latest Upstate Drone Action trial occurred this past October 24, exactly one year after Mamana Bibi’s extra-judicial murder. The trial, presided over by Judge Robert Jokl, was remarkable for being the first in which all the defendants,* charged with “disorderly conduct,” were found not guilty.

At one level it soon became an open and shut case: according to the elements of the charge, the assistant DA had to show, among other things, that “disorderly conduct” occurred on public land. Presumably unaware of that element, the prosecution allowed its witness, Col. Earl A. Evans, to testify that Hancock is private property out to the middle of East Molloy Rd., thus nullifying the charge.

But the DeWitt court sometimes plays fast and loose with the law, and certainly with justice. At the Nov. 2011 Hancock 38 trial, defense witness former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark testified before Judge David Gideon that we were acting consistent with international law and the Nuremburg principles in exposing and seeking to intervene in Hancock war crimes. DeWitt’s two judges so far have shrugged off such expert testimony.

We have come to compare the DeWitt court to 19th and 20th century courts failing to try lynchers of black people. Those courts let the sentiments of their (white) communities trump explicit laws against murder. Similarly it would seem that until recently, at least, the DeWitt court let the popularity here in the US of drone lynchings over there trump international law (the highest law of the land as per Article 6 of the US Constitution).

Perhaps, on October 24, whether consciously or unconsciously, Judge Jokl was responding to the tide, both nationally and internationally, now vociferously exposing and opposing weaponized drones. Witness not only the aforementioned Amnesty International report, but also the compelling and carefully documented Stanford and NYU Law Schools’ 2012 study of US drone terrorism, “Living Under Drones” (see the Nov-Dec 2012 PNL). And Jeremy Scahill’s 2013 tome, “Dirty Wars,” an exceptional feat of investigative reporting. The intrepid Scahill exposes how the CIA and the US military (Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama) deploy drones to assassinate non-combatants – including US citizens – in Pakistan, but also in Yemen and Somalia, with no due process.

Any analysis of the unexpected acquittal must acknowledge each of the five defendants’ eloquent testimony. While citing the public/private property contradiction in the prosecution’s case, and while invoking the First Amendment, and international law, the thrust of these testimonies came from their faith and from their conscience. And from their heart.

Let us never underestimate the transforming power of acting and speaking out – even to functionaries of the power structure – for truth and for life.


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*Fr. Bill Pickard, Scranton, PA; Fr. Bill Streit, Trevilians, Virginia Catholic Worker; Carmen Trotta, NYC Catholic Worker; Ellen Grady, Ithaca, NY Catholic Worker; Linda LeTendre, Saratoga Springs, NY. All went “pro se,” defending themselves.

Ed has twice served sentences in Jamesville Penitentiary for his nonviolent civil resistance at Hancock. Reach him at