Sheriffs explain why people are not allowed to just protest drones in town of Dewitt (photo: Syracuse Peace Council)

(Update below)

Twenty-eight protesters were preemptively arrested in DeWitt, New York as they tried to reach Hancock Air Force Base for a demonstration outside the gates against the use of drones. The protesters were charged with “failing to obtain a town permit,” according to the Post-Standard.

Concerned citizens from Buffalo, Rochester, Ithaca, Binghamton, Syracuse, Rome and Albany had planned a “Peace Walk” to the base, where Reaper drones are present. They planned to protest “murderous use” of drones, which violates international law, just as they did last year. But the group reached an intersection near a commercial strip mall and about ten sheriff’s cars pulled out to block the road.

In the parking lot was a Greyhound bus for arrestees. The police began grabbing people and saying everyone was under arrest. Debra Sweet, director of the World Can’t Wait, reported the police in the town of DeWitt were issuing all sorts of orders. It was confusing. They were saying you could put down your signs and go back to where you came and avoid arrest. They also were saying anyone walking away would be charged with resisting arrest.

Sandy Kessler, who is from Rochester, said anyone walking on the road with a sign would be arrested.

I said, what if I put my sign back? He said no you will get arrested. I said why? He said there can be no individual protests, no group protests. You don’t have a permit. Well, nobody really ever gets a permit. Last year, with the big one where thirty-eight people got arrested, yes, we got a permit. But we just decided we really didn’t need a permit. This is America.

Everyone there to demonstrate got together and forced the head sheriff to explain what was going on. Sweet said the sheriff explained in DeWitt “you are not allowed to have any sort of gatherings for any reason with signs and to parade in the street without permit.” After about five to ten minutes of negotiations, he backed off.

“It is apparent that many of you didn’t know a permit was required, he told the demonstrators. And, if you make the choice to leave you will not be arrested. But, at least ten people found this all completely unacceptable. They challenged the police and kept on heading toward the base and were arrested.

The police were not in riot gear. All of the people there were videotaped. Everyone who parked where they customarily park for vigil protests received parking citations, according to Sweet.

Kessler said this has “been going on for years since we found out there have been drones flying out of there.” She told Upstate Drone Action she saw police and military high-fiving.

These were arrests “based on prior knowledge of our plans and on the content of our message,” contended Sweet. She added I am sure if we had held a support rally for the Air Force or for drones they would not have treated us like this at all.

Reportedly three people who were arrested had their phones confiscated. Two people had their video cameras confiscated. A person had their phone and video camera confiscated. They were given receipts but their property was not returned, even though they were released with a citation. The citation read, “No permit.”

Video from the protest has been posted by Syracuse Peace Council. It shows a sheriff telling protesters to head to a parking lot. He is telling them he is not here to discuss the law. That is why they are going to go to court. He tells a woman at around three minutes into the video that because they were in a “formation,” beating drums and carrying signs they are to be arrested. The woman challenges him and he tells her, “I didn’t make the law, ma’am. I’m just enforcing the law just like you guys want to enforce international law.”

At the six-and-a-half minute mark, you can see the sheriffs tell the protesters that they understand people weren’t here to break the law but they have to understand the town requires permits. There’s a compelling section of the video at the eight-minute mark where a woman, who appears to be affiliated with the ACLU gets clarification on what demonstrators would not be able to do without a permit.  She informs another officer, politely, that the sheriff’s understanding of the permit law in DeWitt is “extremely problematic.” She makes sure the sheriff understands a challenge to this interpretation will be coming in court.

There’s an interview with a man in a wool cap and sunglasses twelve minutes into the video where he explains he is trying to protest militarism and that this is the wrong direction. He says if Americans want to protect their rights and the rights of innocent people being killed in so many countries by drones, people need to take action.  [At the fifteen minute mark, the permit law is read by the woman who appears to have some affiliation with the ACLU.]

This clampdown by DeWitt police comes days after peace activists of the three-day convergence “Trifecta Resista” were met by stormtroopers at the gate of Whiteman Air Force Base. They were there to protest not only drones but also nuclear weapons and the continued detention of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is accused of releasing classified information to WikiLeaks.

In the video above, the military police can be seen doing some kind of fascist goose step toward the protesters. They smack their wooden batons on their police shields as they advance with jackbooted bravado and close in on a small group of activists singing songs with Nobel Peace Prize nominee Kathy Kelly leading them.

This response to demonstrations is not coming from city governments. It is nearly obvious that this repressive conduct is being ordered by the military and federal government. The authorities are afraid of people’s efforts to protest against drones because they could influence public opinion on a technology that is still relatively new. And, undoubtedly, this only empowers the activists who daringly and boldly confront the military industrial-complex on a regular basis in this country.

Update

Upstate Drone Action has posted a press release on the action. The posting includes a copy of the “indictment” they were trying to symbolically deliver to the base.

The drone attacks either originating at Hancock or supported here are a deliberate illegal use of force against another nation, and as such are a felonious violation of Article VI of the US Constitution.

By giving material support to the drone program, you as individuals are violating the Constitution, dishonoring your oath, and committing war crimes.

We charge the chain of command, from President Barack Obama, to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, to Commander Colonel Greg Semmel, to every drone crew, to every service member supporting or defending these illegal actions with the following crimes: extrajudicial killings, violation of due process, wars of aggression, violation of national sovereignty, and the killing of innocent civilians.

We demand that they immediately stop these crimes, and be accountable to the people of the United States and Afghanistan.