A town judge sentenced twelve people to jail for “disorderly conduct,” which they were charged with after demonstrating outside of Hancock Air Base, where the United States military is known to train pilots and fly drones.
DeWitt Town Justice David Gideon also renewed an order of protection for Col. Earl Evans, who the Post-Standard reported is a “mission support group commander at the 174th Attack Wing of the New York Air National Guard.” It will be in force until February 7, 2016.
“I do not know where this stops. It seems to be escalating, and in a bad way,” Judge Gideon said during sentencing. He added, “At some point you’re going to be confronted by an individual who’s violent.”
The protesters, however, were acquitted of trespassing because the boundaries of the base are unclear.
Sentencing came after a trial in the night court, where protesters were able to make opening arguments. The defendants maintained that they were not violating the law through their actions but were upholding international law to call attention to the need to stop war crimes. They also were exercising their First Amendment rights and nothing about what they did was “disorderly.”
Ellen Grady of Ithaca Catholic Worker recalled on October 25, 2012, the Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and Stop the War was present to bear “witness” at the base where drones are piloted. She said the group believes they need to be there “as much as possible to point out the war crimes that are perpetrated from our backyard.”
On that day, seventeen people “blocked all three gates of the base to try to get in the way of the war crimes” and to “call a halt to the war crimes that are happening there.” They were at the gates for two hours before local sheriffs had them arrested.
Grady said the judge had a message for protesters that the town of DeWitt had suffered because of them. The town could not let this happen anymore because it was taking resources to control the protesters.
Twelve protesters were sentenced to fifteen days in jail. They were each given $250 fines that came with a $100 surcharge fee.
A judge also issued the order of protection to stay away from Col. Evans, his home, school, business, place of employment—the base—and to refrain from communication or any other contact with him whether it be email, mail, telephone, or any other form of electronic communication. He expressly stated they are not to assault, stalk, harass, menace, recklessly endanger, strangulate, criminally obstruct or engage in criminal mischief or disorderly conduct. They are not to sexually harass or sexually abuse him. They are not to try and intimidate or threaten him.
The protesters have not posed any threat of harm to Evans ever. In fact, after the arrests on October 25, a temporary order of protection was issued to protect Col. Evans. The defendants, at the time, did not know the person, who the base had convinced the judge might be harmed by them.
Elliott Adams, one of the defendants who has not been sentenced to jail yet, said the order of protection is clearly to protect the colonel from “being embarrassed by us.” He even said during the trial in testimony that he did not feel threatened by the protesters. A chief master sergeant, according to Adams, in charge of security at the base also testified that at no time had they posed a threat to the base.
“This man was able to take out an order of protection. He was able to say you’re not able to come to my place at work. It’s illegal for you to come to my place of work,” Grady stated.
The terms of the order of protection are very unclear. Carol Baum of the Syracuse Peace Council explained, “If you stand across the street from the main entrance, they won’t hassle you theoretically.” However, that is not in writing.
If a person is on the “base side of the street,” forty feet closer to the base, which is “surrounded by a fence and armed guards,” that is a violation.
Baum recalled last year in April “we had a legal demonstration” and walked to the main entrance of the base. Police told us at the time “if anyone who had an order of protection was on that march they would be arrested for violating it.” So, the order of protection is subject to interpretation and not even the base itself knows the boundaries of the base.
Adams said there is a police officer who has informed protesters they will be arrested if they are in “sight of the base.”
The order of protection increases the penalty for future arrests substantially. According to Adams, he understands that violating the order by engaging in protest at the gates would make it possible for a judge to sentence them to up to seven years in prison instead of fifteen days.
“It changes it from it being disturbing the peace or trespassing to the fact that we can’t even be in sight of the base when we get arrested. It’s clearly a constitutional violation,” Adams argued.
During sentencing, the judge appeared to think he was issuing this for the protection of protesters. He saw video where someone got out of a car and approached a person and got in their face, probably because that person did not like the presence of protesters outside the military base. Rather than expect the military to control its personnel, the protesters are being punished.
Judge Gideon also stated, “All that is being asked of you is that you” exercise your rights “in a manner consistent with the rights of others and with common courtesy toward others not so like-minded.” What is “common courtesy”? What are they not supposed to express? It is the US military and they are protesting the use of drones, which the personnel is likely very proud to operate. This does not seem to be a proper legal interpretation of the First Amendment at all.
Baum declared, “With the proliferation of drones and also the proliferation to research drones, to build drones and all of that, there are starting to be in other communities many other possible places to go. Funding for drones, all of that. So here in our community we’ve had to focus on the base because it is here and it brings the war home. ”
“There are people who would say well a court has said we shouldn’t go to an air base to petition our government for redress to stop them from committing war crimes from that base yet I don’t know where we’re supposed to exercise our constitutionally protected right to petition our government for redress,” Adams said. “We certainly shouldn’t do it at the Salvation Army or Starbucks. That wouldn’t work and it wouldn’t make sense to do it at the post office.”
“The only logical place to petition the government to stop committing war crimes with drones is at the drone operations base. So that should be the constitutionally protected place to do it,” he concluded.