PROTESTING KILLER DRONES AT THE CIA: FOR THE CHILDREN OF THE WORLD
I just returned to my home in Wisconsin after spending four days in the Washington, DC area, participating in two actions against drones organized by the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance (NCNR). I flew to DC on Thursday. On Friday we returned to the US Attorney’s office in Alexandria, VA to follow up on the criminal complaint we filed in May, and on Saturday we did an action at the CIA where six of us were arrested. I had purchased a one-way ticket to fly out there because I did not know when I would be able to return home.
I was grateful that Malachy and I had time to attend the weekly Friday noon Dorothy Day Catholic Worker vigil at the White House. It is always a meaningful time for quiet reflection on our work for peace. The focus of the vigil was on the prisoners, cleared for release, but still being held in Guantanamo who are being force-fed and tortured. During the vigil Malachy spoke movingly and passionately, asking the crowd how many birthdays have they celebrated with their children over the last 12 years? How many deaths have they mourned in their family? What other events in life have they participated in over the last 12 years? The men being held in Guantanamo have been missing all these important moments that make life worthwhile for the last 10-12 years.
Brian Terrell also came to the vigil and it was so good to see him there. Brian was recently released from 6 months in federal prison for walking onto Whiteman Air Force base in Missouri in a peaceful action against drones. Malachy and I hooked up with Brian, David, and Paki went to lunch and caught up on so much that is going on in the movement. I have become so close to so many people in the peace movement and it always feels like getting together with family.
After lunch we had plans to meet other members of NCNR at the US Attorney’s office in Alexandria, VA. On May 21, a group of us from NCNR went to the US Attorney’s Office and delivered a criminal complaint against Obama, Brennan, and others in the CIA drone program. We met with Assistant US Attorney Eugene Rossi and asked him to launch a criminal investigation into the war crimes of our government. Mr. Rossi told us he was not the one who would make the decision, but he would pass our letter along. After several phone calls and letters to Mr. Rossi and US Attorney Neil MacBride, we have not gotten a satisfactory response and so we returned to the office to try to get some answers.
We arrived 35 minutes late after a serious thunderstorm, with Max joking that the Department of Homeland Security likely seeded the clouds to keep us away. There were eight of us who gathered at the CIA, and we were surprised to be met by six Homeland Security vans and about 15 officers from Homeland Security one of them being Officer Grollman who recognized Max. Malachy and I both remember seeing Officer Grollman at actions we were in at the Department of Justice.
Building Security Officer West Taylor came out to meet with us, told us the office was closed for the day and we would not be able to get inside. He said he would take our letter addressed to US Attorney Neil MacBride and deliver it. We explained that we had already mailed the letter and not gotten a response. We didn’t just want him to take our letter, but we wanted a response. Officer Taylor repeated that the only thing he could do was to take the letter.
Brian explained to the officers that what we were doing was a normal business procedure and he wondered why it wasn’t being treated as such. Citizens should be allowed - indeed should be expected – to go to the authorities when they know of a crime being committed, and the authorities should take action regarding the crime. This is exactly what we were doing. Sometimes in dealing with all this I feel like I am living in a crazy, mixed up, upside world where nothing is as it should be. Why were there so many Homeland security vehicles and officers to meet a group of nonviolent citizens who are doing their duty?
Since we couldn’t get into the building, it was decided that we would call Mr. Rossi, let him know we were there, and that we were still looking for an answer from his office. I called his cell phone and he answered. He said he had left the building and could not meet with us. Mr. Rossi is very good at his job, acting in a very friendly manner, laughing and joking, trying to placate us and make us feel heard so we will go away. I asked him if he could go upstairs and check on status of complaint when he got back to work on Monday and that I would call him in a few days to find out what he had learned. He agreed to that. Then I told him that he could make many many people very happy if he would join us at the CIA the next day, take the microphone and make an announcement that his office was, in fact, launching a criminal investigation. He laughed and responded that he would lose his job if he did that.
Friday evening we had a meeting at Malachy’s house to plan the CIA action. We had mailed a letter to CIA Director John Brennan and he did not respond, and because people continue to die with drone strikes we decided we needed to go to the CIA and personally ask for a meeting on this, asking for an end to the CIA drone program. That was the basis for our action.
We discussed an action scenario and talked about the possibility that it was likely that we would have to pay a $500 bond to be released. I was surprised to learn from Max that there had only been two other times protesters had been arrested at the CIA before out action on Saturday. Because of that we didn’t have much to go on as we talked about the possible consequences, but we thought it could be pretty stiff.
On Saturday morning June 29, the day of the CIA action, I was feeling very anxious. I thought it was likely we would at least be held in jail for a day or two, and possibly longer. Malachy and I discussed our concerns and how we were feeling about the action, and in the end we both knew this was something we had to do – despite the possible consequences.
At 3:00 pm we gathered with about 50 others at the main gates of the CIA in the 900 block of Dolley Madison Blvd. The police were ready for us – both the Fairfax County force and the CIA police were there in big numbers. There was crime scene tape strung up at the gates. We were joined by Cindy Sheehan, Brian Terrell, Medea Benjamin, Ray McGovern, Art Laffin and many other individuals affiliated with various peace groups.
For me, music is so important to set the mood and help us feel grounded in this work, and Art is always so good at making that happen. We started the program with Art leading the group in singing “Down by the Riverside” improvising to make the words appropriate to the day. After several inspiring speakers, it was time to move towards the guard house with a copy of the letter that we had written and mailed to CIA Director John Brennan, and not received a response on. Max, Malachy, Phil, Janice, and I were going to risk arrest and we walked towards the police line, along with others at the vigil. Cindy was right up there with us and eventually decided to join us in risking arrest.
A high-ranking officer was sent to greet us and accept the letter. Malachy explained to him why we were there and that we did not just want them to accept our letter, but that we wanted to meet with someone who could bring an end to the drone program. At one point during the discussion Malachy pointed out that the crime scene tape was very appropriate because the CIA is a crime scene as they continue the illegal drone strikes being ordered from the headquarters. The officer said that he could accept the letter, but that we would not be meeting with anyone. Max said, “We ask you to start arresting people inside the Central Intelligence Agency.”
When it became clear we were not going to get any further Max gave Art a signal, and Art pointed to the sky and loudly proclaimed that he could see a drone and that it was going to strike. Everyone started screaming during the mock drone strike. Those of us risking arrest walked through an opening, past the police line, and lay down on the ground as if we had been hit by a drone strike.
Janice went from body to body bending over us keening and wailing. Paki also laid large poster-size pictures of drone victims over our faces as we lay there, partly to keep the burning sun off our faces, but it was also very meaningful to help us illustrate who is being killed by the drones. Many of the pictures were of children. As I lay there on the ground, I started to cry as I thought about the horrors of what is happening to the people of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and other places around the world. Thousands of people have been killed in drone strikes, including many children. Only 2% of the victims are high level targets.
There was a police line that we crossed when we did the die-in, but while we were lying on the ground the officers retreated about 20 feet further into the compound.
After lying on the ground for about 20 minutes we got up and started walking towards the line of officers carrying our pictures of children killed by drone strikes. As we approached the officers I was overcome with pain and frustration and wanting so desperately to make them understand and have feelings about why we were there - because of the children and other innocent people who were dying.
As we walked towards the approximately 20 CIA police waiting for us I was overcome with emotion that is difficult to describe. I attempted to connect with the stone-faced officers, but it felt like there was no connection between us as human beings as we carried the pictures of dead children closer and closer. I thought to myself, please understand that this is why we are here. Please, let yourself feel the pain of looking at these dead children. We have to stop the killing. Look at the suffering. Think about if these were your children. I started saying, “Look at this. This is why we are here. Look at the children. Look at the children” Over and over, louder and louder. I felt like I was pleading with them to make a connection. “Look at the children!” This is why we have to do this! We have to stop the killing by our government. I tried to make eye contact and for one brief moment, a young female officer looked at the picture and then looked at me, but she quickly looked away. I felt overwhelmed by passion at this point and could not stop repeating the phrase, “Look at the children.”
After a few minutes we moved forward again and the officers began arresting us and handcuffing us. The officers were pleasant and even gentle towards us. I told them about my problem with dizziness and two officers walked beside me to make sure I didn’t fall. They removed my handcuffs so I could use my hands to walk up steps into a trailer for processing. One of the people I was arrested with reported that they told an officer that they were very nice, and the officer responded that they understand what we are doing and that we have the right to do what we are doing.
Those arrested were Joy First, Mt. Horeb, WI; Malachy Kilbride, Arlington, VA; Max Obuszewski, Baltimore, MD; Phil Runkel, Milwaukee, WI; Cindy Sheehan, Vacaville, CA; and Janice Sevre_Duszynska, Lexington, KY.
We were processed in about 45 minutes, cited for trespassing and released. We have the option of paying a $130 fine and the matter would be over, but we all agree we want to go to trial. We believe this could be a very important trial bringing into the courtroom our visit to the US Attorney’s office in Alexandria, VA to deliver a criminal complaint against Obama, Brennan, and others at the CIA who are involved in the drone program. There is a preliminary court date on August 23, which we hope to use to file motions, including a motion for extended discovery. The trial will be set for a later date.
All of us returned to Malachy’s house, along with a number of supporters, for a post-action meeting. When we got to Malachy’s house, I called my husband Steve to tell him about this all-important news of being arrested and released. I barely had a chance to tell Steve what happened when my 6 year-old grandson got on the phone and told me all about losing a tooth – how he wiggled it and there was a little blood. My news was totally overshadowed by the loss of a tooth. It brought me back to reality and I thought, yes, what is happening to my grandson is what really matters This is life. And that is exactly why I continue to do what I am doing. Every grandmother and grandchild, everywhere, deserves to share these wonderful moments of life.
I was able to get a ticket and fly home on Sunday, the day after the action. On Sunday morning, before I left for the airport, I sat around the kitchen table with Cindy and we shared pictures and stories of grandchildren and talked about how much it means to us to spend time with them. That is what is really important. As Cindy said, “That is what informs our work.”
Thinking about the children came up over and over during my time in the DC area. That is what keeps me going, wanting to make the world a better place for, not only my own grandchildren, but all the children of the world. I truly believe that together we can and we will make a difference and make the world a better place. Let’s keep working together.
Peace and love.
Joy First firstname.lastname@example.org 608 239-4327
Link to pictures