Like most of her supporters in the courtroom, I was enraged when I heard N.Y. Judge David Gideon sentenced Mary Anne Grady-Flores to one year in jail on July 10. But a deep hope prevailed, which characterizes the local anti-drone movement in New York and is no small part of the impact we’ve had.
When Grady-Flores was handcuffed in DeWitt Town Court, the 115 people in attendance stood up and sang. Resonating deep from her roots in the Catholic Worker movement, we called out in unison that night in the courtroom:
Rejoice in the Lord always
Again I say rejoice
Again I say rejoice
We shook the room with our song. Some embraced each other and some cried, but everyone sang. When the court guards had enough and told us to leave, the singing only grew louder. We stayed for 10 minutes in that courtroom, repeating the same song, hoping that Grady-Flores could feel us through the court walls.
Grady-Flores was sentenced to one year in jail for violating an order of protection at the behest of Col. Earl Evans of the U.S. Air National Guard’s 174th Attack Wing at Hancock Field in Syracuse, Judge Gideon gave her the maximum sentence despite a pre-sentencing report from the parole office recommending that Grady-Flores receive a conditional discharge, which would mean no jail time.
That night, she spoke eloquently to Judge Gideon, not just in defense of herself but also for the children and civilians killed by U.S. drone warfare. As part of a family of peace activists from Ithaca, N.Y., Grady-Flores introduced the judge to her grandchildren and mother, for whom she is a primary caregiver.
Grady-Flores is the first to go to jail for violating the order of protection, which has been imposed on approximately 50 peace activists. Dewitt Town Court received a request from Col. Evans to take out the orders of protection in October 2012, after consistent protests at the base, in which Grady-Flores often participated. In a supporting deposition for the orders, which are typically used in domestic violence situations or to protect a victim or witness to a crime, Evans never mentions personal safety as a concern. He made his intention clear when he wrote, “I request that the court issue an order of protection against each and every defendant arrested such that they are to stay away from Hancock Field.”
The order, which went into effect for Grady-Flores and other protesters on October 25, 2012, requires that they “stay away” from the home, school, workplace and business of Col. Evans. However, it only listed the address of the airbase as a location that the protesters must avoid.
The order also demands that the activists “refrain from assault, stalking, harassment, aggravated harassment, menacing, reckless endangerment, strangulation, criminal obstruction of breathing or circulation, disorderly conduct, criminal mischief, sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, forcible touching, intimidation, threats or any criminal offense or interference with the victim.”
Under oath in the trial, Col. Evans stated that he did not personally know and had never met Grady-Flores, nor was he scared of her. When asked about the examples of harassment, abuse and touching listed in the order, Evans responded by saying that they were “just words” listed on the form.
Grady-Flores interpreted the order to “stay away” as meaning to stay off of base property, which has been a source of confusion for the police, the court and the protesters. The base property, protesters have now learned, extends to the middle of the adjacent public roadway. She crossed the center line briefly as she photographed protesters blocking the base entrance at an Ash Wednesday demonstration in February 2013.
In Grady-Flores’s sentencing statement, she described numerous perversions of justice in the case. First, she stated that the orders of protection were taken out not because Col. Evans felt threatened, but “to stifle dissent at the base.” Second, she said that the orders and her arrest perverts her constitutional rights to free speech and protest. Third, she described how the jury was not allowed to hear key facts, including that the protesters she photographed that day were acquitted and that she was previously acquitted for trespassing at the base because the police could not specify the base’s boundaries.
During the jury trial on May 16, Assistant District Attorney Jordan McNamara objected each time that Grady-Flores or her lawyer attempted to mention confusion about base boundaries. He also objected to them mentioning that the order of protection Grady-Flores had been charged with violating was ruled invalid by New York’s Supreme Court because its language was excessively vague and demonstrates no evidence of any threat. Each of these objections was sustained by Judge Gideon, who ruled that only the language of the order of protection, the base property line and the location of Grady-Flores as she took photographs was relevant.
Anti-drone protesters claim that they do not disobey the law, but rather seek toenforce it through their actions. In an indictment that protesters have delivered on several occasions to the base, they describe how the U.S. military’s killing of civilians and assassination of U.S. citizens outside of defined war zones and without trials breaks international law, which the United States has agreed to in treaties and is a higher law than trespassing or local court orders. This is why protesters call their actions “civil resistance” instead of “civil disobedience.” They resist in order to uphold the law. But the jury was not allowed to hear about international law in any detail, as has been the practice in all of the recent Dewitt Town Court cases.
In an earlier trial, Judge Gideon, referring to the acts of civil resistance, exclaimed, “This has got to stop.”
That Grady-Flores was sentenced under these circumstances demonstrates something important about U.S. militarism – the way it seeps into every crack of the legal system, right down to this mundane town court room with its florescent lights and folding tables. Evil is not just Hellfire missiles and renegade soldiers dismembering civilians. It is banal and speaks in dry legalese. It raises the cost of free speech in attempts to silence its critics.
After Grady-Flores read her sentencing statement – powerful and clear, garnering sustained, respectful applause from her supporters – the judge read a prepared statement as if she hadn’t spoken and none of what happened before this statement mattered.
But Grady-Flores was always prepared to serve her time, and it won’t stop her activism. At a press conference before court, she told media and supporters that she was going to jail to spend time with more victims of drone warfare – people who, largely through a lack of resources for jobs and education, found themselves among the largest prison population in the world. They are victims of imperialism and militarism – systems that use our money for death and destruction abroad while eroding possibilities for many at home.
This sentencing will not stop the campaign against weaponized drones at Hancock Field either. For hours before entering the courthouse, Grady-Flores’s supporters held a picnic right on the town court’s property, following a march from the base to the court. There were families and activists from all over the state. We prayed, we laughed, we strategized and we sang. In doing so, we were led by Grady-Flores’s grace in awaiting her sentence. She was positive and profound and loving. With court walls and jail cells and handcuffs and senseless legal interpretations, they want the movement to be dejected and defeated – to sap our energy – but we have shown how each trial can be used to re-energize together for the work ahead.
Each trial can be a celebration and a moment for witness and education. We celebrate the work and sacrifice of Grady-Flores and others like her. Yet, at the same time, we acknowledge that her sacrifice pales in comparison to the threats that citizens in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Gaza, Somalia and Yemen face daily.
In her sentencing statement, Grady-Flores talked about one final perversion of justice: “the reversal of who is the real victim.” Grady-Flores asked if it was “the commander of a military base involved in killing innocent people halfway around the world or those innocent people themselves, who are the real ones in need of orders of protection?”
At her sentencing, I witnessed a movement that is as strong as it has ever been. We can only hope for more singing and laughter and love in the upcoming trials, and letting it energize our continued outreach, action and organizing.