Mark Colville doesn’t exactly come off as a threatening guy.
He’s gray haired, a little heavy set, and soft spoken. He has a tired demeanor-probably from maintaining the somewhat run down Amistad Catholic Worker House that serves three meals per day and leaves clothing and furniture donations outside for Hill neighborhood residents to take as they pass by.
But apparently a court in New York thinks that he is a danger. Colville will go to court in Dewitt on May 7 to set a trial date for violating what is essentially a restraining order. He may face up to two years in prison for violating an order of protection-traditionally a mechanism for victims of domestic abuse-put in place to shield New York Air National Guard Colonel Earl Evans from protestors with the Upstate Drone Coalition, a group that has been waging a campaign marked by pickets outside the Hancock field base in Syracuse for the past three years. This is the second time Colville has gone against the order, and his trial for the first incident-a demonstration outside the base last year that has already gotten him 15 days in jail and a $250 fine-is still pending.
The two other activists, Yale Divinity School students Greg Williams and Creighton Chandler, can get up to one year of jail time. All three face two counts of obstruction of government business along with the violation of the order of protection.
We’re parked along the side of the Catholic Worker House on Rosette Street in Colville’s pickup truck, which, with its rickety, stick shift transmission, seems to barely manage to run. He’s just made a post-lunch serving trip to a hardware store a few minutes from there to pick up tarps to cover a bunch of chairs from the coming rain.
So this is how public enemy no. 1 lives.
“A guy who has the most high-tech weapons at his disposal-he could hunt as down and blow us up right now,” Colville says. “But he needs protection from an idiot like me.”
The point of the restraining order was for protection, but not necessarily of Colonel Evans, says Major Sandy Stoquert, the press officer for Hancock. She noted that the protest was held outside the gates, blocking the entrance to the base.
“We respect the rights of people to protest-that’s why we wear the uniform,” Stoquert said over the phone. “But we also have to obey the laws.”
Colville and his fellow activists-two others from New Haven that can get up to one year of jail time-are not interested in disputing legality, but what they say is the moral issue surrounding the civilian death toll that has been caused by the predator drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan.
“The purpose isn’t to avoid jail,” Chandler says during an interview at the Yale Divinity School. “The point is we confront power. People really need to think about what we’re doing. We have a license to kill anyone now.”
Zeke Johnson is the Director of Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights Program. What he and his organization want to know is, exactly who and how many?
“The government keeps the information secret,” Johnson said during a phone interview. “It’s a deliberate thing the Obama administration does so that we don’t know how many people have been killed.”
There’s at least one effort to have that changed. Amnesty International threw its support behind a proposed provision for the 2014 Intelligence Bill that was drafted in the House of Representatives by California Democrat Adam Schiff and North Carolina Republican Walter Jones. The legislation would require the disclosure of drone fatalities since the start of the Obama administration, but a Senate version excludes this mandate.
“We don’t know how many have been killed, [or] the identities-it’s crazy,” Johnson said. “This is a matter of life and death. The secrecy thing is so huge-it’s important that it [the government] discloses this so we can see whether or not it goes against international law.”
When the defendants have their day in court, they will be putting the system on trial. They will call upon the system to confront what they perceive as its violation of international law, but whether or not it chooses to will be determined by May 7’s motions hearing, during which the court will determine what arguments will be heard, as well as whether it will grant the group its request to be tried in one proceeding.
Colville is not new to the process because he’s not new to protesting-he estimates that he’s been arrested “dozens of times”-so he knows that “justice” and “legality”, too often, are not exactly in lockstep with one another.
“The court and the lawyers are there, presumably, to keep justice,” Colville says. “Every step-from when I get into court til when I’m locked in a cage-I’m told by them that they’re ‘constrained by the law’. If the law doesn’t get us to truth, if it doesn’t get us to morality, should we be enslaved by the law?”
Colville quotes Trappist Monk and pacifist author Thomas Merton.
“Thomas Merton said the end of the world, the nuclear holocaust, will be legal,” he says. “At some point people of conscience and morality have to say, ‘I need to start making moral decisions and start acting in truth, not obedience’.”
If there is one way the law can work in the group’s favor, it’s the lesser charge-the alleged obstruction of government administration. The rule specifically prohibits obstructing “lawful” government administration, William says.
“That opens up an opportunity for us to prove that the activities we were protecting against were illegal,” Williams says.
Determining what has been legal when it comes to the drone strikes-if that’s the route one takes-is tricky because of the limited amount of information that exists, Johnson says. While there is a debate on whether human rights law applies to an area established as one that falls under the laws of armed conflict-Amnesty International says yes, but the U.S. government has disagreed-it cannot be disputed in generalities, he says.
“You have to take it on a case-by-case basis,” Johnson says. “It’s hard to make a blanket statement about Pakistan and Yemen, because there might be an armed conflict going on in those places at a given time.”
In an established “armed conflict”, international humanitarian law-not human rights law-is applied, according to Amnesty International. Human rights law carries the burden of proving that any use of lethal force was necessary “to protect life” and that no other method was available, while humanitarian law assumes that a war is taking place and that less stringent rules of engagement apply.
What declaring a zone of armed conflict does is establish a scope, Johnson says.
“It’s not just civilians,” he says. “It’s whether [any] people are getting killed outside the scope of armed conflict. Over the past ten years, the government has said that the world is the scope of armed conflict. That’s a real problem because it means it’s a lot easier for any of us to get killed.”
But even humanitarian law separates “enemy combatants” from civilians and requires efforts to avoid the latter, according to Amnesty International, and it’s this issue of civilian casualties-which human rights groups and media outlets have tried to track with varying results, although a Bureau of Investigative Journalism report in January alleged 2400 deaths– that prompted Colville and his fellow the activists to picket the military base.
“Of course we know that international law and the Constitution are not followed,” Williams says. “But this is giving us an opportunity to reveal the hypocrisy that the United States doesn’t follow its own standards.”
Either that or it applies it in a matter that is unjust or against its original intention, activists say. This was something the group tried to highlight in its latest demonstration.
“They’re using something that’s meant for domestic violence-not to protect officials from criticism,” Chandler said.
The activists brought out a restraining order of their own-a “people’s order of protection” for “the children of Afghanistan”-Chandler said.
“It [the order against the demonstrators] said ‘no illegal touching of the colonel’, so we changed it [ours] to say ‘no illegal touching of the children of Afghanistan’,” he said.
They would have liked to deliver it, but went in figuring that wouldn’t happen.
“They asked us to leave, and of course, we’re not going to leave,” Chandler said.
Like their version of the restraining order, the coming trial and the arguments they will make during it are about making a point.
“We’re not worried about being found guilty,” Chandler said. “We’re expecting to be found guilty.”
Colville had similar thoughts, although he admits he did not take the order of protection seriously when it was first imposed.
“I was naïve,” Colville said. “I didn’t think their level of arrogance was that much that they’d prosecute. Going to jail over this might actually be a victory when people see that we acted in truth and what we got met with.”