Code Pink’s Next Battle
Can the women’s antiwar group, active in the anti-Israel BDS effort, turn people against drone warfare?
The archetypal summit attendee was Jimmy Johnson, a 34-year-old Midwesterner. Wearing faded blue overalls and standing well over 6 feet tall, with a small paunch, scruffy cheeks, and a buzzed head, Johnson at first has the look of a farmer far from home. But his tattoos give him away: Across one set of knuckles is the word shalom; tzedek decorates the other hand. And in a curved line on his back, just below his neck, are the words “tzedek, tzedek tirdof lemaan tichyeh.” (Justice, justice you shall pursue so that you may live, a verse from Deuteronomy.)
Johnson, who is Jewish, is a one-man advocacy organization, operating under the name Neged Neshek, meaning “Against Arms.” He researches and tracks Israeli weapons development and the export of these technologies. “In a way you’re kind of following the Occupation out into the world,” he told me.
Johnson lives in Detroit, where he also grew up. In the 1990s, he served in the Army as part of a fuel-hauling unit working in support of the No-Fly Zone in northern Iraq. “It was planes that were going back and forth and bombing once, twice a week for the whole decade,” he said. “That was my role.”
After a year-and-a-half, he deserted, earning himself a dishonorable discharge. I asked him why he left: “Maybe I got a little conscious of activism and then I forgot why I was helping to kill Iraqis. It didn’t make any sense to me.”
A relationship later took him to Israel. He wasn’t a Zionist then, he said, and isn’t one now. But he remained in Israel for 10 years and became disturbed by the demolition of Palestinian homes.
Two years ago, he moved back to Detroit to take care of his brother, who would soon die of an illness. Johnson is trained as a mechanic, but the city has few jobs, so he’s devoted to his work with Neged Neshek, which in turn has brought him into contact with a number of European and Israeli groups concerned with the arms trade and Palestinian rights. He’s also active in the Detroit Occupy movement, and he’s the author of an unpublished 47-page pamphlet, “Fragments of the Pacification Industry: Exporting the Tools of Inequality Management From Palestine/Israel.”
Whatever one might think of his beliefs, Johnson is, like many of those I encountered at the drone summit, deeply versed in the issues. He participated in a panel at the summit (“Ethical/Political Issues of Drone Use & Targeted Killings”) and gave a brief presentation about Israeli drones, where he called the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon “a turning point” for the technology.
Johnson is also, like many other attendees, essentially a lone operator while also being a relentless networker. I spotted him speaking with panelists and activists throughout the weekend, often waiting patiently nearby as a scientist or lawyer packed up his presentation materials. In some ways, the structure of this young movement mirrors the drone program itself, which is dispersed among dozens of military bases around the United States and sites abroad and is supplied by military contractors throughout the country. It is a distributed network relying on close communication and sharing of data.
On the second day of the conference, attendance had slipped from the first day, but energy levels were high. That morning, a CIA drone had struck in Miramshah, a frequent target in North Waziristan, a district in Pakistan’s FATA region. I sat in on a discussion group of a dozen or so activists, and on a whiteboard someone had written the town’s name, underlined it, and drawn an arrow pointing to text that read, “4 girls killed this a.m. by CIA drone strikes / BOO! HISS!!” (News reports said that four unnamed militants were killed. They were apparently holed up in an abandoned girls school.)
One group was focused on domestic drones; another, which included a group of Stanford law students, was discussing legal policy. Mine was tasked with brainstorming direct action, education, and organizational strategies. The conversation was free-flowing and generally cordial but suffused with the antic passions endemic to political meetings. Activists took turns speaking and sometimes fluttered their fingers in the air to show agreement.
There was wide support among the group for the use of dramatic visual aids and of gory imagery. One man proposed distributing stickers with graphic photos after drone strikes. “That way they have to confront it,” he said. Another suggested using mural art to depict events in Afghanistan. “We want people to know what it looks like,” said a man from Know Drones, the touring educational organization, who identified himself simply as Jeff.
A man with a Veterans for Peace shirt and pin, his thin white hair matched by a white beard, worried that base protests, while a popular idea, weren’t that useful. “The thing is you’re not educating anybody,” he noted.
Another Veterans for Peace man, this one in a Free Bradley Manning shirt, said, “Don’t forget economics”—that is, emphasizing the cost of the drone program. (A Reaper drone, for example, costs about $30 million of taxpayer money, and Hellfire missiles go for about $70,000 each.)
The man launched into a short disquisition on his background. He almost became a Catholic monk but now attends a synagogue, he told us, before name-checking Rabbi Michael Lerner, a Bay Area-based rabbi known for his social activism.
A National Day Against Drones was discussed several times before the group agreed that it was one of their most promising ideas. When someone raised the issue of protesting other weapons systems, like cruise missiles and AC-130 gunships, both of which have been used to strike militants in Somalia, a man emphasized the particular visual power of drones: “This is our new image. It’s a good image that we can use.”
A middle-aged, dreadlocked man, wearing sunglasses and sitting outside the circle, offered a slight critique. “I’m still not focused on what the endgame is,” he said. “At the end of the day, what needs to be done so that everybody can go home?”
After a few seconds, someone else spoke up, returning to an old standby: “Right now, I think a really good model is the BDS movement.” He emphasized that it has a “specific ask”—i.e., boycott Israel—and that the anti-drone movement should as well.
A woman who identified herself as Barbara Wien, an academic involved in the Peace & Justice Studies Association, added, “Israel is the largest exporter of drones, so that’s a connection between our anti-drones [campaign] and BDS work.”
“How many people are on Facebook?”
Some hands went up.
“So is the government,” a woman said, sourly.
A man in a cutoff T-shirt proposed that Columbia’s journalism school “would be a great place to do some street theater, before they all become flunkies for AP and UPI.”
The Lockheed Martin union was mentioned as problematic (too in thrall to management), but Lockheed, which manufactures the Hellfire missile and is the country’s largest military contractor, was named as an important protest target.
Jeff returned to the notion of reaching out to interfaith groups, before an elderly woman, whose black T-shirt read “We Will Not Be Silent” in Arabic, Hebrew, and English, remarked that she doesn’t like the use of the word “terrorism,” even in regard to Pakistani Taliban attacks on Pakistani civilians. “We have no business being there or telling people what to do,” she said. Another woman had trouble with “acknowledging that there’s even a problem with terror,” saying it feeds into militarism.
Later, the groups reconvened to share what they’d settled on. The group I observed agreed on distributing educational materials, using public art and street theater, and organizing a National Day Against Drones. A statement was read aloud; some slight amendments were suggested and ratified, including one, put forth by a roboticist, noting that certain nonmilitary uses of drones are acceptable.
Medea Benjamin, standing in front of a blowup of her book cover, raised the possibility of leading a delegation to Pakistan to meet with activists, lawmakers, and victims’ families. She asked Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer, if they would be welcomed in his country.
“Yes, yes. We have plenty of jail cells,” he cracked.
The day after the summit ended, John Brennan, the president’s chief counterterrorism adviser, gave a speech defending the drone war. It was a rare on-the-record comment about the secretive program, though it offered no revelations about targeting procedures or other such matters. Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, Brennan was interrupted by a protester, who yelled at him about the deaths of innocent people and the sanctity of the Constitution. Few people in that room likely knew that the woman disrupting Brennan was Medea Benjamin. The woman whose group had been the colorful vanguard of antiwar protest under the Bush Administration went unrecognized. ABC News reported that “a well-dressed blonde woman” had to be carried out of the auditorium.
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