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David Swanson: Activists succeeding in turning public opinion against drone strikes; other forms of actions on the rise

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

You might hear some rain in the background. We’re in our temporary studio, as we’re rebuilding or renovating a building in Baltimore, where we will have new studios, and they will be soundproof. For now, if you hear the crack of thunder, it’s not anyone coming to get us. It’s just a big storm.

Talking of storms, a lot of people have been suggesting the Occupy Wall Street storm is over. Well, now joining us to discuss protest actions across the country and remind us that in fact this movement is not over is David Swanson. David’s an author whose books include War Is a Lie. He blogs at and He also works as a campaign coordinator for online activist organization RootsAction. And he hosts Talk Nation Radio.

Thanks for joining us again, David.


JAY: So the media’s filled with this. Occupy’s fizzled out, Occupy didn’t go anywhere, and they’re kind of back to just covering two-party politics. But you have a different story to tell.

SWANSON: Well, to some extent that’s true, and to some extent it’s self-fulfilling, as the media created it as a national movement and then killed it off. But it didn’t die. It’s still there. And when I travel around the country and participate in events, people are still organized as Occupy. There’s Occupy Dallas and Occupy every city you go to as a way that people are still connected and organizing to do the same sorts of actions and new kinds of actions. And activism, whether it’s part of Occupy or not, is very much alive and well in this country, little though it may be noted in the corporate media.

JAY: So what’s some examples of what’s going on?

SWANSON: Well, you know, the issue of drones has been a huge focus. Earlier this year a group of organizations and individuals got together and planned a month of activities through the month of April. That was by many measures a huge success. That saw massive demonstrations and protests and many people going to jail and making news and passing resolutions. We passed a resolution against drones here in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was just up in Syracuse, New York, where there was a big conference about the issue and then a protest that saw another over 30 individuals going to jail, some of them risking serious jail time because there was a protective order against them, protecting a commander of an Air Force base from nonviolent peace activists, if you can understand that. But in fact they’ve been there so many times that they’re getting through to the judge and educating the judge and the public in the process.

And you’ve seen the polls on U.S. support for drone use domestically and abroad and to kill non-Americans, about whom supposedly we don’t care at all, plummeting–still a majority, but now a small majority of Americans who are okay with killing foreigners with drones. And that’s in large part the work of activists.

JAY: When you say that Charlottesville passed a resolution, you’re talking about the city?

SWANSON: Yes. The city of Charlottesville, where I live, passed a resolution that has now inspired many other towns and cities and counties to take it up, very few of which have thus far passed, but many of which are imminently pending, as well as states. The majority of U.S. state legislatures have now taken up legislation to ban or to restrict or regulate drone use, weaponized drones and surveillance drones. The state of Virginia is in the process of figuring out exactly the details on what will be a two-year moratorium on drone use, which I think is a very wise approach.

You know, we’re told that drones will bring us coffee and drones will fight fires and drones will do all these wonderful, good things. Well, let’s take a breath and figure out a way to do that that is compatible with the First and the Fourth and the Fifth Amendment. And if we can’t, well, then, you know, we survived this many millennia without getting our coffee delivered by drone; I think we can survive it going forward.

But the city of Charlottesville made a great deal of news, and city council members got more attention from the U.S. and world media than they ever had before in the rest of their lives put together because Charlottesville went first and passed a resolution against drones in our skies.

JAY: What are some other examples of activism that you’ve been either involved with or observing?

SWANSON: Well, of course, I was down in Dallas for the big protest of the Bush lie-bury opening, and it was very encouraging to see such a showing. But it was, you know, sadly, something of a reunion of people who have not been together as much since Obama’s been in the White House. And so it’s very encouraging to see movements growing while Obama is in the White House, including the drone movement.

I was just down in Asheville, North Carolina, for a gathering of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee. These are people who have figured out ways to not pay their war taxes as a means of resisting militarism and the funding of war and whose experience–in some cases these are people who’ve been doing this for half a century. Their experiences, I think, can be quite valuable to movements that are now growing against home foreclosures, against repaying student loans. These are types of resistance that are growing, not as dramatically as I might like, but significantly are on the rise.

JAY: David, let’s go back to what you were saying about the Bush library event, that there were forces that came out that you hadn’t seen for a while. So, I mean, when you’re protesting the Bush library, you’re back to protesting Republicans. You’re sort of suggesting that the drone activity is starting to get more people back involved that were involved in the antiwar movement when there was a Republican president, but they don’t necessarily want to come out when it’s a Democrat. I mean, is that changing?

SWANSON: It’s changing very, very slowly. It’s–you know, there are big efforts planned for fasts in this country and around the world in solidarity with the prisoners of Guantanamo, who are now thought of as Obama’s prisoners, no longer Bush’s. It’s been too long. There are huge demonstrations planned, as I’m sure you know, in Maryland at Fort Meade on June 1, two days before Bradley Manning’s court martial begins, Bradley Manning being a victim of what is now beginning to be widely understood as an attack on whistleblowers by the Obama administration.

But when we were in Dallas, you know, there were people there protesting who have been protesting throughout the Obama years. But there were also people I just haven’t seen in five years. So it was very much a reunion. And you did hear chants against Republicans and so forth.

And, in fact, when everybody came out of the ceremony with the five former presidents there at the Bush lie-bury, a woman came up and yelled at me as a protester and said, why don’t you people protest Obama? And I was wearing my Arrest Bush and Obama shirt, so I said, ma’am, can you read? But then she sort of–eventually she switched and started saying, well, if Obama does it, why don’t you like it? You know, because this is the mindset that everybody’s got. Either you’re with Obama or you’re with Bush. You’re not against murder. You’re not for peace. And slowly people are beginning to grasp that that can be a position, that you don’t have to be with one side or the other.

Of course, we’re sort of right in the middle between presidential election seasons at the moment, so this is the closest chance we have for nonpartisan breathing space. But it is beginning to grow, and it’s beginning to grow in large part because of the dramatically increased awareness of the drone kill program, that when it was on the front page of The New York Times before the election, with the cooperation of the White House, nobody who disapproved of it noticed it. You know, they just remained oblivious. And now people are beginning to understand that there is a massive program of murder, including of U.S. citizens, but primarily of non-U.S. citizens, and people are beginning to get upset about that.

JAY: And has the legal justification for this been provided yet? I’m sorry I have not followed this story as closely as I probably should, but last I picked up on it, there was going to be a legal rationale given to the Senate Intelligence Committee. And did that ever actually happen?

SWANSON: Well, some committees have been privately shown some of the memos that the public has not seen and that they are not permitted to tell the public about and so forth. But there have been a number of hearings, unofficial hearings and official committee and subcommittee hearings.

Just a few weeks ago, there was a hearing, and the Obama administration sent no witnesses, has never sent any to any of these hearings. But there was a young man from Yemen scheduled to speak. And because the hearing was delayed, it so happened that his village in Yemen was struck by a drone the week before he testified. And his testimony, a young man named [f@’reIj@Almus’limi], was absolutely stunning. It was as if somebody had brought the dead bodies of the children we’re killing and put them on the committee table in front of these senators who didn’t want to see it.

But I think, you know, what really struck me in that hearing was how concisely one of the law professors–I think her name was Rosa Brooks–summed up the attitude of the legal community. And she said, if these drone strikes are part of a war, they are perfectly acceptable. If they are not part of a war, then they are murder. And she used that word, the word I think everyone should be using. And how can we know, she continued, whether they are part of a war or not? Well, we can’t, because the memos are secret.

So what distinguishes a war from a nonwar? Nothing substantive. Something you can write on a piece of paper and stick in a drawer in the White House and hide. And if it’s a war, well, then murder has become acceptable. And if it’s not, well, then it’s murder. This is the absurd approach that has been reached not just by the neocons but by the human rights organizations, by anyone who sort of accepts war and then tries to figure out what’s legal within it and what’s legal in peacetime and how do these two sets of laws work.

But, in fact, under the Kellogg-Briand Pact and under the UN Charter and under the U.S. Constitution, war itself is illegal. And so you cannot legalize murder by maintaining that it’s part of a war. In fact, there was a law professor who had been scheduled to speak, who I’m told would have testified to that effect and was uninvited. So this is the consensus in Washington at this point.

JAY: Well, in theory, war’s supposed to be declared by Congress, but Congress seems to have signed over that power with this broad definition of war on terrorism. And as long as that label is dragged out, just about anything seems to be permissible, according to Congress.

SWANSON: Yes. I mean, this is why Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s bill that would repeal the so-called authorization to use military force is exactly right and should be passed and should be signed into law. It’s outrageous to have this notion that a president can make war without limit in time or space. But this is the understanding of the witnesses and the senators and congress members in these hearings. There is no limit in time or space.

And, of course, you have this retroactive identification of victims as enemies if they are male and fighting age. And, of course, the victims are almost entirely Muslim. And so you have this message being sent to the world that we are at war with Muslim men, there is no limit in time or space, and it is everywhere.

And so, I mean, that attitude that blows up a peaceful village in Yemen is not altogether different from the attitude that puts bombs at marathons and sporting events. I mean, killing has been declared righteous and legal and without limit in time or space. It’s a global war. And so we have to undo that idea.

But even with that authorization on the books, there’s the question of how it should be interpreted. And many never dreamed of interpreting it the way it has been interpreted since about 2006, when they started shooting missiles into places like Yemen that were not officially war zones. And there remain a handful of law professors in this country who will tell you, yes, Afghanistan, it’s fine; you can kill anybody you like. But go to Yemen, go to some other country, go to Somalia, and you’re now outside the realm of legality. And so I would agree with them as far as they go and further.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, David.

SWANSON: Oh, thank you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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David Swanson's books include: War Is A Lie (2010), When the World Outlawed War (2011), and The Military Industrial Complex at 50 (2012).  He is the host of  Talk Nation Radio. He has been a journalist, activist, organizer, educator, and agitator.  Swanson helped plan the nonviolent occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington DC in 2011.  Swanson holds a master's degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and as a communications director, with jobs including press secretary for Dennis Kucinich's 2004 presidential campaign, media coordinator for the International Labor Communications Association, and three years as communications coordinator for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. He blogs at and and works as Campaign Coordinator for the online activist organization Swanson also works on the communications committee of Veterans For Peace, of which he is an associate (non-veteran) member. Swanson is Secretary of Peace in the Green Shadow Cabinet.