Activists Arrested for Protesting Drone Killings Speak Out
Ellen Barfield and Marilyn Carlisle talk to the Real News about why they committed civil disobedience opposing drone strikes at the NSA headquarters in Ft. Meade, Maryland
EDDIE CONWAY, FMR. LEADER, BALTIMORE BLACK PANTHER PARTY: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway. And just recently I ran across a story that caught my interest as I was traveling through the city. I found out about three peace activists who had been involved in some protest activities in Maryland. And I thought it was a story of such interest that we needed to share it with our audience.
And so I ask you to help me welcome Ellen Barfield and Marilyn Carlisle.
Thanks for joining us at The Real News.
ELLEN BARFIELD, PEACE ACTIVIST: Thanks so much for having us.
CONWAY: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you became involved in the stuff you’re doing?
BARFIELD: Well, it’s a long story, but I did serve in the U.S. Army. And as we were talking about a minute ago, I had some experiences that were pretty quiet as military service goes. It was after Vietnam. There wasn’t any hot war going on. But I experienced some things that made me think a lot about what the U.S. is about, what it does in the world. And I’ve had the very good fortune of working with a whole lot of incredible people to learn what I was doing, what was going on when I served, and to decide that I didn’t particularly like–I don’t particularly like a lot of what the U.S. government does. So I’ve been able to be a full-time peace activist for quite a few years now.
CONWAY: And you were not a soldier, but you are also a peace activist. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
MARILYN CARLISLE, PEACE ACTIVIST: Well, I guess we could say my journey, when I think about it that way, Eddie, is: to make a break with my family and my upbringing, it took going overseas; it took my life of nine years in South America, reading the newspapers there in Spanish and looking back at the Vietnam War more from South America and looking back at what was said about our country.
And as I came back from Argentina in the time of state-sponsored terrorism in 1996, I looked for some activism that I could do in Baltimore to help my former co-countrymen in Argentina. And there was no organization in Baltimore. So I became active with the Central America Solidarity Committee. And I’ve been doing work with Central America issues ever since.
How that evolved into this, I suppose, into protesting surveillance and protesting wars, I suppose because there were wars in Central America at that time. And I’d become antiwar because of all that evolving.
CONWAY: So what happened? Why are you sitting here?
BARFIELD: Well, Marilyn and I and a bunch of other Baltimorians have been an activist group for a long time. She referred to Latin America. I’ve lived there briefly myself, which is another part of my life, which we won’t go into now. But the organization used to be called the Baltimore Emergency Response Network, and that term comes out of the Latin American solidarity times. But now it’s called the Baltimore–
CARLISLE: Pledge of Resistance.
BARFIELD: –Pledge of Resistance (thank you), which–that comes out of the Iraq War times. But it’s the same group. I mean, a lot of us are the same folks–new folks all the time, of course.
And we have in Baltimore challenged the National Security Agency out at Fort Meade, Maryland, just stand on the road, for many years. We go out there several times a year on particular dates to protest surveillance, to protest the spying, to protest the secrecy.
Now, the specific reason we were out there on 3 May and what we were on trial for recently was to protest exactly the NSA surveillance which is used to target people in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan,–
BARFIELD: –Iraq, for drone assassination.
CARLISLE: Exactly. Libya.
BARFIELD: Libya. Thank you.
CARLISLE: And Somalia.
BARFIELD: And Somalia, and more and more countries all the time. So we were specifically there in May as part of a nationwide series of actions to challenge drone assassination in so many countries. And we went to the NSA because we know that they are the ones providing the targeting information.
CONWAY: Yes. I’m curious, because I was under the impression that they would be using less and less drones under Obama. But it seemed to me that the numbers really skyrocketed. Are they killing a lot of innocent civilians? I mean, what’s the numbers? Do you have any idea?
BARFIELD: The number I can give you is not the number of innocent civilians. I don’t have that, Eddie. But more than 1,700 drone strikes have been conducted since Obama took office. And we of course have names of hundreds of children that have been killed by those drones in Libya, in Pakistan, Yemen. More than 400 drone strikes in Pakistan. That was as of April. I’m sure we could add a lot more numbers if I had updated information.
CONWAY: I saw somewhere the numbers under Obama’s administration for drone strikes were, like, 5,000 people and at least 80 percent of them were civilians, innocent civilians, like, 4,000 people, perhaps.
BARFIELD: That sounds about right.
CONWAY: Well, and before then, wasn’t it only, like, a few hundred a year?
BARFIELD: Well, part of that is just because it’s a developed technology. And so, yes, it’s horrible what Obama has done, but it’s not like Bush wasn’t there too. It just wasn’t quite as developed under him as it is now. They’re both murderers, unfortunately. All of our leaders are. It’s what this country does is make war.
CARLISLE: And what we know is, of course, if you develop a weapon, it’s going to probably be used.
CONWAY: Yeah. Yeah. So what did you all do out at the National Security Agency? What happened? I mean, you don’t get yourself in trouble, but–.
BARFIELD: Well, it’s all over now, so we can talk openly about it. Well, we went out there. There is a hillside right up against Highway 32, and that’s something we have done for years is vigil along the highway behind the–
BARFIELD: –guardrail. But we have signs and photographs, particularly photographs, of innocent children who had been killed. And we stood there for a half hour or so. There’s a lot of traffic on Highway 32. And we started out with that vigil. And then we did a die-in, as if a drone strike had happened. One of us acted as if he saw a drone and pointed it out. And we all screamed and fell to the ground.
CARLISLE: And one of us wailed over the bodies on the ground, went to each of us to see if we were alive or dead and cry over us. That was quite dramatic.
BARFIELD: It was. That was–.
CARLISLE: Following that, we read names of at least 35 or 40 (so as not to be there all day) of the victims, all underage, as young as–one of the ones I have here is an eight-year-old female, Maezol Khan; an eight-year-old male, Noor Syed; and I have somewhere Ayeesha, a three-year-old female. That’s just in Pakistan. That’s just a short number off of a website.
CONWAY: And so how could you get in trouble for–what is it? Psychodrama or–.
BARFIELD: Basically. Well, we didn’t.
CONWAY: And protesting.
BARFIELD: They were okay with that. But then we left that area, which is in a public area. There is a gas station and a museum that the public are able to come in to. It’s kind of a little convoluted, but you can drive right past the National Security Agency gate and into a parking lot and go to the gas station, go to the museum, go to an outdoor surveillance museum that has several–
BARFIELD: Stationary aircraft. All of those are public, open to the public. And where we were standing and did the die-in was, too.
But we began walking down this road, this two-lane road that goes to the gas station and the museum, and we were wanting to approach the NSA gate. And we’ve done that many times before. We also always write a letter to whoever is the director of the NSA, saying, we seek a meeting to appeal to you for the redress of the grievances we have that we don’t like what our government’s doing, killing people around the world. And, of course, we never get a meeting, but we always ask for one. That’s just part of how we do our activism, that we would like to have a meeting with a high-level official, a decision-making person, if not the commander of the NSA, then one of the people right under him. And that was what we were going to do was present the letter at the gate. We have done that before. We’ve been allowed to do that before.
But this time, they didn’t want us to do it. So they stopped us, at which point we sat down to demonstrate that we weren’t going to try to charge them are run around them or yell at them. We were totally nonviolent. But we were sitting in what was a public road. There was no traffic. There were a few cars coming out of the parking lot, but they went right past us no problem. But that’s what we got convicted of, basically, was blocking a public roadway.
CARLISLE: And not obeying the order of a police officer. Those were our two charges that we didn’t beat.
But I do want to mention, too, that we don’t ignore the step of speaking to legislators. We go out–
BARFIELD: Indeed. Thanks.
CARLISLE: –to one of our congressmen monthly. We write letters as individuals more often or less often, depending on each one of us. So it’s not that we have only one way of appealing to our government.
But we weren’t able to get a response from the vice admiral, Michael Rogers. And so we decided to present our letter again in person. But we weren’t allowed to do that, as she said, at the guard station as we’ve been allowed in the past, meaning that you got nowhere near it. We decided it was about 500 feet.
CONWAY: Okay. So, I mean, are other people doing this? I mean, this is a story–it caught me by surprise, because I’m looking around America and I don’t see anybody protesting or getting locked up for the war crimes that’s being perpetrated around the world. You know, all I see is, like, more and more drones, more and more bases, more and more, well, surrogate kind of military activities now, using other armies, whether it’s the African Union. So is there a network of peace activists? I mean, is this something that’s being done around the country?
BARFIELD: Absolutely. In fact, as I mentioned, that 3 May, not just that day, but a week or so in early May was a nationally called anti-drone time. So there were actions all over the country. And I’m sorry I can’t quote how many.
But going back to the Baltimore Pledge of Resistance and taking up that name, that was at the time of the development of the renewal of the war on Iraq, because the war on Iraq began in 1991 with the Gulf War, and then the years of sanctions, but the hot work again in ’03, and late ’02 and early ’03 the preparation for that. The national pledge, Iraq Pledge of Resistance, facilitated about 5,000 people around the country doing civil resistance around the time of the beginning of the attack on Iraq on 19 March 2003. And that was something that we did here in Baltimore.
We mostly participate with national organized, coordinated events. And yes, it’s a few people. There were about 20 of us, I think, out there on 3 May. It’s not a lot of people in any one place. But we do coordinate with each other. And we have a listserv that we keep up with each other on what we’re doing. And so, yeah, it’s not enough of us, obviously, but we are in touch with each other. We do coordinate actions.
CONWAY: So are you all taking any kind of activity protest with the ISIS stuff that’s happening in Syria? What’s your position there?
BARFIELD: Opposing that one too, of course. In fact, as someone who had the very good fortune of visiting Iraq with peace delegations four times, first of all in 1991, as a matter of fact, and then last of all in late ’02 and early ’03, it was very clear that the attack in ’03 was going to shatter that country. And what’s going on right now was quite predictable. It’s something that colonialists always do: divide and conquer. It didn’t matter when I visited. People didn’t introduce themselves as I’m Sunni or I’m Shia. It didn’t matter. They were Iraqis. But they got fractured; they get separated politically and set against each other. That’s what colonialists always do. And they did it again. And so it’s not at all surprising that things are even worse in Iraq and Syria. It’s heartbreaking.
CARLISLE: And we did take a position, and we did have a rally against an attack on ISIS (or ISIL).
BARFIELD: Yes, they’re terrible people. Don’t get us wrong. But it’s not at all surprising. They’ve got a lot of U.S. weapons that were left there. They’ve got a lot of anger against the U.S., with reason. And they’ve been, some of them, kept out of having any hope of any political say in the country. And they’re angry.
CONWAY: And I don’t know, but it’s been reports that they are some of the same people that we used in Afghanistan for the mujahideen. They end up in Benghazi, and then they end up in Falluja, and now they’re in Syria. And a lot of it is traced back to military training and so on, right? I notice your T-shirt, though. What is that?
CARLISLE: Well, this afternoon in front of City Hall there was a rally for Baltimore community schools. And as a member of the Charm City Labor Chorus, I wore this shirt to sing. And we entertained briefly (along with young people who entertained much better) at that rally. But I still have my shirt on from the Charm City Labor Chorus.
CONWAY: What was the rally about?
CARLISLE: Community schools in Baltimore. And I have to admit, I was learning is much as I was entertaining. It was very interesting and important to me to know that there are at least 15 schools–I think maybe 20 is the number–community schools in Baltimore that have been able to get extra funds in order to open their doors beyond 2:30 or 3:00 in the afternoon in order to be able to provide mental health for their students when that’s needed, have a health suite in the school in some cases, I believe, and begin to make it a community center that gets used for more than 6 to 8 hours a day, just an education center. But now the hope is that we will have that as a center of our community for all age groups, each one of those schools, as the movement grows. And what we were asking the mayor was to make money available so that that would be in all of our schools.
CONWAY: That’s interesting and commendable, because you have $1 trillion being spent on the war machine every year, and at the same time you have underfunded school systems and programs and whatnot. So I think it’s interesting that you’re fighting on both fronts. You know, you’re protesting and fighting against the war, and at the same time you’re making demands to use some of those funds here in the city to improve the conditions in the schools for children.
CARLISLE: And we, as our organization, the Pledge of Resistance, make that point too. One thing is that every tax day, on April 15, we’re out there reminding people we wouldn’t maybe have such an issue with paying taxes if 50 percent or more than 50 percent of what we pay into the federal government weren’t going toward every part of the military from the toilet seat to the retirement for the military, probably 55 percent, I believe.
BARFIELD: Yeah, it’s a massive, massive proportion of our tax dollars every year. That’s exactly–people say, how do you think you can challenge the Pentagon? Well, we have to. We cannot afford–aside from the fact that the world hates us more and more and it’s just idiocy from that point of view. But we cannot afford the trillions of dollars we continue to spend oppressing the world and leave our children with no options. You and I as veterans know we–both of us–we talked about it–it was the economic draft for both of us. We weren’t legally drafted, but we were drafted because we needed the money. Yeah. That’s why people join the military and then find themselves in circumstances they didn’t expect.
CARLISLE: And that’s one of our–excuse me–that’s one of our issue with drones, a small part of it, perhaps–at least my own feeling is more strong against the deaths and unintended deaths and the children that were–many of us have heard the name [Abdulrahman] al-Awlaki, who was–he was the child, right, the 16-year-old child–I’m sorry, can’t remember his father’s full name–in Yemen. He went to find out, well, what about my father? I haven’t really been raised with him. I want to know more about him. But his father in the meantime had been killed. And because he was too curious to find out about his father, he too died, in a restaurant with his cousin in Yemen. And we have Tariq Khan, who went to a training to find out how to videotape in Pakistan and let the world know about what was happening in Pakistan. He apparently was too close to being an activist, so he was killed, at I think age 16 as well.
CONWAY: Yeah, all those extrajudicial killings, and in violation of international law, but I notice that there’s no war crime charges brought against anybody.
CARLISLE: I’m sorry. I was going to go back to we also worry about how the people who fire the drones from Colorado or New York, upstate New York–and can you name another base where these drones are–you know, the decision is made? Those soldiers are also having PTSD, because they’re in a nice, comfortable office in the daytime in Nevada or one other of our states, but they’re causing a death 3,000 miles away, and then they go home to their children.
BARFIELD: Well, and they surveil for days. So from a distance they are seeing several days of the life of the person who they’re eventually going to have to pull the trigger on and whoever’s around them, the children, the neighbors, whoever. That’s where all these–
BARFIELD: –extra killings come from. Whoever’s around them gets killed too.
And, yes, it’s totally extrajudicial. Nobody deserves to be executed all, I would argue–that’s a whole ‘nother story–but certainly not without judicial proceedings. These people have no ability to challenge the charges against them. They’re just executed from the sky, along with their families, along with their neighbors. It’s just horrendous. It’s no wonder people hate us.
CONWAY: And I look at the video that Manning released and just the helicopter pilots. I mean, they’re right there on the scene. But it seemed like a war game to them. I mean, they just really just butchered a bunch of people, and then they waited for somebody to come help and butchered them too.
CARLISLE: And laughed about it.
CONWAY: And it’s really, really, really horrible, because when I’m thinking that that trillion dollars that’s being used for that is being blowed up. I mean, it’s not serving humanity at all. It’s not helping. It’s not building. Why are we doing this? What’s the reason?
BARFIELD: Well, the contractors love to blow up the weapons so they can make more. And there’s, of course, a lot of fear. I mean, it was wonderful a year ago when people rose up enough to say, do not bomb Syria. But now we’ve got images of people’s heads being cut off, and people have been terrorized again. Yes, go ahead, do whatever you think you have to do. We’re not told the truth. We’re nowhere told anywhere near what’s really going on. We’re just fed a little bit of info and shown over and over these horrendous images. And people are partly terrified and partly disempowered. So, okay, I guess you’re protecting us, when in fact it is definitely not protecting us; it’s making us less safe than we ever were.
CONWAY: Alright. Thank you for joining us.
CARLISLE: And thank you for having us.
CONWAY: And thank you for joining The Real News.
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