Anti-Drone Peace Activist Avoids Jail Time for Protest, Asks that Focus Remains on Drone Victims

Posted Dec. 10, 2014

MP3 Interview with Mark Colville, longtime peace activist, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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Longtime peace activist Mark Colville was convicted in September of five misdemeanor charges related to his December 2013 protest against drone warfare conducted by the 174th Attack Wing of the Air National Guard at Hancock Air Force base in upstate New York. At his sentencing hearing on Dec. 3 in Syracuse, New York, Judge Robert Jokl told Colville in a pre-trial conference that if he declined to accept the plea bargain offered and was convicted in court, he, the judge, would sentence him to the maximum, of just over two years in prison.

Colville, who with his wife Luz runs the Amistad Catholic Worker house of hospitality in New Haven, Connecticut, is the father of four children. He has been arrested for peace actions many times over the years. In this case, the judge decided not to sentence him to jail time because he said it would "serve no purpose" to do so. Instead, some conditions were attached to his release and the failure to comply with them could send him to jail. Conditions included not being arrested in New York State for a period of one year, payment of a fine of more than $1,000 and providing the court with a DNA sample. Colville was defiant, and said he had no intention of complying with the court-imposed conditions. Several other activists in the anti-drone protest movement in New York state have been sentenced to jail time over the past year.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus Tuhus spoke with Colville shortly after his conditional release. Here, he explains that his protest took place in the context of a broader movement to end drone warfare, and wants the focus to remain on the victims of U.S. drone attacks.

MARK COLVILLE: As I’ve said outside the courtroom, this is a nice outcome for me, but the drone attacks continue. Just yesterday, four people were slaughtered in a house by a drone strike, so we still have a lot of work to do, particularly at that drone base people are continuing to organize and to try to resist the crimes that are being committed from there.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you have any idea what the judge meant when he said it would "serve no purpose" to sentence you to jail or to supervised probation?

MARK COLVILLE: No, it was a little befuddling, because, you know, there have been a steady stream of trials going on in that court, half of them presided over by him, and there’s another judge there as well. The penalties have been getting progressively worse. They just sentenced a 76-year-old former school teacher to three months and then three years of supervised probation, and then a grandmother of three was given a year for a charge under which I was also convicted. In fact, I was convicted on five separate charges for simply peacefully walking to the front gate with a written plea from an Afghani man whose family members were killed in a drone strike. For that I was tried and convicted on five separate charges. What does that mean? I don’t know what it means. It certainly means the judge has been acting a bit erratically.

BETWEEN THE LINES: When protesters are arrested for misdemeanors, they often just pay a fine rather than go to trial and risk jail time. Since you've done this several times in the past, you obviously see value in going to court. Can you talk about that?

MARK COLVILLE: Yeah, well, and specifically in this particular case, I mean, this man, Raz Muhammed is his name, he had written a plea to the courts in the U.S., and to the government and military, to stop the drone attacks. In this handwritten letter of his, he explained what had happened to his family, victims of a drone strike, which killed his brother-in-law and several of his friends. And so he was describing that and what life was like for his family now. And again, the basis of his letter was this plea. So we went to the base with the plea. To my mind, I wanted his plea to be heard in court; I wanted his letter to be read in court. There really was no other way to bring it to court, that I could think of anyway. And in fact, I was able to have his letter read in its entirety in open court as I cross-examined one of the military personnel who had taken the stand as a witness against me.

In general, when I do acts of civil resistance, it’s very important to me to go to court, because in so many cases the courts are acting in concert with the government and the military in not only perpetuating these injustices, but legitimizing them. In the case of drones and interventionary way, it has to do with the courts ignoring the law – not only applicable law, but superceding law like Constitutional and international law, which forbid the kinds of attacks the U.S. is perpetrating with drones. And so to me it’s an essential part of the witness and the action – to be in court, to go to court and put the question to the court members and to the judge in particular – to take responsibility of applying the law, in other words, this case is not about somebody trespassing on a military base. It’s not about disorderly conduct or any of those other petty little charges that they want to exclusively focus on – it’s about what’s going on behind the gates of that base.

I mean, one of the charges I was given, one of the more serious ones, is called Obstruction of Governmental Administration. And the way that statute reads, a person is guilty of that if they obstruct the lawful administration of government. Of course, my contention in court was that what the government is doing at that drone base is not lawful. So I tried to take apart that statute and have a fair hearing on whether or not the drone policies and what they’re doing there is legal. And, of course, at most points along the line there, my defense was shut down because they don’t want to engage those questions.

Mark Colville is a member of the Catholic Worker movement and peace activist involved in protest actions against U.S. drone warfare. Learn more about groups opposed to drone warfare by visiting UpstateDroneAction.org .

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