Before dawn on Tuesday, Shirley Osgood and her colleagues manned their posts outside the Wheatland gate to Beale Air Force Base east of Marysville.
In a ritual they have followed for nearly four years, they crisscrossed the four-way intersection near the gate, laying out the tools of their trade: anti-war banners, an American flag with a peace symbol instead of 50 white stars, a series of cardboard squares adorned with bright purple, battery-powered LED lights that spelled out the message “No Drones.”
“It’s hard to see you guys when you cross the road,” the driver of a pickup truck headed into Beale shouted at them through the dark. “Be careful.”
That could be their mantra: Be careful while you break the law.
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They have been demonstrating since 2010 against unarmed surveillance drones based and operated at Beale that are used to pinpoint targets for armed killer drones in war zones and elsewhere overseas.
The protesters run the gamut from ministers and rabbis to longtime peace activists and military veterans.
At least 18 have been arrested for trespassing since Oct. 30, 2012, some more than once. One was an 88-year-old Lutheran minister, arrested nearly three weeks ago on Ash Wednesday, who was also a U.S. Marine Corps veteran – he served on the honor guard aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, where the treaty was signed marking Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II.
“I call it divine obedience,” the minister, Jerry Pedersen, said in a recent interview at his South Land Park home. “I’m not breaking the law, I’m following the law that’s written in our hearts.”
The federal government has a different point of view, and has begun filing misdemeanor charges of unauthorized penetration of a military installation. The charge carries the potential of up to six months in prison and a fine of up to $5,000, although federal prosecutors have assured judges they have no intention of trying to put any of the protesters behind bars.
But that is where the charity stops. The government has succeeded so far in persuading two judges to deny protesters jury trials, something the defendants contend deprives them of their Sixth Amendment rights and the chance to have their civil disobedience judged by their peers instead of the third branch of the federal government – the very establishment they are targeting.
Osgood, a retired social worker and 66-year-old grandmother from Grass Valley, is facing trial before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dale A. Drozd, who will be hearing her pleas for a jury trial and the opportunity to present a “necessity defense” on Tuesday.
Despite arguments that the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a jury trial, the federal government adamantly opposes a panel in these prosecutions.
“They are not entitled to a jury,” Benjamin Wagner, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, said in an interview last week. “I understand that they are interested in maximum publicity for their cause, but we don’t have an interest in accommodating that.
“Our business is promoting respect for the law. We have tried to be as light-handed and reasonable as possible. But, in these cases, a jury is not an effective nor efficient use of our resources, or the court’s resources for that matter.”
Wagner argues, as do his assistant prosecutors in court, that the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that defendants facing six months or less time in prison have no right to be judged by a jury.
“These defendants don’t qualify for special treatment just because they are motivated by ideology,” Wagner said.
Lawyers for the protesters and some constitutional experts dispute that, saying the right to be judged by your peers is a bedrock of the nation’s justice system.
“The (Supreme) Court has concluded, based on ‘historical practices,’ that trial courts may dispense with a jury when the maximum punishment is less than six months incarceration,” said Gabriel “Jack” Chin, a professor at the UC Davis School of Law and a nationally recognized expert in criminal procedure.
“That is a highly questionable conclusion,” added Chin, whose work has been cited twice in U.S. Supreme Court opinions. “The court has decided the Sixth Amendment doesn’t mean what it says, that it means something else.
“That’s highly dubious. One of the reasons we had a revolution was that some practices were not acceptable. A trial without a panel of the defendant’s peers was one of them.”
Arrests for a cause
The protesters have no illusions as to whether they are subject to arrest and prosecution. Some have gone out of their way to cross the base’s boundary with the intent of being arrested – a practice in civil disobedience, which has played a significant role in many social reforms.
Pedersen, the World War II veteran cited on Ash Wednesday, said he and others knelt in prayer on the other side of a white line painted across South Beale Road that marks the base border about 100 yards out from the gate. They were arrested, cited and released.
“My hope was always that I would be in jail on Easter Sunday, and they would have to announce at church, ‘Sorry, Dr. Pedersen is in jail,’ ” he said.
Among those cited with Pedersen was the Rev. Elizabeth Griswold, pastor of Sacramento’s Parkside Community Church, who said protesters carried white crosses adorned with the images of children reportedly killed in drone attacks.
“We basically trespassed onto the base,” Griswold, 35, said. “We all just walked across and knelt down.”
The unabashed goal of the protests is to draw attention to the demonstrators’ ardent belief that U.S. drones, a much-used weapon in the Obama administration’s war on terror, kill more innocent people, including children, than bona fide terrorists. They also insist that, for every terrorist killed, the drone strikes, which have stirred strong negative passions worldwide, create an untold number of new American enemies.
The administration has consistently defended the use of drones to combat terrorists and says every effort is made to limit civilian casualties.
The protests are designed to be nonviolent and follow a regular script. Word of a planned demonstration goes up on the Internet and the more adventurous members of the group show up for an afternoon protest, then camp overnight in tents, sleeping bags or “habitats” that fit the rear compartments of the many Toyota Priuses in evidence.
Around 5 a.m., they move to a location for the morning’s action, which for last Tuesday’s demonstration was just down the way from the Wheatland gate, where hundreds of vehicles carrying military and civilian personnel converge on the four-way stop at South Beale and Ostrom roads.
Typically, the protesters stand at the side of the road waving their placards, banners and signs and flashing the peace sign to uniformed airmen driving in for their morning shifts.
Sometimes a group will intentionally march toward the gate and step over the white line, sparking a polite but firm response from Air Force security personnel, who detain and fingerprint the protesters, then cite and release them.
Protesters say the military personnel have been solicitous at times, warning them to be careful when particularly cold weather is on its way, but officials at Beale said they would have no comment about the ongoing demonstrations.
“There’s really nothing to say,” said Msgt. Eric Petosky from Beale’s public affairs office. “We support the right to protest, but when protesters cross the base boundary, we cite them for trespassing and release them.” What’s happening in court, he added, “is a decision of the federal prosecutor.”
The protest ritual
Tuesday’s protest, held amid a cold, unrelenting breeze sweeping across the isolated plain where the base sits, was more confrontational than some others.
At about 6:30 a.m., the protesters launched what they refer to as a “soft blockade,” marching into the roadway and physically blocking cars from proceeding past the South Beale-Ostrom intersection and into the base.
This did not go over well with some morning commuters sitting in an ever-growing line of stopped vehicles while the activists blocked access to the base for more than 20 minutes.
Some vehicles and a school bus gave up and turned around. Some angry drivers, including two behind the wheels of large pickups, drove onto a shoulder of the road and, spitting gravel and squealing tires, roared around demonstrators standing within inches of their path.
“What makes this right?” bread truck driver Ray McDonald asked the group after he grew impatient and drove around other waiting vehicles and up to the picket line.
“Your bread is going to get there, you’re just going to be late,” a protester told him.
“My job is on the line,” countered McDonald, who said this was his first visit to the base from the Bay Area. “Is he going to believe me when I tell him what was going on?”
Within half an hour, three California Highway Patrol units rolled up and the officers had traffic moving again, with drivers staring straight ahead and expressionless as they passed the activists flashing the peace sign.
No one was arrested, and the CHP officers, veterans of the routine from past blockades, chatted pleasantly with members of the group until everybody packed up just before 8 a.m.
Barry Binks, a veteran from Sacramento who showed up in his Army field jacket with a peace sign stitched to the left shoulder, said some motorists are less understanding than others.
On one occasion he sustained a bloodied elbow when a car nicked him as it barreled past, he said. Another protester once ended up on the hood of a car that carried him about 100 feet down the road toward the base before it stopped and let him slide off.
The protesters shrug off such incidents, saying they are as devoted to their mission as the Beale workers are to theirs. And they maintain that giving up is not an option, even if they see no evidence that the government or much of the public is paying attention.
“Hard to say whether it makes any difference,” said Pamela Osgood, Shirley’s older sister. “I know for sure that not being here wouldn’t make a difference.”