In October 2012, we reported on a new tool being developed in the small town of DeWitt, NY to advance the narrative of the dangerous protester: Orders of Protection (OOPs). Over the past year and a half that tool has been used indiscriminately against non-violent activists to demonize them and drive down turnout at anti-drone protests.
It all began in 2010 when the Upstate New York Coalition to Ground the Drones and End Wars began protesting outside Hancock Air Base, where pilots guide MQ9 Reaper drones on missions in Afghanistan. At first, the small town of DeWitt, just outside of Syracuse, seemed to tolerate the protests. When 38 people were arrested in April 2011 for staging a die-in and blocking the gates to the base, DeWitt Town Justice David Gideon listened and considered their reasons for protesting drones, delivering sentences less than the prosecutor asked. But a year later, in April 2012, police came down hard, preemptively arresting 33 people who were walking silently and in single file along the shoulder of the road leading to the base.
The group later learned that members of the USAF from Hancock Airfield met with NYS Troopers and the Onondaga Sheriff’s Department at least one time a week earlier to plan the arrests. Nonetheless, the charges were dropped when prosecutors decided no laws had been broken. But things took a dramatic turn for the worse in October 2012 after 17 activists were arrested for blocking the gates to the base.
Who in their right mind would believe that an Air Force Commander fears for his safety when peace activists picket or even block the entrance to his air base?
Nonetheless, Judge Gideon signed Orders of Protection (OOPs) to prohibit 17 peace activists from coming close to Lieutenant Colonel Earl A. Evans, a commander at Hancock Air Base. Ominously, the orders prohibit the recipients from engaging in “menacing, reckless endangerment, strangulation, criminal obstruction of breathing or circulation, disorderly conduct, criminal mischief, sexual abuse, sexual misconduct” toward the Commander.
Sounds scary, right? But the protesters don’t even know this guy (or they didn’t until he appeared in court), and of course there was absolutely no evidence or reason to believe any of the activists would do anything to harm the commander or anyone else at the base. As Elliott Adams, one of the activists, pointed out, “apparently someone forgot to inform the judge that the commander… is the one with all the Humvees, the chain-link fence with barbed wire on top, the M16s and M4 assault rifles… by contrast [we]…. are the ones who have taken an oath of nonviolence.”
These OOPs are those same orders of protection that are used against violent and abusive spouses, but they sure come in handy for keeping protesters at bay: the 17 protesters are not allowed near Col. Evans or his place of work (their place of protest) for a year. That means they cannot participate even in permitted actions outside the base. The activists were warned that if they did show up at protests, they would be charged with a felony and face seven years in jail.
Since those original Orders of Protection were served, it’s been OOPs-a-palooza in upstate New York: A total of about 50 activists have been ordered to stay away from Col. Evans for a year or more after participating in civil disobedience at the Air Base. As for the “Hancock 17” their OOPs were renewed upon expiration in October 2013. In January 2014, when their case finally came to trial, the 17 were found guilty of disorderly conduct and sentenced to 15 days in jail, and – get this – their OOPs were extended for another two years!
Despite the OOPs and preemptive arrests, the protests have continued. In April 2013, 250 people demonstrated and 31 were arrested for blocking the gates (yes, they all ended up with OOPs). There can be no denying that the OOPs have prevented those who received them from exercising their First Amendment right to participate in legal protests outside the base. They have been issued without just cause to activists who have taken a vow of non-violence, have certainly not done anything threatening and who don’t even know the person they are ordered to stay away from.
Challenge to the OOPs Efforts to challenge the OOPs have been stymied by questions of jurisdiction – it’s unclear to whom one should appeal decisions of a Town Justice. But on March 19, Onondaga County Supreme Court Justice John Brunetti decided he just might have jurisdiction, and vacated the Order of Protection issued to Daniel Finlay, a 73 year-old pacifist who was arrested at the April 2013 protest. The judge didn’t broach the First Amendment issues Mr. Finlay had raised, but instead overturned the OOP because of vagueness and it is likely the prosecution will appeal, but for now, a victory over these absurd OOPs. Read further analysis of the Judge’s ruling here.