Brian Terrell, a long-time peace activist, speaks about his peaceful protest against combat drones at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, where he and fellow activists held up signs and called for peace and attempted to deliver a letter to the base’s headquarters detailing the crimes of the drones, in this revealing interview (50:02). Instead of being allowed entry to the base, an act specifically protected by the United States Constitution, Terrell was arrested, convicted and sentenced last month to federal prison, all for committing no crime.
Dave Gahary, a former submariner in the U.S. Navy, is the host of AFP’s ‘Underground Interview’ series.
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Peace Protestor Sentenced to Federal Prison for 6-Months for Exercising First Amendment
By Dave Gahary
If anyone has any doubts regarding the rapid disintegration of the previously-protected rights enumerated under the United States Constitution’s First Amendment, they need look no further than a decision rendered last month from the bench of U.S. Magistrate Judge Matt J. Whitworth, who operates out of the U. S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri.
On September 10, Judge Whitworth found a peace protestor guilty of criminal trespassing, although none had occurred, and this past week handed down a six-month sentence in federal prison for the non-existent “crime.” Notably, William Ramsey Clark, the U.S. Attorney General from 1967 to 1969, under President Lyndon B. Johnson, was present during the trial but was prevented from testifying. And interestingly, this matter was not prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s office, as is the case with federal crimes, but by a U.S. Air Force captain.
The peace protestor, 56-year-old Brian Terrell from Maloy, Iowa, who has been involved in non-violent activism since his teens, will be reporting to an as-yet-to-be-determined federal prison on November 30, all for asking to deliver a letter detailing crimes committed by the military and demanding that they stop, to the headquarters of Whiteman Air Force Base, located around 70 miles from Kansas City, Missouri.
Whiteman AFB is home to the bulk of the U.S.’s arsenal of 20 USAF B-2 Spirit stealth bombers, costing taxpayers over $1B each. According to Whiteman’s website, it “can launch combat sorties directly from Missouri to any spot on the globe, engaging adversaries with large payloads of traditional or precision-guided munitions,” armed with nuclear as well as conventional weapons.
Terrell and his comrades, who numbered around 40, were not protesting the B-2s on April 15 of this year at Whiteman, but were focused on a different weapon system, the now-infamous drone. Combat drones are armed, unmanned aerial vehicles, which allow for the omission of human gear, such as the cockpit, ejection seat, flight controls, and systems for pressure and oxygen, which results in decreased weight, which in turn allows for more weapons, range and maneuverability. Drones also raise many ethical and legal questions in regards to modern warfare, which was at the crux of the protest. The protest consisted of participants holding up signs encouraging peace and the delivering of that message through a megaphone, several hundred feet away from Whiteman’s gate. This was all conducted in a civil, non-violent manner.
In February of 2010, Whiteman became part of the Air Force Global Strike Command, which was created in 2009, when a year earlier, four nuclear missile components were mistakenly shipped to Taiwan. Whiteman houses the 20th Reconnaissance Squadron, which is a combat drone ground control station. So, from the comfort and safety of a climate-controlled building on an AFB in Missouri, combat drones flying over Afghanistan and Pakistan are commanded, video game-style, by detached operators waiting to fire their missiles on “terrorists” 8,000 miles away, who sometimes sadly are nothing more than innocent civilians trying to eke out a miserable existence.
Importantly, Brian Terrell has visited these targeted countries on several occasions, and met some of these “terrorists,” including one child who lost her arm to a drone. AMERICAN FREE PRESS conducted an exclusive 90-minute interview with Mr. Terrell, a married father-of-two, on October 16, 2012, who told of his meeting with the Afghan family of the child forced to live her life crippled because of an errant drone strike.
I met a “nine-year-old girl who lost many members of her family to a drone attack, living in a squalid refugee camp. Her father opened up her clothes and showed the stump of her arm,” he said.
In his statement to the court prior to his sentencing, Mr. Terrell read a 1617-word letter directly to the judge who was clearly uncomfortable with what the defendant had to say. Terrell quoted some powerful lines from a Mark Twain essay “that he didn’t want published while he was still alive.”
“Mark Twain called free speech the ‘privilege of the grave,’ a privilege never afforded the living save as an empty formality, not to be regarded seriously as an actual possession. As an active privilege, it ranks with the privilege of committing murder: we may exercise it if we are willing to take the consequences. Murder is forbidden both in form and in fact; free speech is granted in form but forbidden in fact….Murder is sometimes punished, free speech always.”
Through the letter, he also let the court know that “each of the government’s witnesses, all of them Air Force police personnel, testified that participants in this protest were nonviolent, respectful and peaceable in assembling…to petition…government for redress of a grievance. They testified that at no time, before or during our protest, did they perceive us as a threat.
“Our expert witnesses testified that our behavior was consistent with the activities that the drafters of the First Amendment intended to be protected, not persecuted, by the government. The order and security of the base would not have been compromised had the security police allowed us to proceed to the headquarters to deliver our petition. No testimony to the contrary was offered this court.”
While many of you are no doubt reading this in disbelief that an American can be found guilty of breaking no laws and forced to surrender six months of his life in prison, an understanding of the federal judicial system can lend insight into how this is possible.
Judge Whitworth, in that position since 2010, is a magistrate judge. Magistrate judges exist to assist district court judges and are appointed by a majority vote of the federal district judges of a particular district and serve limited terms of either eight or four years, and may be reappointed. Unlike district court judges they do not have lifetime tenure, which is the key to understanding this case. Basically, magistrate judges are on probation, and must prove their worth to those who appointed them.
If you wish to contact the judge to let him know how you feel about his decision, you can reach him at 573-634-3418 or mail your letter to Matt J. Whitworth, Magistrate Judge, 80 Lafayette Street, Room 3114, Jefferson City, MO 65101.
Or, this type of correspondence may meet your needs.