SHAFTSBURY -- An 80-year-old local Navy veteran is facing a potential year in prison if convicted of charges stemming from his involvement in an anti-drone protest at a New York Air Force base in April.
Andrew Schoerke, of Shaftsbury, is a retired U.S. Navy captain and a member of Veterans for Peace Will Miller Green Mountain Chapter. On April 28 he was part of a group of 300 protesters at the Hancock Field Air National Guard Base which shares space with the Syracuse Hancock International Airport in Syracuse, New York.
The group was there to protest the United States' use of armed, unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called "drones," that are used in anti-terror operations. Schoerke said he believes the government's approach to drone use is unconstitutional, secretive, and causes unwarranted civilian casualties.
"They were first promoted by the Bush administration as being precise, surgical attacks to take out Al-Qaeda, but it didn't take long for people to discover that they were neither surgical nor precise," he said in an interview Monday. "In fact, there have been some very egregious incidents where an alleged target has been taken out by a missile from a drone and people who would go to assist any survivors they have also been struck with missiles from the drone.
He said that according to groups such as Amnesty International, the International Human Rights Commission, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, it's estimated that 4,000 people have been killed in drone strikes worldwide, and that about one fourth of them were civilians.
The government's use of drones to kill people in sovereign nations the U.S. is not officially at war with violates at least four international treaties, and is thus against the Constitution, Schoerke said. In addition to the drone strikes, he says the government's use of torture and detention also violate the Constitution, which he took an oath to defend when he joined the military in 1956.
"The policy of the United States has been to use these drones to target and kill alleged terrorists," he said. "It's all done in secret, there's way of the public knowing whether they are or are not terrorists. It's all done in secret."
He said the protest in April was organized by the Upstate New York Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars, and the Syracuse Peace Council. Of the 300 people who were there at the Hancock base, 31 opted to engage in acts of "civil resistance" at the main gate.
"Typically they involve street theater, people dying-in, people covering themselves with blood, placards, speaking out. That's what the others were doing. I did not do that," he said. "My role, because I'm a retired naval officer, I'm subject to a thing called the Universal Code of Military Justice. One of the articles of that makes it incumbent on an officer to report any unlawful orders."
Because he is retired, Schoerke has no commanding officer, and so he decided the person to make the report to would be the base's commander.
"And because, like I say, I am a retired naval officer, I have permission to go on any military base in the United States. To do that I go to the gate house and apply for a pass, which was my intent on the 28th. I did not get very far, because to get to the gate house you have to cross the access road. And it was on the way to the gate house I was arrested and placed in custody," he said.
Schoerke is facing a misdemeanor count of obstructing government activity, a violation of blocking traffic, and a disorderly conduct violation. The misdemeanor carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison, while the violations carry sentences of up to two weeks.
He was arrested along with 30 others by the Town of DeWitt Police Department who were assisted by the Onondaga County Sheriff's Department, and the New York State Police. This happened in the afternoon and he was released on bail after being arraigned that evening in the DeWitt Town Court, where his trial is expected to be held.
Schoerke said DeWitt Police have jurisdiction at the Air Force base.
His trial is scheduled for Aug. 11 and 12, but because he opted to change attorneys in June it may be put off to give the new lawyer time to prepare his defense.
Schoerke said there is a real chance, if he is convicted, that he will get the full sentence. He expects his case will be heard by Judge David S. Gideon who, according to Common Dreams, sentenced Mary Anne Grady-Flores, 58, of Ithaca, New York, to serve one year in prison for her involvement in a similar protest in February 2013.
Common Dreams describes itself on its website, www.commondreams.org, as a non-profit, independent news center. According to an article it published, Grady-Flores, a grandmother of three, was convicted on July 10 of violating an order of protection taken out by one of the base's commanders. She had taken a photograph of the protest and stepped beyond what she thought was the base's boundary.
According to Schoerke, the sentence was handed down specifically to deter other protesters.
"As far as I'm concerned, if I do jail time I will add that to my 23 years of naval service," he said.
Schoerke said he was offered plea deals by the Onondaga District Attorney's Office, but opted not to take them. Of the 30 others arrested, only one has taken a deal, he said, because they had a relative they needed to care for.
"There were many people that were arrested that were older than I am," he said. "People with walkers, people in their late 80s."
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.