Illustration by Caetano Santos
Illustration by Caetano Santos

Once Barack Obama gives the go ahead, all it takes is a few crackling words in the headset of a drone operator and the push of a button before houses come crashing down and lives a world away are extinguished.

This is the state of affairs roughly 40 protesters described and rallied against at an anti-drone demonstration at the Town Clock tower in downtown Santa Cruz on Presidents Day. Displaying tombstones with names of civilians killed by drone strikes and carrying signs with slogans like “Mr. President: Stop Killing Children,” protesters gathered on Monday to express their misgivings about the American drone program and the key role Pres. Obama plays in it.

“He personally reviews the kill list every week. He knows that the program repeatedly kills innocent civilians. And yet he signs the authorization papers,” said Sherry Conable, co-organizer of the event. “This is terrorism. This is violence that targets innocent people who had nothing to do with the conflict in question. And Barack Obama is the one who allows it to continue.”

Conable, who organized the protest in conjunction with the Peace and Freedom Party of Santa Cruz, the Resource Center for Nonviolence and other organizations, also founded the Santa Cruz chapter of Code Pink in 2003. Code Pink is a national anti-war organization created in response to the war on terror.

Protesters condemned the killing of innocent civilians that often results from drone strikes on suspected terrorists and voiced concerns about the program’s lack of accountability and transparency.

“This is a community that comes together to remind the center of Santa Cruz, and traffic passing through, that our government is continuing to kill people, and in the most diabolical of ways,” said Mel Nunez, a local activist. “Today is Presidents Day, and our quote ‘liberal’ President continues to disregard the constitution and singles out anyone, even American citizens, for execution abroad.”

“Drones make all that very easy, and ultimately he’s not held accountable to anyone,” Nunez said.

Another reason for the protesters’ opposition to the drone program is the message they said it sends to the rest of the world.

“The message to the world is that these people don’t matter, that these innocent men, women and children in other countries are expendable, as long as it’s done in the name of protecting America,” Conable said. “The message is that this is okay for us to be doing, but it’s absolutely not.”

Protesters also called awareness to how drone warfare has changed the way taking a life is viewed and understood.

“There’s a certain detachment from this sort of war-making,” Nunez said. “Even the person pressing the button doesn’t realize the full implications of what they’ve just done.”

Drones have recently received increased media attention after the Obama administration two weeks ago released a memo detailing the legal justifications for killing American citizens abroad who are suspected of having links to al-Qaida. So far three American citizens have been killed overseas in drone strikes.

That fact was a cause of contention at the recent Senate confirmation hearing for John Brennan, Obama’s pick for CIA Director and a key figure in the drone program. Protesters with Code Pink repeatedly interrupted that meeting and were eventually escorted out by police. However, Conable said in her opinion the topic of American citizens being killed by drones should only be the starting point of a much larger conversation.

“For the American people to be up in arms over American citizens being killed, and not be concerned about the thousands of Afghanis and Pakistanis being killed, it’s just so upsetting,” Conable said. “[Prominent South African civil rights activist and former Archbishop] Desmond Tutu wrote a devastating piece about this in the New York Times recently. Basically what he asks is, ‘Do we not count as much as you?’ Right now, that’s what we’re saying.”

The passage by Congress on Feb. 1 of legislation that will give the Federal Aviation Administration the authority to allow a predicted 30,000 drones to operate in American airspace by 2015 was also something that weighed heavily on the minds of protesters.

“Soon we’re going to have all these drones flying around, monitoring people,” said Angel Alcantara, a local activist and defendant in an ongoing case regarding his alleged involvement in the occupation of a vacant bank in the winter of 2011. “I don’t want to see our country suppressed any more than it already is, that’s the reason I’m out here. It’s just becoming more of a police state.”

Many voices, among them several senators and Pres. Obama himself, have acknowledged the legal gray area in which drones operate and called for more clearly defined legal proceedings to govern the use of the controversial technology. For many of the protesters on Monday however, that proposition doesn’t go quite far enough.

“The law is not rocket science. It’s open to subjective interpretation, and if they want to do something, they’ll find a way to make the law work for them,” Conable said. “Ultimately though, when what you’re talking about is killing innocent civilians, I think you have to go to your heart and ask what feels right. And to me, this certainly does not.”