Concerns about use of drones aired at forum in Amherst

Last modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2014

AMHERST — The proliferation of unmanned aircraft, commonly known as drones, around the world has met with opposition, and the tone was no different during a forum at Amherst Regional Middle School Tuesday night to support resolutions at the Amherst and Leverett town meetings that would control their use in private airspace.

Nick Mottern, an anti-drone activist from Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., and the founder of the website, delivered the event’s keynote speech, entitled “Drones and the Death of Democracy,” in which he spoke about the expanding use of drone aircraft in the U.S. military and the lack of Congressional oversight.

About 40 people attended the two-hour forum.

Mottern described his concerns about the use of drones, including surveillance of United States citizens, the expansion of operations worldwide, and the use of drones by the FBI.

“When you look at the essence of the power of drones, it is the power of the operators to monitor us at all times,” Mottern said. “They can follow us as we leave our house, see where we work, who we hug and kiss. And they can fit them with weapons to kill us on command.”

Mottern also expressed his support for resolutions such as the one on the Amherst and Leverett town meeting warrants, saying he thinks it is a good way to make progress on the issue.

“Here in Amherst, I believe it is an imperative to get this resolution passed and protect people from drones,” he said. “I think that’s where we’ll make progress on a local level.”

In addition to his activism, Mottern also constructs 1/5-scale replica of Reaper drones, one of which was on display at the forum. The models, he said, are used for educational purposes and in demonstrations.

Other speakers included Frank Gatti, a child psychiatrist at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center and Amherst Town Meeting member who wrote the resolution, and Paki Wieland, a local peace activist who has traveled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Gaza and Bahrain to meet the families of drone victims.

“It’s an opportunity for people to take a stand,” Wieland said of the resolutions. “It doesn’t go unnoticed, and it’s important for people to be aware of the issue.”

Gatti prepared a slide show with details about the resolutions and their impact, including limits on the operation of drones over private property in Amherst and Leverett. They also call for federal legislation that would end drone operations overseas.

Gatti also expressed concern that continued military use of drones by the U.S. could set a precedent for other nations to do the same, create more enemies for the U.S. and erode civil liberties.

Paul Voss, an associate professor of engineering at Smith College, spoke about the threats posed to privacy by the influence of defense contractor lobbying efforts on the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulatory process concerning what is considered public airspace.

“This technology is real, it’s here in the civilian world,” Voss said, “It’s not science fiction.”

Jeff Napolitano, the program director for the American Friends Service Committee who was involved in the effort to pass an anti-drone resolution in Northampton last year, spoke about the growing use of drones in domestic law enforcement as well as possible commercial applications.

“We could be spending our money on more benign uses of drones,” he said, citing the fact that both the Internet and many of the upgrades that have been applied to airplanes started as military programs and then were adapted for public use. “The reason for the resolution we passed in Northampton was to help shape and put parameters and safeguards onto the use of this technology.”

William Newman, the director of the Western Massachusetts Legal Office of the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union, closed the forum by speaking about his concerns for personal privacy and the threats to the First Amendment posed by the use of drones.

“A resolution such as the one in Amherst should pass, and it will get the job done,” said Newman, citing what he called the near-success of similar resolutions passed in opposition to the Patriot Act in the early 2000s. “These drone resolutions may carry the day. It’s politically important, and it instructs your town officials and elected officials on how they should act.”


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