Getting an education (and a mug shot) at the CIA's Johnston County base | First Person | Indy Week
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Getting an education (and a mug shot) at the CIA's Johnston County base 

Protesters young and old, local and national, are arrested at Aero Contractors, reported to be a key link in the Bush administration's torture policy

The drop-off was about 200 yards from the fence line. Just down the road, a U.S. flag hung above the sign for Aero Contractors, Ltd., the Johnston County-based company that provides pilots for and maintains two corporate jets the Central Intelligence Agency has used for "extraordinary rendition," a term that essentially means torture by proxy. Aero's complicity in torture, a criminal enterprise, was first reported in the world press last spring.

According to numerous media accounts, Aero's jets have been spotted all over the globe in airports throughout Europe and the Middle East. After leaving Johnston County, the jets make a stop at Washington's Dulles Airport to pick up a CIA goon squad. From there, the flights head out in search of suspected terrorists, who are sometimes snatched off the streets in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, and brought to places like Egypt, Morocco, Libya and Uzbekistan, where they have reportedly been tortured in an attempt to glean information about terrorist cells.

In the United States, "We do not torture," claims an unconvincing President George W. Bush, whose words were spoken as his own vice president was lobbying lawmakers to exempt the CIA from newly introduced anti-torture legislation.

On Nov. 18, a group of activists, including Voices in the Wilderness founder Kathy Kelly of Chicago, went to Aero to hand-deliver a citizens' indictment for crimes against international law and U.S. law and for violating the Geneva Convention and the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

I had invited my 17-year-old daughter, Bernadette Rider O'Neill, to take a day off from her senior classes at Cardinal Gibbons High School and join me and a dozen others in an act of civil disobedience at Aero's operation, which is just a half mile down the road from U.S. 70 Business, just east of Clayton. The event was organized by the St. Louis-based Center for Theology and Social Analysis.

As Catholic parents of eight children, my wife, Mary Rider, and I believe there is a Gospel mandate to raise our children to follow a call to radical discipleship, a call that includes welcoming martyrdom, the ultimate "seed of the Church." To do so, we have decided to raise our children counter-culturally. That's probably why Bernadette was the lone teenager in handcuffs last Friday morning.

Our plan started well. We walked around Aero's electronically controlled gate, past the no trespassing signs, to deliver the indictment to Aero. We had hoped to lower Aero's U.S. flag to half-staff as a symbol of mourning for the victims of rendition, but a lock box on the flagpole stopped the plan. We did cover Aero's sign with one of our own. "AERO CONTRACTORS: CIA TORTURE TAXIS."

While we did see a single Johnston County sheriff's car on the road, the coast to Aero looked clear. Boy, where we wrong. Within seconds of our arrival, sheriff's deputies swooped in from several places, including two cars that whisked toward us from near the airport runway.

We opened with a litany of mourning. Bernadette started by reading a piece she chose from Words of Peace, a selection from the writings of Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan.

"Public disturbance is clearly unacceptable," Bernadette read as the deputies informed us we were trespassing and ordered us to leave Aero's property. "That would take us back many episodes in the life of Christ, in which the same weird consequences followed upon acts that might have been thought, in any sensible human arrangement, to be of benefit, of good, of public weal, bringing hope. No, instead the law comes down."

As deputies started asking folks to place their hands behind their backs to be flexi-cuffed, Bill Ramsey of St. Louis started to read the indictment aloud as Andrew Wimmer, also of St. Louis, held his cell phone aloft recording the events live for Democracy Now radio. At the same time, Raleigh's Josh McIntyre took a copy of the indictment to Aero's door hoping to present it to a company official. After a couple of knocks, McIntyre turned the handle, opened the door and found himself face-to-face with a Taser gun. He asked the man pointing the gun to take the indictment. The man, who McIntyre said looked jittery, said "No" and ordered McIntyre to step back from the door. McIntyre left a copy of the nine-page indictment at the foot of the door.

After Ramsey was arrested, I took over reading the indictment. Soon all 14 of us were gently and loosely cuffed and ushered to a waiting van that the deputies already had parked behind Aero's building. As we were led to the van, I got off one final quote from Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day: "Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, our supporters were singing "We Shall Overcome" as we were being arrested.

"The police on the outside of the fence relaxed as soon as they were told that it was a completely nonviolent action, that the protesters were in there praying and would not harm anything," Raleigh activist Jane Hunt wrote in her account of the events.

Longtime Fuquay-Varina peace activist Debbie Biesack, a mother of three girls, was also arrested. She agreed to stick close to Bernadette during the arrest and jailhouse ordeal, because I knew we would be separated from the women once we got to the Johnston County Detention Center. Bernadette and Debbie had also risked arrest together two years ago in a sit-in outside of Central Prison to protest the death penalty.

At the jail, Bernadette and the five women who were arrested with her spent most of the day in an adjacent cell. Guards treated us all very well and gave us all the access we needed to the telephone. Magistrate Tami D. Johnson set bond at $500 for in-state defendants and $1,000 for the out-of-staters, absurdly high bonds for second-degree trespass, a very minor charge.

When I pointed out to Johnson that bond is supposed to be set only to assure a defendant's return to trial, which we are all obviously committed to do, Johnson would still not consider unsecured bonds.

When I said I had received an unsecured bond for the same charge in Wake County, Johnson replied, "This is not Wake County, Mr. O'Neill."

While we were being processed, other activists moved throughout the county hand-delivering copies of the indictment to various county and airport officials.

Raleigh activist Jane Hunt said the group asked to see Johnston County Airport manager Ray Blackmon, who did accept a copy of the indictment. Hunt gave the following amazing account of the group's encounter at the Smithfield courthouse with Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell.

"We were ushered in by the sheriff himself who told us he knew we wanted to see the county manager and the head of the county commissioners, and he had them there in an office to meet with us. We walked by many more police officers, all silent and polite, into the office and delivered more indictments to the manager and Cookie Pope, [chairwoman] of the county commissioners.

"Jerry [King] from St. Louis again explained our concerns and asked them if they had anything to say. The response was a slightly weak agreement to look into what was going on at the airport, and a thank you for us and indication that they had to ´get back to work.' Lots of shaking of hands, and we left, again passing by the ranks of the police. Someone suggested that all that was missing was the crossed swords."

Bernadette failed to smile for her mug shot and got a good laugh at her bad picture. She told one funny story of being in the holding cell alone with a woman who reeked of alcohol and how hard it was to pee in a bathroom where she had to be accompanied by Officer Angela, who eventually ran the water, which Officer Angela said "usually works" when defendants have trouble urinating with an audience outside the stall.

With pro bono help from local ACLU defense attorney Michael J. Reece, bonds were cut in half by a judge and everybody was out on bail by 5 p.m. I received a nice handshake and a good luck wish from the jail administrator, Major Mardy Benson. His staff treated us well. Our court date is Jan. 5, and we are looking forward to a great political trial in Ava Gardner's hometown.

Patrick O’Neill runs the Father Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House in Garner.

  • Protesters young and old are arrested at Aero Contractors

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