Local Anti-Drone Activism Begins: 'If They Fly in Town, We Will Shoot Them Down'

Will surveillance-state opponents start to fight at the municipal level, as anti-nuclear activists did in the 1970s and 1980s?
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Charles Krauthammer once predicted that the first American to shoot down a domestic drone would be a folk hero. Phillip Steele, a resident of Deer Trail, Colorado, wants to enable that hero. As the FAA loosens regulations on domestic drone use, Steele has submitted an ordinance to his town's board of trustees that would create America's most unusual hunting license: It would permit hunting drones and confer a bounty for every one brought down. Only 12-gauge shotguns could be used as weapons, so the drones would have a sporting chance.

Wouldn't the hunters be breaking federal law?

Of course. I wouldn't be surprised if the feds are already watching Steele as a result of his rabble-rousing. But he isn't dumb. "This is a very symbolic ordinance," he told a local TV station. "Basically, I do not believe in the idea of a surveillance society, and I believe we are heading that way .... It's asserting our right and drawing a line in the sand." Actually, it's more like drawing a line in the clouds. But you get the idea. 

Whether or not the Deer Trail ordinance passes on August 6, when it's up for a vote, Americans should expect to see a lot more efforts at the local level to thwart the surveillance state and protect privacy. Some measures will be effectively symbolic. Others will vex or even thwart federal authorities. Privacy activists pondering these measures would do well to study up on the history of the anti-nuclear ordinances the passed in the U.S. and abroad beginning in the 1970s.

By the time Oakland's especially stringent nuclear-free ordinance was declared unconstitutional in 1990, there were anti-nuclear ordinances on the books in more than 160 localities.

One of the first was passed in Missoula, Montana, in 1978:

nuclear ordinance missoula.png

The biggest jurisdictional victory, for those opposed to nuclear energy, was the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act 1987. It declared nuclear energy verboten in the whole country and barred nuclear ships and submarines from entry into NZ waters. Will a liberal democracy declare itself a surveillance-free zone to escape a defining feature of our era?

Privacy buffs can hope.

Meanwhile, I wonder what U.S. municipality will next declare that it doesn't want spying to happen within its borders, whether symbolically or by trying to thwart surveillance in some clever way. City leaders probably can't stop the NSA from monitoring communications that originate locally. But they can, for example, refuse to track any license plates in their jurisdiction. 

The Framers intended the states and the people to act as a check on any excessive concentration of power at the federal level. The surveillance state, as presently constituted, concentrates extraordinary power in the executive branch, has already been abused since 9/11, and is certain to be abused again unless it is reformed. The first priority should be changing the makeup of Congress, so that members are more invested in safeguarding the civil liberties of the people than the power of the executive branch and the bottom lines of defense contractors. But big symbolic statements and small dissents at the local level aren't to be ignored. The surveillance state should be fought at all levels of government until it is consistent with the Bill of Rights, targeting suspects with a warrant rather than everyone in America.

Residents of Deer Trail shouldn't actually shoot 12-gauge shotguns into the sky. But they should pass that ordinance. If its symbolism inspires more pragmatic ordinances in other jurisdictions, Steele may himself turn out to be the folk hero for saying, "Down with domestic drones," at least until, per Senator Rand Paul's efforts, the FBI needs a warrant to use them.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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