No one likes drones. But it's not just killer war drones making us uncomfortable. This year has seen vast advances in the domestic use of surveillance drones. The people of Deer Trail, Colorado, have decided to do something about it. They are trying to...
A drone control station. Photo via
No one likes drones. The unmanned death machines float above Pakistani towns and Yemeni mountain ranges like hateful mechanized pterodactyls, seeming to destroy innocent civilians more often than they do their intended targets.
But it's not just killer war drones making us uncomfortable. This year has seen vast advances in the domestic use of surveillance drones, with the UK spending £2 million ($3 million) to police the skies above the G8 conference and the US approving their use for commercial purposes. In the post-Snowden landscape, many are understandably pissed off at the idea of their government flying cameras above their homes whenever they like and some have decided to do something about it. One of those people is Philip Steel, from the town of Deer Trail, Colorado.
Philip has drafted an ordinance that aims to allow Deer Trail residents to shoot down drones, and actively reward them for doing so. The ordinance first came before the town committee in August and was stalled at a vote of 3–3, for and against. With a new vote set for October the 8, the story has since gone viral, not least because the town clerk Kim Oldfield has said that she expects the ordinance to pass at the second election.
Even if Steel's calls for civil war, love of killer weapons, and anti-Obama rhetoric make him seem like the kind of NRA-loving right-winger whose views would usually infuriate me, the prospect of a bunch of guys chasing drones around the Wild West with shotguns is kind of romantic. I gave Philip a call to learn more about his proposals.
VICE: Hey, Philip. So, before we get into the specifics of drone hunting, can you give me some background on how this all came about?
Philip Steel: Well, in September of 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FFA) will implement new guidelines to extend what they call “navigable airspace” all the way down to ground level. That’s a vey big problem. Basically, it means the federal government will have jurisdiction over everything that travels through this airspace—not just regular aircraft. If someone wants to go shooting, or even play baseball, all those things will be traveling through navigable airspace under their definition. If you want to put up a building, you’ll need to get permission from the state government. It completely tramples over state rights.
And this drone-hunting ordinance is a reaction to that?
What this ordinance does, first and foremost, is declare complete sovereignty and supremacy of the airspace over the town of Deer Trail, Colorado. Which is about a one-square-mile town with around 500 people in it. We’re declaring sovereignty over that airspace, up to a 1,000-foot ceiling.
So how do drones play into all this?
Our motto is, “If you don’t want your drone to go down, don’t fly it in town." We are issuing drone-hunting licenses. If there are any drones, we’ll shoot them down with shotguns. These are not the big $25 million Predator drones—they fly above 1,000-feet anyway. These are the little ones, the size of birds. They fly low to the ground. Their purpose is to conduct surveillance. They’re fitted with thermal technology and can practically see through walls.
A promotional video from the US Air Force Research Laboratory showing the kind of drone surveillance kit that Philip fears will become ubiquitous.
And you’re worried this kind of surveillance will become widespread?
Here’s the problem: even if we trusted our government, which we do not, criminals can fly drones to check out a neighbourhood. Pedophiles can use them to take pictures of children. Even terrorists could use them for reconnaissance or for chemical or biological attacks. Corporations can and will use them to collect data on their customers. So the ordinance sets forth very specific guidelines on the types of weapons and ammunition that may be used to stop these drones, along with the method of engagement.
OK, got it. And how does the bounty work?
If you bring in parts of a drone, you get a $25 bounty. If you bring in a whole drone, you get a $100 bounty. These are referred to as “trophies” in the ordinance, and the town can use those trophies for marketing purposes.
The ordinance legalizes and even provides financial reward for shooting down unmanned aircraft flying under 1,000-feet in Deer Trail?
Yes, and it makes sport of it. It actually creates a new sporting event. We’re going to hold shooting events where we have mock drones and we’re gonna shoot 'em down. It’s amazing the traction that this has got. It’s in every newspaper and TV outlet in the country. I even pissed off the FAA. They came out with a statement saying that the penalties for shooting down an unmanned aerial vehicle will be the same if you shoot down a manned one—you’ll go to prison and all that.
Aren’t you at all worried about that?
So it’s OK to have a drone flying above your house conducting surveillance? That’s OK? We’re just supposed to accept that? We started our revolution originally over a miniscule tax on tea and this is a lot more than that.
The drone hunter licence. Click to enlarge
Sure, but it’s a federal offense to damage government property. You can get jail time for inflicting more than $10,000 worth of damage. How do you plan to get around that?
You can get prison time for anything in this country now. Here’s the problem: President Obama has declared war on his own people. He’s assassinated four of his own citizens [in drone attacks] without the benefit of a trial, no right of habeas corpus. He just decided, on his own, to use drones to kill these people. All right, they weren’t on US soil, but guess what—the US constitution applies to American citizens whether they are on US soil or not.
You feel the government are breaking the law, so why shouldn’t you, basically?
He declared war on us, so we’re fighting back. He fired the first volleys. Our Second Amendment is in place so we can fight against a tyrannical government. Obama is a tyrant, he’s an enemy to freedom, he’s an enemy to free people across the world. I’m saying this from a very specific standpoint. Three years ago, my house got destroyed. The government raided my house and I was never charged, but it was completely illegal.
What happened in the raid?
Around 100 enforcement officers arrived at my house. They brought three snipers and a machine gun. They were looking for something called the Anarchist Cookbook—something I don’t have and have never had. They caused around $15,000 of damage to the house. There were no charges or anything like that, but I can’t sue for damages because they have the Patriot Act, so they can do whatever they want.
Wow, that sucks. Has Deer Trail had a problem with drones historically, or is this a sort of countermeasure to prevent a problem in the future?
We’re making a statement. It’s a very symbolic statement, but what a statement! I only spent four hours on a Saturday night writing this ordinance, and—all of a sudden, a week later—it’s spread to you in London. That’s powerful and means there’s something behind this. There are no drones yet, but there will be, by the millions, across this country.
In anticipation of the ordinance passing, Philip has already set up dronesshooters.com.
Are you expecting other towns to take up drone-hunting, too?
Oh yeah. About a dozen different cities have already asked me about it. This is enormous and I want to try to wake people up. Edward Snowden gave up his entire life to tell everybody in the whole world that America will spy on everyone and anyone, including its own citizens. I don’t want the government spying on me. I don’t want corporations spying on me. We have a right to our own privacy.
Has it just been residents of Deer Trail applying for the licences?
Oh, we have hundreds of people from out of state—thousands, actually—who are signing up to get licences. It’s going to make the town a lot of money, at $25 a licence. People want them just to put them on the wall, you know? It’s a spirit of rebellion.
Buying something to put on your wall is one thing, but if you start shooting government property out of the sky, surely there’ll be repercussions?
Bring it on! I didn’t get my day in court after they raided my house. I will tell the government, with a straight face, that—as far as I’m concerned—they started a civil war. If they want to start a civil war. I fully intend to fight on the other side.
OK. Thanks Philip, and good luck with your civil war.
Follow Matthew on Twitter: @matthewfrancey
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