Friday, April 20, 2018
Politics

Drone maker Raytheon target of first RNC-related protest

LARGO — Seventy-five protesters, many dressed in pink, gathered outside the local production plant of Raytheon on Thursday, denouncing the defense contractor for its role in drone warfare.

The demonstration, organized by the groups CodePink and St. Pete for Peace, marked the unofficial start of protests surrounding the Republican National Convention, set to kick off Monday in Tampa.

"Raytheon, shame on you," they chanted. "Children die because of you."

The director of the Young-Rainey Star Center was not happy to see a collection of elaborately costumed demonstrators — a Grim Reaper and a carrot-shaped helicopter among them — congregating in his parking lot.

"The right of way is over there," Paul Sacco said. The property is owned by the Pinellas County Industrial Development Authority.

"I'm very confused," said Tighe Barry, dressed in pink and a straw hat with a Hello Kitty ribbon. "It seems to me this is county land. I have a First Amendment right to be here."

And so it went. Sacco yelled, "Everybody, let's go! Let's go!" But nobody did, until a Pinellas sheriff's deputy arrived. He persuaded the group to move to the sidewalk, then drove away, leaving the protesters free to march up and down the median for an hour and a half.

One woman in a white van shouted: "Go to Tampa!" and made an obscene gesture.

One of the organizers of the event, St. Pete for Peace, earned a reputation for its regular protests outside the former BayWalk complex in opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the antiwar group CodePink, was the biggest name there.

Benjamin recently wrote a book called Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control that mentions Raytheon. New York's Newsday once described her as "one of America's most committed — and most effective — fighters for human rights."

"I was speaking out against Saddam Hussein when Donald Rumsfeld was still shaking hands with him," she told Newsday in 2004.

In her book, she writes that drone strikes have killed more than 3,000 people in Pakistan and that drones struck 46 times under President George W. Bush and more than 300 times under President Barack Obama. The smaller robotic planes have become a vital tactic in Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations because they are cheaper, smaller and easier to use.

"Raytheon is one of the companies in production of drone software as well as drones, and one of the companies that profits from war and is addicted to war," Benjamin said. "Companies like Raytheon survive because of our tax dollars."

Peter Ramjug, a spokesman for Raytheon, headquartered in Waltham, Mass., declined to discuss the company's drone production. A company website listed sales of $25 billion and 71,000 employees worldwide.

"We respect anyone's right to a peaceful protest," Ramjug said. "Here in Largo and St. Petersburg, Raytheon has more than 1,000 employees making communication products and systems that protect our national security and help keep America safe."

Four sheriff's cruisers showed up close to 6 p.m., but the protesters were already heading for their cars.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at (727) 893-8640.

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