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Visual Arts Last Updated: Nov 15th, 2011 - 14:53:07

Culture and Protest
By Esther Iverem— Editor and Critic
Oct 12, 2011, 13:48

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Photo by Eric Long courtesy of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
Through it ended with pepper spray and the exposure of an agent provocateur, the recent protest at the National Air and Space Museum against the museum’s exhibit of military drones is the most pointed and, for me, the most poignant act of the spreading Occupy/99 Percent Movement. The exhibit of sleek, unmanned aircraft not only points to the power and size of the military-industrial complex but also to the ways that militarism is infused into our cultural institutions and events.

The six drones, in cool tones of silver, black, white and blue, are suspended from the ceiling of the museum’s first floor gallery. The variously-sized aircraft from several suppliers, including Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, are inverted so that visitors can see their shape, wing detail—and payload of missiles on top. The protest against this display was pointed because these remotely controlled, unmanned drones represent the new face of the U.S. military in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. The October 2011 Movement, which organized the protest, was also demonstrating against the recent assassination by drone of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. According to the War Resisters League, the military complex sucks up at least 54 percent of the federal budget—meaning our tax dollars.

But this sacred cow of military spending is virtually untouched and growing while the White House and Congress cut millions from human resources, including health, education and our crumbling national infrastructure. This pattern of spending is the cord connecting the drone exhibit to this wave of protest against priorities that put corporate profits and the war machine before people. In the best interview I have seen associated with the 99 Percent Movement, author Chris Hedges told RT News that the United States had just wasted $4 trillion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. "We’ve wasted…absurd sums of money—that could have been used to put every American in this country to work, [give] us the best public education in the world as well as access to the finest healthcare in the world. And we just poured it down a rat hole," he said.

The Air and Space Museum’s Web page devoted to the drone exhibit notes that the exhibit is "made possible through the generosity of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc." According to that company’s website, the company manufactures the Predator and Gray Eagle drones. The company website also boasts that the Predator was one of the first three drones to fly operational missions over Afghanistan after 9/11, that it flew 196 combat missions in Afghanistan and was the first Predator to fire Hellfire-C missiles in combat. Isabel Lara, a museum spokesperson, told me that the drone exhibit opened in April of 2008 and that sponsors such as General Atomics or other government agencies do not have a role in shaping the content of exhibits.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems received more than $1.3 billion in federal contracts between 1998 and 2003. And according to the website, General Atomics, the sister company for the Aeronautical Systems affiliate, received nearly a half billion dollars in government contracts between 2000 and 2010.

Military spending and the role of drones are why protests against the exhibit are so pointed. The protest is poignant for me because this exhibit of state-of-the-art aircraft is just the type of aeronautic display that my son would have oohed and aahed at during one of our many trips to this, his favorite museum on the mall, when he was a young child. At the museum, I remember sharing with him a wonder at the exhibits on the universe and our solar system. And I remember what felt like an uneasy balance between these wonders and the museum’s other exhibits which, through the story of aeronautics, glorify war and militarism. The current controversy over the drone exhibit reminds me of the inner-conflict I felt as the parent of a young child.

It’s the same conflict I feel when we sit down, even now, to enjoy a football game and see it preceded by a flyover by fighter jets or book-ended by military ceremonies on the field that serve to intertwine athletic competition with militarism through an appeal to patriotism.

It’s the same conflict I feel when we go to a movie or watch a popular TV series like “24” that hype the military-security complex.

With several studies indicating that most Americans support cuts to military spending and want to bring the troops home from Afghanistan, an exhibit about drones seems to highlight everything that this new, spreading social movement is saying about the nation’s misplaced priorities.

Esther Iverem is an author and artist whose most recent book is We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black At The Movies, 1986-2006 (De Capo Press). A former staff writer for several publications, including The Washington Post and, she is founder and editor of, which you can also follow on Facebook and Twitter, or email her at iverem [at]

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