SOA RESISTERS KEEP PRISON DOORS SWINGING
The path from Fort Benning to federal prison is easy to find. Over the last 14 years, over 200 people - most who simply walked onto the U.S. Army base in Columbus, Georgia - have found themselves guests of the U.S. government for three to six months. A few served less time, and a few more.
In 2003, 49 people served such a prison sentence, following their arrest in November 2002 at the annual protests demanding the closure of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security and Cooperation, located at Ft. Benning. The counter-insurgency training academy for Latin American militaries is better known by its former name, the School of the Americas (SOA). SOA graduates over several decades have been repeatedly implicated in human rights violations in their home countries throughout the hemisphere.
The eight SOA prisoners now behind bars (see Inside & Out) are the last of the latest group, arrested in November, 2004, when 10,000 people again gathered in Columbus for three days of teach-ins, caucuses, and protests.
Many arrived from Miami, Florida, where mass demonstrations earlier that week against corporate globalization at the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting were met by widespread police brutality. On Saturday, November 22, while police searched everyone attending a SOA Watch legal rally outside the gate of Fort Benning, the organizers issued a joint statement with the Miami protest organizers and anti-war activists in London, England, who had just mobilized 200,000 people to protest the occupation of Iraq during a state visit by President Bush.
"Our struggles are interconnected and we organize in solidarity with each other," they declared. "We recognize our governments' foreign policies are not bringing security to the world any more than their economic policies are bringing prosperity.
"The invasion and occupation of Iraq, the training of soldiers in counterinsurgency at the School of the Americas, and the expansion of so-called "free-trade" agreements like the Free Trade Area of the Americas, are strategies in the building of an empire based on greed, violence and power...
"We do not want war for empire. We do not want training camps where soldiers are taught to torture and assassinate their own people. We do not want economic globalization that serves elite interests to the detriment of the rest of the world..."
The Army, meanwhile, loudly broadcast military and patriotic tunes in the direction of the Ft. Benning rally for over six hours, competing with speakers and musicians for the ear of the crowd. (For some, the tactic recalled the August 1983 arrests at Fort Benning of SOA Watch founder Fr. Roy Bourgeois, Fr. Larry Rosebaugh, and Linda Ventimiglia, when they climbed a tree near the barracks housing soldiers from El Salvador, dropped their rope ladder, and turned up a boombox broadcasting the final homily of Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero, urging soldiers in the civil war to put down their arms. Bourgeois was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison as a result; Rosebaugh and Ventimiglia to 15 months.)
The Army music was eventually turned off, and no disciplinary action was reported. But Fr. Bourgeois again found himself up a tree, so to speak, this time with the City of Columbus Environmental Court. A Louisiana native, he knew that the crepe myrtle tree obstructing views of the rally stage could be safely pruned back. He saved the city some time and expense, but was fined $125 for unlawful landscaping.
For the second year in a row, city police established a perimeter around the Saturday rally site and required that all who wanted to enter be searched with a metal detector. Both years, SOA Watch unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of these searches. And both years, Karl Meyer of Memphis was arrested and charged with obstruction when he refused to submit to such a search. The following Monday, he entered a not guilty plea and was released on $250 bond. Trial on both charges was consolidated and began on January 13, 2004. Despite his vigorous self-defense, Meyer was found guilty, and sentenced to two consecutive one-year terms of unsupervised probation As a special restriction, Karl is not to enter any area of Muscogee County within one mile of Fort Benning, with the explicit provision that nothing in the order intends to prevent Meyer from peaceful assembly and protest at any other entrance of Fort Benning located in four other counties that border the base.
Sunday morning, November 23, the now-traditional funeral procession to the base gate was again led by a long line of coffins, crosses, and other symbols, carried by marchers to represent the thousands of civilian victims of SOA graduates. A die-in at the gate, and affinity group incursions onto nearby unfenced areas of the base, resulted in 29 arrests for trespass. One man's charge was later dropped.
Fifteen others were arrested as they arrived at the demonstration, when their cars were directed to the wrong exit off a highway that passes through the base.
All the people arrested were held for one or two nights. At their arraignment Monday in federal court, the car passengers were released on their own recognizance, but $1000 bail was required for the drivers and the 28 others. (On January 8, prosecutors dismissed charges against the 15 errant drivers and their passengers.)
Three men - Gary Ashbeck and Catholic priests Ben Jimenez S.J., and Mike O'Grady S.J. - refused to post bail and remained in a local jail until trials began on January 26, 2004, in the federal courtroom of Judge G. Mallon Faircloth.
Over two days of small group trials, five people pled guilty, most others stipulated to the facts and all were convicted. Faircloth imposed sentences immediately. So eager was he to punish that at one point the judge began sentencing before even announcing his verdict.
Defendants and their sentences were as follows:
Leisa Barnes - 90 days;
Greg Poferl - 90 days + $1000 fine;
Craig Adams - 90 days;
Sarah Jobe - 12 months probation + $1,500 fine;
Rev. Don Beisswenger - 6 months + $1000 fine;
Mary Vaughn - 24 month probation; $500 fine;
Fr. Jerry Zawada OFM - 6 months;
Peg Morton - 90 days; Rich Wekerle - 6 months;
Sr. Cynthia Brinkman SSND - 6 months;
Dave Corcoran - 6 months;
Anthony "Ozone" O'Leary - 90 days;
Kathleen Kelly - 90 days;
Louise Lynch - 12 month probation + $500 fine;
Elizabeth Bradley - 12 month probation + $500 fine;
Faith Fippinger - 90 days;
Shirley Way - 90 days;
Scott Diehl - 90 days + $500 fine;
Fr. Ben Jimenez SJ - 90 days;
Alice Gerard - 90 days + $500 fine;
Bro. Mike O'Grady; SJ - 90 days;
Fr. Bernie Survil - 90 days;
Michael Walli - 90 days + $500 fine;
Betsy Lamb - 6 months + $500 fine;
Fr. Joe Mulligan SJ - 90 days;
Eric Robison - 6 months + $1000 fine;
Gary Ashbeck - 6 months.
The SOA Watch website, www.soaw.org, is regularly updated with information about these prisoners of conscience. Also, some prisoners have a supporter send their writings out to e-mail lists, and the web site and these lists have quickly mobilized support in several instances of mail and vital medications withheld, and spurious charges made against a prisoner.
While the web site has highlighted just a few such incidents, it notes "others certainly occur, especially for those inmates who don't have access to the support networks that are available to the SOA Watch prisoners. There are approximately 2 million people in U.S. prisons and jails. The number of inmates increased more than 5 times from 1970 to 2001. 46% in 1999 were African-Americans, even though African-Americans compose only 12% of the U.S. population. 18% were Hispanic. Today the rate of incarceration in the United States is the highest in the world. Our struggles with the U.S. prison system are in solidarity with more just treatment for all prisoners..."
SOA Watch's lobbying to cut funding for the SOA/WHISC was frustrated by congressional maneuvering this year, and the HR1258 never reached the floor of the house.
The next nonviolent vigil and direct action at Ft. Benning is scheduled for November 19-21, 2004. Organizing resources and logistical information are available from SOA Watch and on their website.
For more information, contact SOA Watch at P.O. Box 4566, Washington, DC 20017, (202)234-4505, firstname.lastname@example.org
Letters of support should be sent to Richard J. Wekerle, Donald Beisswenger, Cynthia Brinkman, Frances E. Lamb, Craig Adams, Jerome Zawada, and David L. Corcoran at their prison addresses, found at Inside and Out.
Regular prisoner updates can be found at http://www.soaw.org/new/article.php?id=127