Chicoan faces time in a federal pen for taking part in a protest on a Georgia military base
Chico resident Dorothy Parker sits erect on a backless chair in her tiny office, searching for the right words. Her face is framed by the family photographs tacked to a bulletin board behind her, and her eyes crease slightly as she concentrates. At age 76, she’s decided she can spend the first months of the coming year, if necessary, in federal prison.
Parker is one of 37 people at a November protest who were arrested for trespassing on government property in an act of civil disobedience. She crawled under a 10-foot-high chain link fence—"crossing the line,” she calls it—onto the Fort Benning military base in Columbus, Ga., was arrested and spent an unpleasant night in the Muskogee County Jail.
More than 16,000 people from around the country gathered Nov. 18 outside the base to protest the Army’s training institute formerly known as the “School of the Americas.” The school offers instruction in Spanish to Latin American soldiers, and became infamous among peace activists for some of its graduates, who returned to their home countries in the 1980s and were implicated in murders, kidnappings and other human rights abuses.
The school was several years ago re-named the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC),” and has said that it now includes instruction on human rights in its curriculum. But opponents who are scattered around the country support an organization called “School of the Americas Watch,” and say the new name is meant to confuse the public and camouflage the school’s purpose.
SOA Watch says the school’s training manuals, released by the Pentagon in 1996 under pressure, advocated torture, blackmail and other repressive measures. They also say the school’s graduates continue to surface in news reports on both old and new human rights cases.
Parker’s journey from her north Chico mobile home park to Fort Benning started with something as innocuous as a backpacking trip 20 years ago in the Sierras. It would later involve volunteer work in the Central American nation of Nicaragua, where she says she formed an “extended family.” Finally, she decided that she needed to do something more radical than participate in peace marches.
“I’ve been protesting for years and things haven’t changed,” says Parker, a slim woman with close-cropped gray hair who speaks in an even, matter-of-fact voice. “Most people in the United States have no idea what their government is doing abroad … this government has a policy of meddling, meddling, meddling, trying to tell other governments what to do, and it’s mostly to protect the interests of some big business.”
Parker scoffs at the argument that the school has cleaned up its act. “How many times do you see a leopard change its spots?” she asks rhetorically.
SOA Watch held its largest-ever vigil last month, although the number of protestors willing to trespass has dropped in recent years as barbed-wire topped fencing has been erected and the court has grown more punitive. Spokeswoman Christy Pardew said there were 19,000 vigil protestors at one point.
Parker says the three-month prison sentence she will probably receive is dwarfed by the measures repressive Latin American governments take to discourage political opposition, or even activities like union organizing.
“It is not like I’m going to face a firing squad,” says Parker, who will plead guilty to misdemeanor trespassing on federal property during a Jan. 30 court hearing in Muskogee County. “My friends down in El Salvador and Nicaragua, they have to put up with terror.”
Parker says she decided to trespass in the belief that an arrest and its consequences would draw attention locally to her cause. She worked for most of her 25-year career with Butte County Mental Health as a drug and alcohol recovery counselor. She and husband Louis Parker are registered Republicans who have been active in many local organizations.
Parker and other SOA Watch supporters are trying to drum up support for legislation, HR 1217, a bill that would suspend operations at the Fort Benning school and is under consideration by House committees. Lou Parker, a longtime supporter of Rep. Wally Herger, R-Chico, has written Herger to request support for the bill.
Herger press secretary Darin Thacker said Herger supports the school and opposes the legislation.
In Washington, D.C., SOA Watch spokeswoman Pardew said the civil disobedience Parker participated in is only “one aspect” of the campaign to close the school. What began in 1990 as a “rally,” Pardew said, has evolved into a “cultural and educational event” spanning several days every November.
Every year at the event, SOA Watch holds a vigil, calling off the names of hundreds of affected Latin Americans. SOA Watch also holds workshops on U.S. foreign policy, as well as the protest.
The November date is used to commemorate a 1989 massacre in El Salvador. Six Jesuit priests, among others, were killed, and a U.S. Congressional investigation later implicated School of the Americas graduates in those murders.
Pardew said that since the protest began 15 years ago, 181 people have been arrested for civil disobedience. “A lot of people believe it gives urgency to their message,” she said of the arrests.
Given how the court has treated first-time violators the past several years, Pardew said it is “very likely” Parker will get three months in prison. Second-time violators usually get six months.
During a backpacking trip 20 years ago, Parker got recruited to a Habitat for Humanity house-building project in Nicaragua. She had a vague notion there had been a recent revolution in that country, but says she really knew “zilch.”
“It was embarrassing how little I knew,” she says of her first trip to Nicaragua. She continued to make annual trips to Central America with Habitat. From people she met she learned about the U.S.-funded Contra war that undid the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and the U.S. role in El Salvador’s civil war.
That information eventually led her to the Fort Benning protest. “I do appreciate the freedom I have in this country to protest and not face a firing squad,” Parker says. But Parker says she’s obliged to use her freedom to try and close the Fort Benning school, where they’re “teaching folks to destabilize legitimate governments.”
If that means going to prison, Parker says she’ll miss her husband, who has serious medical problems, and her four grown children, and her waterbed, and she’ll lose three months of social security payments. It’s a sacrifice she’s considered making, she says, for the past two years.