A civil action
Two Sacramento women were shackled last November for protesting a U.S. school that trains Latin American soldiers. Now one of them is headed for prison.
Every November, on the weekend before Thanksgiving, busloads full of the most spiritually virtuous liberals in America seem inexplicably bound for the former School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning, Ga. They journey there by the thousands—elderly nuns, human-rights workers, ministers and seasoned peace activists—to join a solemn protest vigil, to raise crosses for the dead and, for some, even to get arrested and serve prison sentences on behalf of poor people they’ve never met in countries many of them have never even visited.
Why do they do it?
Sacramento protesters Leisa Barnes and Elizabeth Bradley—both of whom were arrested at the vigil last November 23—have an answer. “I’m opposed to training a foreign military how to be better at killing people,” said Barnes, a youthful-looking, single mother of five who will report soon to federal prison for three months as punishment for her act of civil disobedience at the site of the U.S. training school for Latin American soldiers.
Bradley, sentenced to 12 months of probation but no prison time, said she risked arrest because she simply couldn’t live with herself if she didn’t. “I decided I had to make a personal stand against what was happening,” said the 49-year-old grandmother. “I felt God led me to do this action.”
The SOA—referred to by peace advocates as the School of Assassins—underwent a name change and face-lift in 2001 and became the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISEC). Today, WHISEC officials say the protesters are anachronistic, that the school no longer teaches a curriculum that includes tutorials in torture and execution, despite the fact that it was proven to do so in the late 1990s. But activists say the school can’t be trusted, that even if it no longer teaches these techniques outright, it still provides combat and psychological preparation for soldiers in Latin American countries with egregious human-rights records. The school’s graduates (Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega being among the most infamous), activists say, still make regular headlines for their involvement in human-rights atrocities.
Barnes, now returned to Sacramento and preparing to say a temporary farewell to her five sons—including 13-year-old Luke, who has Down syndrome—said she is sad and apprehensive about her upcoming stint in prison. But she has no regrets.
“I’m guilty,” she said of her civil disobedience. “But I’m not sorry.”
When 10,000 demonstrators arrived at the school’s gates on Saturday, November 22, for a prayerful vigil and procession, they discovered that officials at WHISEC had their own event in mind. The military officials had decided to blare what they considered to be all-American music—songs such as “God Bless The U.S.A,” “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ’Round the Old Oak Tree”—from loudspeakers aimed straight at the protesters, so as to disrupt the proceedings. According to Barnes and Bradley, the music blasted for six hours. “You couldn’t hear anything but that,” said Barnes.
School installation commander Brig. Gen. Benjamin Freakley said the music “wasn’t a tactic” and was played merely to “pump up” his troops. But to the protesters, the earsplitting music seemed like something straight out of a manual on psychological warfare, designed to annoy and throw them off guard.
Still, the protest went forward.
On Sunday, Barnes and Bradley came to the school intending to risk trespassing arrests by “crossing the line” (a term universally used by protesters though no “line” actually exists) onto school property. Both women wore somber black robes and carried white crosses with the names of people they say have been killed at the hands of SOA/WHISEC-trained soldiers in Latin America. Some of the protesters held handmade coffins aloft to depict the innocent dead.
All told, 44 people, including more than a dozen ministers of different faiths, were arrested that day, made by soldiers to kneel—the protesters’ hands fixed behind their backs with plastic handcuffs—and finally loaded up into vans en route to processing at the school. Interestingly, at least four of those arrested had protested last year’s war in Iraq by stationing themselves in Baghdad as the bombs rained down during the war. Kathy Kelly, co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness and three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, was among these.
The two Sacramento women were driven with the others to a warehouse on the school property. Both described being made to undergo an aggressive physical search by soldiers there. They were shouted at, the women said, and made to spread their legs, sometimes balancing on one leg while being searched. They were degraded, they said. Bradley screamed out in pain when one female guard, feeling beneath her bra, “grabbed my nipple and squeezed hard,” she said.
Barnes had tears in her eyes describing a rough bodily search she said was repeated on her four times by a soldier from the base. “I was shaking and trembling and crying,” she said. “I felt I was sexually abused.” Afterward, the two women and others—including a 67-year-old Catholic nun—were shackled in metal chains at the foot, waist and hands and driven to the Muskogee County Jail. The women were made to give up their clothes and possessions—Barnes was even relieved of her bra and underwear—and each was issued brown elastic-waist pants, orange shirts, rubber shower shoes, a thin towel and a toothbrush. When Barnes told a guard that she was due to start her period soon and needed her sanitary supplies, the guard said no way and told her to just “deal with it.”
Thirty hours later, the women were released on bail. According to attorney Bill Quigley, the searches and eventual sentences given to those arrested at Fort Benning have been extremely harsh and basically unprecedented punishments for a charge of misdemeanor trespassing.
But Freakley said he had no choice but to arrest those who trespassed or attempted to damage military property. “I’m required to protect those who live and work at Fort Benning,” he said.
At a press conference that weekend, another school spokesman, Col. Richard Downie, said he found it frustrating that “a group is trying to close an institution that is working for the same principles” it is. He said he doesn’t understand why the protesters don’t understand that the school is set up to help the cause of peace, to teach Latin American soldiers their role in a democratic society.
A few weeks ago, the two Sacramento women returned to Georgia for sentencing. Judge G. Mallon Faircloth determined that Barnes—and many others in the group, including Voices in the Wilderness leader Kelly—should serve three months in federal prison. Almost randomly, the judge sentenced Bradley to 12 months of probation but gave her no prison term. “I suppose I have survivor’s guilt,” said Bradley. “I fully expected to go to prison.”
During her testimony at the trial, Barnes told the judge that her mother disagreed with her choice to risk arrest and a prison term because of the protest. “She questioned me as to how I could put the lives of thousands of people way off in Colombia (whom I have never met) over the chance I have to help raise my last two sons,” Barnes told the judge. “I love these boys more than life, but I cannot believe that these unmet people have less value than my own freedom.”
Barnes has five brothers, and three of them served in the military. Two are veterans—one of whom was disabled in the first Gulf War—and a third died in the line of duty, she said. “We were raised to be proud of our country, and that’s how I raised my five sons,” she said. “I used to be a proud American. … But I recently realized I wasn’t proud anymore.”
Three of Barnes’ sons were present at her sentencing.
After receiving the judge’s edict, Barnes and another protester managed to obtain a one-day pass to tour the school facility. She wore her “polite clothes”—a black dress suit, stockings and high heels—and spent six hours at the school, visiting classrooms, roaming the library and talking to instruct0ors. The official who gave Barnes the pass intended for her and her companion to learn about the reforms that had been initiated at the school—such as the addition, as part of an average six-month training stint, of a three-hour class on American democracy and an eight-hour session on human rights.
But the tour didn’t dissuade Barnes from her belief that the school should be shut down. “It did the opposite of what they expected,” she said. “Even if they aren’t teaching torture anymore … there’s no denying that our country is enhancing the military capacity of people that we don’t have authority over, who make the poor suffer in these countries.”
Barnes said she had many unscheduled conversations with teachers and others at the school and left convinced that the students there were predominantly being trained for duty in Colombia, a country enmeshed in a drug war, where an astounding number of people are killed, basically, for trying to organize labor unions. “The breakdown of students in one of the classes was more than 50 percent Colombian police,” she said. “That’s their police we’re training, not even military.”
Bradley won’t be heading to prison next month with her friend. But this woman, who had never been politically involved until last year when she felt compelled to speak out against the United States going to war in Iraq, now devotes her full energy to the cause of peace. She helps organize peace events and brings speakers to the Sacramento area. “I have come to understand … how our government supports, perpetuates and is responsible for widespread evils,” she said. Among other things, Bradley and others in the local peace network will attempt to round up increased support for House Resolution 1810, Democratic Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern’s bill to close the SOA/WHISEC.
Meanwhile, Barnes awaits a 10-day notice that will alert her as to when and where she needs to report to prison. Barnes assumes she’ll get the notice in four to eight weeks and that she’ll serve out her sentence in minimum security at the Dublin Federal Correctional Institute a few hours south of Sacramento.
“It’s sad for me to be leaving Luke,” she said, emotional again at the thought of leaving her 13-year-old, who will stay with his father. A new graduate of California State University, Sacramento, with a degree in fine-art photography, Barnes also worries about the basics, such as paying the rent on her Sacramento apartment while she’s locked up. She’ll count on Bradley and others in the local SOA Watch organization to raise funds to help.
Despite the difficulties ahead, Barnes believes getting arrested was worth it. It’s already given her the opportunity to speak out about SOA/WHISEC, she said, before many classes and church groups. “People can’t believe I’d risk going to prison, so they’re willing to listen to me. None of this would have been available to me if I hadn’t taken the risk,” she said.
Barnes and the rest of those sentenced will be released by the time next Thanksgiving rolls around, when the legions of the virtuous no doubt will journey once again to Fort Benning to pray, light candles for peace and take a stand against U.S. militarism. Perhaps they will change the world. If they cannot, at least they won’t have let the world change them.