Crossing the line Print
From the Peace and Justice News, Burlington, Vermont

I may be in a prison soon, where all the walls are grey and all the guards mean-looking. Where any effort to express identity is squelched, and even the color of your underpants is prescribed. Actually it seems like an interesting place to be right now. Maybe I just want to get out of Vermont for the winter and try a new career path? Well, no, I think its the right place to be.

In fact, taking this step has made me wonder: What if we filled the prisons with our protest? The problem is that the prisons are already full. Faced with such a crisis, ?they? would probably take us to stadiums or armories, like they do when they have coups in third world countries.

How about this: People rise up and occupy recruitment centers around the country. You occupy them and are arrested and released ? and you go back and occupy them again. And again. And more people join you. It wouldn?t take huge numbers to do this. Think about it. Why aren?t we doing this? If the Iraq war is illegal, then isn?t recruiting for it an illegal act?

Meanwhile, here?s my own story. I was arrested on November 20 with 36 others for ?crossing the line? ? actually, we crawled under a wire mesh fence ? at the School of the Americas (SOA), officially renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) in Columbus, Georgia, where Latin American soldiers are trained to enforce US hegemony in this hemisphere. One reason I chose to get arrested at this event is that I knew I wouldn?t be maced or hit over the head or dragged in the mud. There is a compact at SOA Watch protests that both sides abide by, unlike other demonstrations that have followed the 1999 protests in Seattle where the police decided to change the rules in midstream and launched a police riot.

Demonstrations at the Fort Benning site of the training school have been spearheaded by former Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois, who started it all in 1983 when he entered the grounds of the school at night, climbed a tree with a boom box, and broadcast some of the last words of Salvadoran bishop Oscar Romero, in Spanish, to the Salvadoran troops sleeping in the barracks. Romero said, ?I beg you, I order you, in the name of God, stop the repression!? Revered by the Salvadoran poor, Romero was assassinated while saying mass on March 24, 1980 under the orders of Roberto D?Aubuisson, who had studied at the SOA. Bourgeois was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for this solemn prank. Six years later, after the grisly murder in San Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and daughter by other SOA graduates, demonstrations and fasting began in earnest at the school?s gates, and have grown every year.

This November, between 16,000 and 19,000 protestors took part in the funeral procession, carrying small crosses marked with the names of victims and crying ?Presente!? as their names were chanted from the stage. More protesters ?crossed over? this year than in the past, and I was among them.

What are we like, this small self-selected brigade of sacrificial lambs? The most serious organizer amongst us was Gail Phares, founder of Witness for Peace (WfP). Inspired by liberation theology and leader of 40 delegations to Latin America, she is the oldest of nine children. During one of the WfP workshops on the day before the procession, she said, ?We have got to find a way to stop our government. I don?t think it?s just going to happen through letters to the editor and meetings with Congressmen. We?ve got to begin to take more creative action. For me, this is the right time to walk onto the base, knowing that I'll spend a few months in prison. It?s the least we can do.?
Gail issued a call for those who wanted to join her in ?crossing over? to meet her for dinner. Accepting her invitation at the table was another remarkable woman, 76-year-old Dorothy Parker from Chico, California, a Grant Wood archetype, but amazingly limber (she took the top bunk at Muscogee County Prison without complaint). When I asked her why she was taking this action, Dorothy said, with her wry sense of humor, ?I?ve been convicted about this for a long time but now I need to be a person of conviction and be convicted for sure...?

The most unusual woman in the group was Priscilla Treska, 66, fashionably dressed in black. ?It?s a funeral, after all,? she said. I don?t know how she managed to scramble under the fence without getting a blemish on her black coat, stockings, or heels. Priscilla is a mother of 15 (14 of them her birth children), a Catholic, and a Montessori teacher from Cleveland, Ohio. She came with plans to refuse bail, meaning she would be immediately incarcerated (she had already wrapped all her children?s Christmas presents before leaving home). When Judge Faircloth asked why she was refusing to post bail, she said, ?Because I don?t want to be part of a system that punishes poor people? ? who can?t make bail. He replied, ?But you are part of the system just for standing here in front of me.? ?No, your honor,? she told him. ?You can force me to go to jail, but you can?t force me to pay bail.? His jaw dropped, according to an onlooker.

My particular approach was to enter the base with a warrant for a ?citizen?s arrest? of Colonel Gilberto R. Perez, Director of WHINSEC, for ?inviting and facilitating the presence at WHINSEC of known human rights abusers and torturers?? in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I go back to Georgia for the arraignment on Jan 30, and then wait for my assignment ? probably to the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut. Three months? What?s the big deal? Hearing people?s dismay at the length of my probable setence reminds me of Vermont activist Palmer Legare?s story about the racial implications of sentencing. When he tells his white friends that he had to serve three months, they are all shocked. ?Three months? How terrible. So long!? When he tells his black friends, they say, ?Just three months? That?s nothing!?

My only regret is that Martha Stewart?s Prison diaries won?t be available for guidance before I go in!