Justice in a Too-narrow Courtroom Print
The federal judge held court in a narrow crowded room in Columbus, Georgia. This is the home of the School of the Americas (SOA), located on the grounds of Ft. Benning.

That is where the US Army trains Latin American militaries with US tax dollars. Amnesty International says the school, recently renamed the Western Hemisphere for Security Cooperation (WHISC), should be closed and independently investigated because of repeated human rights atrocities committed by its graduates.

Entire communities, like El Mozote, massacred. Nuns, like Srs. Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, raped and shot. Religious leaders, like Oscar Romero, assassinated while saying Mass. Many hundreds, many thousands of victims of the graduates of SOA-WHISC.

Unfortunately, the people who committed the crimes against humanity were not on trial in the courtroom in Georgia.

No, the 85 people on trial were being prosecuted for civil disobedience. In November 2002, each walked a few yards onto the grass of Ft. Benning in a non-violent protest against the human rights violations of SOA-WHISC graduates. They hoped that their actions would help close the school.

For that action, each was arrested for criminal trespass and put in the Muscogee County Jail for a couple of days. Friends scrambled to raise $500 each to bail them out.

The 85 on trial included five Catholic Workers, two farmers, more than two dozen college and graduate students, many teachers, several grandparents, nine nuns, a lawyer, five veterans, and an airline pilot. They ranged from ages 19 to 78 and hailed from twenty-six states.

Now they faced a federal judge.

They asked that a jury of citizens be allowed into the courtroom to hear the evidence about the crimes of the SOA-WHISC, so regular people could decide if it was better to protest or to be silent. Denied.

They asked to argue expansive international law, the law of necessity, and the Nuremberg principles, all of which allow people to violate small laws like trespass in order to prevent much bigger crimes like massacres. Denied.

They asked for another judge to hear the case, one who had not met with the prosecutors even before the protest to tightly plan out the trials, a judge who might be open to hear about the SOA-WHISC and their defenses. Denied.

The legal system and US policy joined arms in order to try to muzzle and restrict the voices of the protestors.

But the protestors would not be silenced.

Despite the restrictions imposed, the defendants turned the tables, opened up the conversation, and put the SOA-WHISC and American foreign policy on trial.

One by one, each rose and spoke fearlessly and passionately about their own personal journey to civil disobedience in Georgia.

Many had seen the suffering first hand in Iraq, Colombia, Bosnia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, Zimbabwe, and in the schools and prisons and homeless shelters and families of their own cities. Some acted because their faith would not let them do anything else. Others rose up because in justice they could not turn their backs on humanity. Each had walked in solidarity with victims of injustice and promised not to be silent any
more.

Each spoke blazing truth focused by the power of love.

US foreign policy and the legal system had failed to silence them. The cries for justice would not be muted.

Each defendant, in their individual journey, had been transformed and had made a commitment to live justice in a very serious way. In sharing their journey in that narrow courtroom, each defendant transformed each other and all of us in that crowded room.

By the end of the trials, they were more on fire than when they arrived. They arrived as resisters. They left with new partners in a new community of resistance.

But the legal system and US foreign policy had to exact a punishment. The punishment that comes to too many who stand and speak and act in love and truth in solidarity with victims. The resisters could not be allowed to act for justice without consequences.

Fifty one people left that narrow courtroom sentenced to federal prison terms from thirty days to six months for a five minute walk on government grass. Thirty four others were sentenced to over three decades of federal probation for the same non-violent action. Together they were fined over $40,000.

In a narrow Georgia courtroom, they were found guilty by laws too narrow to leave room for justice.

But, like the spirit of those who acted boldly in solidarity with each other and the victims of SOA-WHISC, justice cannot be contained by narrow walls and narrow laws. These 85 helped speed the day when the SOA-WHISC will close. Justice will prevail.