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Home About Us Prisoners of Conscience Prisoners of Conscience Nun faces prison for School of Americas protest
Nun faces prison for School of Americas protest PDF Print E-mail
Indianapolis native may serve six months for her activism


On visits home to Indianapolis while her parents were still alive, Kathleen Desautels and her father would sit in the family living room, sip Bloody Marys and talk politics. Desautels, a Sister of Providence and a long-time activist for social justice causes, laughs now when recalling the scene, noting that her mother always left the room to avoid the inevitable argument. No one in her family has ever shared Desautels? political persuasion, as her father pointed out at the end of one particular debate. "Kathleen, it was bad enough to lose you to the convent," he said. "But losing you to the Democrats, that is more than I can bear."

Now Desautels, 64, is testing what burdens she herself can bear for her political beliefs. She is one of 43 people who will stand trial July 8th in a Georgia federal court for crossing onto an army base during last November's annual protest calling for the closure of the U.S. Army School of the Americas. Given the pattern of sentences handed down for similar actions at past protests at the site, Desautels and other activists expect she will be ordered to serve six months in federal prison.

The US Army School of Americas (SOA), based in Fort Benning, Georgia, has trained thousands of Latin American soldiers in combat, counter-revolutionary and counter-narcotics tactics. Among the notorious graduates of the SOA are dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama, as well as the assassins of El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero. SOA graduates have also been found responsible for the murders of thousands of civilians, including four US churchwomen in El Salvador in 1980, and six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter in El Salvador in 1989. Last year, the SOA was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC), a change the SOA's critics have labeled as merely cosmetic.

In the wake of the September 11th attacks, Desautels says the group briefly considered canceling last fall's SOA protest. "But we concluded that it was actually more appropriate than ever," she says. "This is a school teaching terrorist actions. These graduates go back to their people and torture and kidnap and make people disappear. If that is not terror, I don't know what is."

After growing up on the north side of Indianapolis, it seemed Desautels was headed toward a quiet life devoted to religion and academics. She graduated from St. Mary of the Woods in 1960 and then entered the Sisters of Providence the following fall. She spent the next twenty years teaching and working in administration at St. Mary?s and at several small town parochial schools. But in the early 1980's, Desautels began visiting with people in Latin American countries like Bolivia and Nicaragua, and she was struck by the fear and oppression inflicted by School of Americas graduates. With the discovery of these injustices, Desautels also found a new purpose to her life. "Especially during the Contra war in Nicaragua, I witnessed first-hand U.S. policy in a new way," she says. "When I got back I knew I had to leave the ivory tower of academia."

Desautels now works at the 8th Day Center, a multi-denominational social action organization located in Chicago. The center derives its name from the notion that God made the world in 7 days and, on the 8th day, it is up to humans to bring the whole world to justice. Desautels has continued to travel for her activism, arriving in Haiti during a coup, going to Iraq after the Gulf War, and participating in a fact-finding tribunal in Colombia two years ago.

During last November's protest at Fort Benning, Desautels volunteered to be part of a high-risk group of activists, playing the role she calls "canaries into the cave." Desautels carried a coffin to symbolize the school's victims and defied a court order by leading a procession onto the grounds of the army base. She knew the act put her in jeopardy of federal prosecution, but reasoned that she was better able to endure the consequences than most of the 10,000 other protesters who had more pressing family and financial obligations. As expected, Desautels was arrested, and then learned in April that she faced a federal court trial.

Desautels has been arrested at protests more times than she can count, but she has never spent more than a day or two in jail. She admits to being a bit anxious about the prospect of a lengthy prison term, but she also looks forward to a new ministry of working with fellow prisoners also convicted of non-violent crimes. To Desautels? way of thinking, a prison term is a small price to pay for increased attention to the School of the Americas. "There has never been a social change that has not come from people going to the streets doing civil disobedience," she says. "I think it's being a good citizen, to critique government and demand that it be what the constitution says in nice words it should be. The indignities I will have to experience in prison pale in comparison to what the victims of the graduates of that school had to endure."

Prison indignities do not seem likely to deter Desautels? activism any more than her father's good-natured disapproval did. She has crossed over the trespass line at Ft. Benning several times before during previous protests, and each time she earned Army-issued bans from entering the base. At first, she was barred from the base for 5 years, then 10 years, then longer. Finally, last year, she received a lifetime ban on ever entering Fort Benning. Even that may not be long enough to cover the length of Desautels? commitment to closing the school. "I haven't received an eternal ban yet," she laughs. "So, when my time comes, one of my fellow sisters has volunteered to spread my ashes there."

For more information about the School of the Americas history and the protest campaign, check the web site for School of the Americas Watch, www.soaw.org