In November 2003, Don Beisswenger took a few unauthorized steps onto the grounds of Fort Benning, the U.S. Army base outside Columbus, Ga. The retired Vanderbilt Divinity School professor was participating in an annual protest against the School of the Americas, a program notorious for training members of military death squads in Latin America. For his completely harmless act of civil disobedience, Beisswenger, age 73, was fined $1,000 and sentenced to six months in federal prison. Locked Up is a memoir of his time in jail, but it’s also a statement of faith by a self-described “post-Holocaust Christian” who embraces Martin Luther King’s belief that “non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”
Politically active Christians on the far right get all the attention these days, whether they’re raging against abortion and gay marriage, or getting caught in hypocritical escapades. Such Christians don’t put themselves at odds with state power, at home or abroad. On the contrary, they expect it to advance their agenda.
Don Beisswenger is one of many equally passionate Christians who see challenging government injustice and abuse of power as a spiritual duty. For them, protest and civil disobedience are acts of faith, an effort “to obey God rather than human beings.” Seen in this context, the School of the Americas—known in Latin America as La Escuela de Asesinos (School of Assassins) because so many of its graduates have been involved in political killings and mass murders—represents precisely the kind of state-sanctioned evil that Jesus taught his followers to oppose. Before reporting to prison, Beisswenger wrote to friends that he welcomed his sentence and the attendant publicity as an opportunity to speak out “against the dark side” of U.S. history.
Beisswenger’s protest arose from a sense of outrage, but Locked Up is remarkably free of defiance or anger. Beisswenger comes across as vulnerable, anxious and, as he puts it, “perplexed” by his confinement. Although he had been arrested at a previous protest, the relatively lengthy prison term was a surprise. His age and uncertain health were concerns, and he feared the loss of daily contact with his family and friends. Nothing in his life had prepared him for such isolation. As he describes his largely futile attempts to connect with fellow inmates, it seems his fear was justified. “When I have tried to move toward deeper relationships,” he writes in a journal entry three weeks before his release, “I have been ignored or slighted.” It seems a naive complaint, and yet it’s a measure of Beisswenger’s honesty that he admits to being disappointed by the exclusion.
The loneliness sends him into periodic bouts of depression, but he’s more disturbed by the authoritarian nature of prison life. The inmates’ racism and misogyny trouble him, but it’s the prison staff who inspire his resentment and fear. “Disrespect for inmates is standard procedure,” he writes, and his age and status don’t spare him the routine humiliation of a guard snooping through his papers, or of being berated by a clerk. He finds the regulations baffling in their absurdity: His blank journals are confiscated, forcing him to keep his diary in address books. One of his visitors is turned away for wearing sandals instead of conventional shoes. He and his roommate are forced to live in a hallway for weeks because Beisswenger’s desk was cluttered and there was dust on a windowsill.
It all seems trivial enough—the Manchester, Ky., facility is hardly Abu Ghraib—but the ever-present threat of being reprimanded and punished infects all the inmates with “a constant state of uneasiness” that wears the men down and robs them of any ability to trust each other. Beisswenger describes the pathology fostered by arbitrary authority: “Much of life in prison is shaped by the need not to reveal oneself, to beware of snitches or threats, to be tough so as not to be threatened. The violence in prison is created in part by inmates but also by the prison’s structure, which relies on power and threat to maintain order. Disrespect creates more disrespect. Anger, which provokes actions that are seen as threatening, results in greater reliance on orders, rules and threats.”
It’s a vicious cycle that Beisswenger sees mirrored in American foreign policy: “As a nation, we cope with violence against us by retaliating with greater violence. Our national resources are devoted to military solutions. We do not focus on building up life, much less our common life.”
Beisswenger’s answer to the dehumanizing effects of prison is a dogged faith in God, and in the love of other people. Many of his journal entries close with a prayer of thanks for divine grace, and for the community that sustains him with expressions of support. Whatever his uncertainties about his role among the inmates, he never wavers in his belief that his choice to face prison is a powerful Christian witness. He makes numerous references to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian who opposed the Nazis and was ultimately hanged for conspiring to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s willingness to defy power and conventional law in pursuit of a greater good is clearly an inspiration for Beisswenger.
Readers looking for lengthy political musings or inspired anti-government rants won’t find them in Locked Up. Likewise, Christian readers who want searching explorations of faith or easy evangelism will be disappointed. Beisswenger’s faith is rock solid, but he has no interest in converting his audience, and his politics are about action, not talk. The book is essentially a confession, a very personal account of one man’s time of trial and how he met it with both joy and fear.
CASPER- A Casper resident will spend 30 days in prison for trespassing in November onto the property of a controversial U.S. Army school.
Joan Anderson said her act of nonviolent civil disobedience at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Strategic Cooperation at Fort Benning, Ga., was worth it.
"I was able to not only make a statement about how I feel about injustice, but also to take an action that draws attention to the School of the Americas and WHINSEC," she said Monday.
In November, Anderson and a group of Wyoming residents traveled to Columbus, Ga., to join the annual vigil to close the School of the Americas, now known as WHINSEC.
On the day that 11 SOA Watch protesters were sentenced to prison for trespassing last November onto Fort Benning, 94-year-old Catholic nun Dorothy Hennessey, 88 who had once been sentenced to federal prison for the same offense, was being buried in her hometown of Dubuque, Iowa.
She died Thursday.
Hennessey and her then-69-year-old sister, Gwen, also a member of the Sisters of St. Francis Order, were arrested, arraigned, and sentenced to six months at the federal penitentiary in Pekin, Ill., for crossing onto post in November 2000.
During their incarceration, the sisters kept a journal, which was shared with Ledger-Enquirer readers.
U.S. Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth, who presided at Monday's sentencing at the federal courthouse, wanted to sentence Hennessey to six months of house arrest at her Dubuque home back in May 2001.
But the feisty Hennessey refused, telling Faircloth, "I'd rather not be singled out for special treatment. I would just as soon receive the same prison time as the rest of them are getting."
Faircloth then gave her the same six-month prison sentence he had imposed on 21 other protesters, including Gwen Hennessey.
Rebecca Kanner of Ann Arbor, Mich., who witnessed Monday's sentencing, was one of 10 sent to Pekin with the Hennessey sisters.
"I'd known of Dorothy even before we became co-defendants," Kanner said Monday. "She had marched cross-country, from L.A. to D.C. in the Great Peace March of 1986," she recalled. "My brother Steven and I both walked portions of the march for global nuclear disarmament. In 1998, down here in Columbus, we stayed in the same hotel as Dorothy. I remember my brother and I taking a long walk with her and Gwen one evening."
Kanner said she cried when she learned that Dorothy had left Pekin after several weeks because of illness. "I knew her health wasn't that good but those of us at the prison wanted a chance to say goodbye to her. But we didn't get that chance."
Right before entering the Pekin facility, Sister Dorothy, as she was called, said she really didn't know what to expect in jail.
"I've been told all we can take with us are our glasses," she said.
But, she added, her prison stay is "just another assignment in my mission to serve."
The national media seized upon the story of two nuns heading to federal lock-up. The New York Times printed an article and the sisters appeared together on "Good Morning America" two weeks before reporting to jail.
"We called her and Gwen our 'SOA media magnets,' " Kanner said.
Illness cut short Sister Dorothy's stay at Pekin. Several weeks after her incarceration, she was moved to a correctional facility in her hometown of Dubuque. Gwen, however, completed her prison term.
Asked why she had joined the protesters at the gates of Fort Benning, Sister Dorothy said her brother, a Catholic priest, had witnessed many atrocities in El Salvador in the '70s and '80s, crimes that allegedly were committed by graduates of the School of the Americas.
"He asked me if there was anything I could do about it," she said.
Kanner and the rest of the SOA Watchers in town this week learned of Hennessey's death Friday night.
"The woman had a great influence on my life," she said.
Edwin Ross Lewinton, 76, of Newark, N.J. speaks briefly on the steps of the federal courthouse in Columbus, Georgia Monday prior to entering the courthouse with other SOA Watch protesters arrested and charged with trespassing onto Fort Benning during the annual SOA Watch protest in November of 2007.
Edwin Ross Lewinson, 76, of Newark, N.J. speaks briefly on the steps of the federal courthouse in Columbus, Georgia Monday prior to entering the courthouse with other SOA Watch protesters arrested and charged with trespassing onto Fort Benning during the annual SOA Watch protest in November of 2007.
Famed protester who died Thursday, Sister Dorothy, is buried in hometown
Blind man gets jail, at his request, for fourth charge
Edwin Ross Lewinson needed someone to hold his arm when he trespassed onto Fort Benning for the first time in 2003.
The 78-year-old blind man from Newark, N.J., needed help again Monday as he approached the U.S. District Court magistrate who was about to sentence him for his fourth illegal crossing onto post during November's SOA Watch protest.
This time, he wasn't going to let Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth dismiss his case.
"If a blind person were a drug dealer, he would be sent to jail," Lewinson told the magistrate.
"Would you accept 90 days imprisonment under house arrest?" Faircloth asked.
A professor emeritus at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and one of 11 people who trespassed onto post at the annual protest, Lewinson said the United States must change its policy in Latin America. The only way to change that policy is to organize people and demand it, he said.
"I felt that by going onto the base, even though it was against the letter of the law but not the spirit of law, I could help spread the word about the evil the School of the Americas is doing."
A call for peace
Lewinson was the oldest of the 11 sentenced Monday on the charge of entry onto a military reservation. He and nine others pleaded guilty, no contest or not guilty while agreeing to the fact they illegally stepped onto Fort Benning during the protest. Those 10 stepped through a hole in a fence at the construction site of the National Infantry Museum off South Lumpkin Road.
The 11th and the youngest, Teri Lynn Rainelli, 25, crossed onto post around 1 p.m. by tossing a sweater on barbed wire and climbing the fence at the Stone Gate entrance on Fort Benning Drive. Of the 11, she was the only one who didn't agree with the government's facts and demanded a trial.
Faircloth found her guilty.
All of the accused took the opportunity to speak from the witness stand before Faircloth sentenced them, except for Arthur Richard Landis, 74. He only asked that the courtroom observe a moment of silence before returning to his seat.
"Mr. Landis, I want to tell you I find that very refreshing," Faircloth said afterward.
Stephen Peter Schweitzer, 45, handed out copies of writings about the American Indian Lakota tribe and gave Faircloth a DVD documentary he made of the 2003 protest, which features Lewinson. Schweitzer talked about his drive from New York and the multitude of war monuments in the form of names for roads, bridges and parks. Why, he wondered, weren't there any peace parks along the way.
"Years of my own inaction is killing me," Schweitzer said. "America is killing me."
Diane Lopez Hughes and Carna Michell Yipe asked for peace. Hughes, the only one who requested she begin her incarceration immediately, told Faircloth about her Guatemalan father and her familiarity with the conflict in the region.
As a reservist during the Gulf War, Yipe said she watched broken soldiers return home. Her legacy, she said, would be different.
"I stood up for what I believed in," she said. "I stood up for peace. I followed my heart. I did what I thought was right."
Only Rainelli's case remained after lunch, and she was the only trespasser who had a trial. Three officers testified that she threw a sweater over a fence with barbed wire and climbed onto post. She immediately tried to evade them, struggling and kicking one in the face.
Rainelli said she didn't trespass because she wanted to close the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, as the other defendants said they hoped to achieve. Instead, she wants to inspire others in her community to take action.
"We plan to continue to resist," she said. "I hope to see you again next year, sir."
Rainelli said many in her position -- unemployed -- have only three choices in life: prison, the morgue or a low-wage job. She chided states such as Georgia for continuing to fly the Confederate flag, a comment that immediately drew an objection from Faircloth.
"Maybe you're thinking about Alabama," he said while turning to a court officer. "Do you want to get her a picture of the state flag of Georgia?"
Rainelli relented after Faircloth described the state's flag and showed her the image on a laptop computer.
The magistrate sentenced Rainelli to 90 days in prison, a sentence shared by only two others, Lewinson and Ozone Bhaguan, both of whom had previously been convicted of trespassing onto post. He told Rainelli he admired her "spunk" and, after learning she was unemployed, said someone her age should have a job.
"Good luck," he said.
"Yeah, you too," she replied.