College Student Risks Prison to Protest SOA-Clone: Print
To help expose and close the School of the Americas and its successor the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation (WHISC), concerned citizens are holding a fast and vigil for the month of January outside the gates to Ft. Benning, in Columbus, Georgia. Laurel Paget-Seekins, 20, of Philo, California joined the vigil. On January 17, 2001 she was arrested, risking a possible prison sentence, in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience on when the SOA reopened as WHISC.

Paget-Seekins, a senior at Oberlin College, says, "By changing the name of the SOA, our government is trying to distance itself from the history of atrocities committed by SOA graduates and at the same time Plan Colombia shows we have not learned from that repressive history. The war on drugs can't become the newest excuse for funding, arming and training militaries in Latin American that repress their own people to maintain vast economic inequality."

January 17, 2001
Dear Family and Friends,

I was arrested today in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience, protesting the re-opening of the US Army School of the Americas with a new name (Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation) and a new mission -- to fight the war on drugs in Latin America. I was previously banned from Ft. Benning, the Army base housing the SOA, for 5 years for trespassing in procession of over 4000 protesters in November 1999. My arrest today could result in a maximum sentence of 6 months in federal prison and a $5000 fine for misdemeanor trespass.

I have taken this action because I feel that I must raise my voice for the thousands who are silenced by the war on drug our country is waging, especially in Colombia and in our inner cities. If I go to prison it will be as a prisoner of war in the war on the poor in both this country and around the world. Our prisons are full of drug offenders and others whose lives and communities are being devastated by drugs and by the criminal justice system's response to drugs. Unfortunately their voices and the voices of the people of Latin America are not being heard by those in power in this country.

I have chosen to risk prison as part of the struggle against the School of the Americas for a number of reasons. Prison witness has been a very important part of the movement to close the SOA. Over 50 people have served a combined total of about 30 years in prison for protesting the SOA and over 70 others are waiting to hear if charges are being pressed against them. The size and effectiveness of the movement to close the SOA has grown tremendously in response to prison witness. We have managed to pass bills in the House of Representatives, which unfortunately never passed in the Senate, to close the school. In addition there is an incredible support system for prisoners of conscience within this movement.

I have been working to close the SOA and draw attention to US foreign policy toward Latin America for three years. SOA graduates have been linked to many of the worst human rights abuses in Latin America in the past 50 years. The SOA is where we trained the military leaders of Latin America to uphold our economic interests with whatever methods necessary. Please see www.soaw.org for more information on the SOA. We can't let the Pentagon stop our movement by just changing the name of school.

The SOA movement is currently focusing on the situation in Colombia because we feel we must challenge this new military build up in Latin America. As you may know the US Army symbolically closed the School of the Americas on December 15, 2000 in an attempt to silence the criticism of the school's history and placate the movement demanding its closure. The finer print is that they reopened the school with minor modifications on January 17, 2001 under the new name of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. With the name change the US government is trying to make us forget the history of repression in Latin America at the same time as officially changing the focus of our foreign policy from containing communism to fighting the war on drugs. The war on drugs has become our new reason for continuing to fund, train, and arm Latin America militaries. The situation in Colombia right now is the most horrific example. Please see www.us.net/cip/ and www.colombiasupport.net for more information about Plan Colombia .

I know it is a privilege to choose to face prison. As a white, middle class American I have a lot of privilege and I wish to use it to help end the injustice and inequality of the society that has given it to me. Going to a minimum security federal prison will allow me to directly experience one side of the war on drugs. I plan on using my voice from prison and after I am released to speak to those in power and to other Americans with privilege about what the war on drugs is doing to the poor and people of color in the US and Latin America.

It is a deep sacrifice to put yourself in the hands of government and submit to that sort of personal invasion. I have spoken with others who have gone to prison. I have frequent dreams about the federal government harassing me. I am not taking this decision lightly and have been thinking about it for years. I know it will be hard on my friends and family. But I feel strongly that this is a step I must take.

In taking this action, I am hoping the fact that a promising 20 year old graduating from a prestigious liberal arts college with a degree in mathematics decided to face federal prison instead of graduate school or a lucrative career will help wake people up to the seriousness of the situation. It is only when all of us are doing all that we can that we will be able to make real progressive social change in this country. The way that you can best support me is to educate yourself about what is happening in Colombia and about the role of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in creating even greater poverty of Latin America and around the world. And about the levels of incarceration, execution, and injustice in our criminal justice system in this country. Then please take whatever action you can to challenge the current system of global injustice.

Sincerely,

Laurel Paget-Seekins

PS - It is now up to the federal prosecutor to decide whether to press charges against me and it may take months for them to decide and for me to actually come to trial. I could have a trial sometime this spring or summer so I will graduate from Oberlin before I have to serve any time. It is likely I would only be sentenced to 3 months since this is my first violation of my letter banning me from Ft. Benning. I will probably be at the minimum security federal prison for women in Dublin, CA.