Mom morphs into activist, then inmate Print
DUBLIN - Unlike most other inmates at the federal prison here, Leisa Barnes is doing time not because her behavior crossed the line but because she simply stepped over a line painted along the ground.

Halfway through an unusual three-month term at the Federal Correctional Institution in Alameda County for misdemeanor trespassing during a protest at Fort Benning, Ga., the 49-year-old Sacramento artist, businesswoman and mother of five has been called a hero by some and a misguided naif by others, including her own mother.

"I'm inspired by her example," said Paul Burke, a sociology professor at California State University, Sacramento, and a campus activist. "It's extremely significant, because she's making a statement."

Family members are perplexed.

"I'm really trying to see where the heck she is coming from," said Billie Morenz, Barnes' mother and a self-described law-and-order Republican from Martinez. "I'm frustrated, but what can I do? She's too old for me to spank."

One way or the other, everything seemed to change for Barnes in November when she stepped out of her otherwise law-abiding life and traveled to Georgia, joining 10,000 demonstrators outside the gate of the nation's largest Army installation. There, she and the others solemnly carried small crosses with the names of victims they say were tortured and assassinated at the hands of graduates of the School of the Americas, where military leaders from throughout the Western Hemisphere have been trained.

But Barnes had more in mind than being a mere face in the crowd, even though she only recently had learned about the school, long a target of peace activists' protests.

She knew that stepping over the line onto federal property could land her in prison and away from her sons, Caleb, a high school senior, and Luke, 13, who has Down syndrome. Her other sons - two college students and a missionary - live on their own.

Especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks - when Fort Benning became a closed post - dozens of people who've protested there have served time in prison, including SOA Watch's founder, the Rev. Roy Bourgeois.

Inspired by a speech that Bourgeois gave last year in Elk Grove, Barnes decided almost immediately that she would cross the line. She was the first protester that day to take the fateful step.

Elizabeth Bradley, a 49-year-old Sacramento paralegal, also trespassed that day but avoided prison time by agreeing to a "ban and bar" letter, essentially a promise not to cross the line again. Barnes refused to sign the letter.

"Frankly, I'm really glad I got probation," said Bradley, who enjoys long walks downtown and a weekly game of hearts with her four grown children. "After talking to Leisa, I'm not sure I could have handled prison."

In a visiting area at the East Bay-area prison, the upbeat and expressive Barnes recently spent two hours answering the question that even her incarcerated "sisters" have been asking: "What's a woman like you doing in a place like this?"

"What pushed me from having a social conscience to the brink of dedicating my life to peace and justice issues was really the outbreak of the Iraq war," she said. "And the repercussions that came out of 9/11 - the Patriot Act - scared me."

Dressed in a light-blue prison uniform that matches her eyes, Barnes is slim and healthy, a vegetarian who refuses to eat most of the prison's food. She subscribes to the New York Times and shares it with her fellow inmates. She asked the prison to supply carrot sticks to help inmates quit smoking. She started a library of classic books by soliciting her many supporters on the outside.

Barnes pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge of trespassing, paid a $500 fine and had expectations of quiet and solitude and plenty of time for deep thinking during her incarceration. But since entering the federal facility April 6, she has barely had time to read one book. Her prison job is landscaping from 7 a.m. to 3:20 p.m., work she describes as exhausting.

"I thought I could come here and read and write," she said with a laugh. "I'm working harder than I have ever worked before. I barely have time to sleep each day. It's a very, very physically demanding job."

Barnes' early years provided few signs of a dissident in the making. She grew up in the Bay Area, one of five children of a bus driver and homemaker. One of her brothers, Oakland Police Officer Michael Faulkner, was killed in 1981 during a domestic disturbance call.

Barnes says she was politically active even in high school, though her mother says she never mentioned anything about such activities. Barnes was heavily involved in social work at her Mormon church in Cameron Park, but it never extended to political activism.

She raised her sons and, among other things, designed A&W restaurants and opened a pet store.

She says the difference between her reactions and those of her husband to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the buildup to war in Iraq eventually created tension in her marriage.

They separated and Barnes moved to Sacramento, where she enrolled at CSUS to study photography. She found her way to a meeting of a fledgling campus peace group. She befriended other activists during weekly anti-war demonstrations on 16th Street.

Burke, the CSUS professor who helped organize the campus peace group, remembers Barnes at one of the first gatherings. "She came off as this homemaker mother-of-five who hadn't been involved in politics," he said, "and within a couple of weeks we realized she was a great organizer and gifted speaker."

Burke, who has never been to the Fort Benning demonstrations, took Barnes to see Bourgeois' speech last year.

"The next thing I know, she is at the (Georgia) protest and she is the first person crossing the line," he said. "I go visit her every weekend, partly because ... I feel responsible for getting her involved in this stuff."

Morenz has little patience for those who fired up her daughter and then stepped back when she got arrested. "If you're going to lead, lead her by the hand and go with her," she said. "Talk is cheap."

Morenz admits that if Barnes were not involved, she would have applauded the prison sentence for protesters.

For her part, Barnes says the difficult days in prison have given her a platform to continue speaking out. She has been writing a prison journal. A friend, Janice Freeman, types it up and puts it on the SOA Watch Web site, www.soaw.org.

Freeman, founder of Sacramento's SOA Watch chapter, says she chose not to cross the line at Fort Benning because of the likely prison sentence.

"Prisoners of conscience energize the movement," said Bourgeois, who remembers meeting Barnes in Elk Grove, "What they are doing is trying to be a voice for people of Latin America whose voices have been taken away."

But not everyone wants to hear the message.

"It's kind of like time has passed the protesters by and they are whipping a dead horse," said Frank Martin, former mayor of Columbus, Ga.

The U.S. Army, which admitted in 1996 that torture manuals had been used at the School of the Americas, closed the school in December 2000. It reopened one month later as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation under the Department of Defense.

Martin said the school revamped its curriculum and now emphasizes human rights.

Many of the protesters, he said, "come here with the express intent of going to jail. They think that's the last leg of their journey - to do 90 days in prison."

Barnes' eyes tear up when she is asked how she is coping apart from her sons, who are with their father. She knew that by refusing to sign the "ban and bar" letter she would be sentenced to prison. But she believes she is passing along important lessons to her children.

"One is to love your children unconditionally," she said. "The second one is to teach them by example. It doesn't matter what you say; it's what you do."

Barnes won't rule out another arrest after her July 2 release - and, as tough as it is, another stint in prison - "but I want to space them out a bit."

As for Billie Morenz, she remains puzzled. Asked what's in store for her daughter in the months ahead, she replied sharply, "That's a scary thing."

Contact Blair Robertson at (916) 321-1099 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .