Terrorism and the Trials of the SOA 37
Peace Council Activists Heading for Prison
Sham: thats the word for Wash-ingtons War on Terrorism. For proof, simply consider the continued existence of the School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Ft.Benning, Georgia.
SOA/WHISC is a terrorist training camp run by the US Army. For the past several decades the camps job has been to teach anti-insurgency warfare i.e. anti-civilian warfare to Latin American soldiers. They are groomed for a vital mission: to target those civilians seen as threats or impediments to US corporate interests in Latin America.
To confuse the issue and camouflage its mission, SOA/WHISC repeatedly and unctuously claims to specialize in teaching democracy, a term it dare not define. Never mind that its inherently contradictory for any military to teach democracy. Brothels do better teaching chastity.
It isnt only Latin American democracy that the SOA subverts. At the SOA and Ft. Benning, US citizens have no First Amendment rights. We cant speak freely, peacefully assemble, or petition our government for redress of grievances. When, with scrupulous nonviolence, we attempt to do so, we are prosecuted. For trivial infractions, we are almost invariably found guilty; were heavily fined and usually sentenced to the max.
Since the SOA moved from Panama to Georgia in 1984, 70 SOA Watch activists have cumulatively spent 40 years in prison. Over six of those years have been served by 11 Central New Yorkers.
On November 18, 2001 thousands gathered at the main gate of Ft. Benning to demand the closure of the SOA. Dozens some dressed in shrouds and carrying coffins were arrested going under or around the fence controlling the gate. In April, 43 of these were indicted for entry or re-entry onto the base, a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison and up to $5000 in fines.
Some weeks later, six of the 43 had their charges dropped. For the entire week of July 8, the remaining 37 were tried in a cluster of trials in federal court in Columbus, Georgia. They included students, anarchists, and grandparents. They included Jewish activists, two Presbyterian ministers, three Catholic priests, and a nun. They ranged in age from 18 to 72 and came from all parts of the country including Central New York:
Linda Holzbaur, 45, Ithaca Catholic Worker, part-time journalist, and mother of four school- and college-age children.
Laura MacDonald, 23, musician and worker with young people with disabilities. Laura is the granddaughter of local activist Angus MacDonald. Shes on the Peace Council steering committee and in February visited La Estancia, Syracuses sister community in El Salvador.
Rae Kramer, 55, domestic violence educator. Among numerous other community involvements, Rae is on the Peace Newsletter editorial committee and is also on the Peace Council steering committee. Rae is a bowler and soccer coach.
Mike Pasquale, 33, son of a retired NYC policeman. Hes director of Job Connection, a program at the Brighton Family Center on the South Side. He lives and works with college students at LeMoynes International House. Among an array of community activities, Mike is the editor of the Central New York SOA Abolitionists quarterly newsletter.
Both Rae and Mike had also been arrested at Benning prior to 2001 and had been issued ban and bar letters forbidding their return to the base under pain of arrest.
The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer covered the trial fairly with photos and daily articles, some beginning at the top of page one.
Lots of family and friends attended including Lindas husband and kids; Lauras dad, Doug; Mikes mom and dad; Raes husband, their two sons, and her sister; and several Abolitionists.
While the main courtroom remained idle and under repair, the trials were held in a courtroom far too small. The scores of supporters had to rotate in and out solomonically coordinated by Ann Tiffany to assure equity in observing the proceedings.
Bill Quigley, a Loyola Law School professor from New Orleans, represented most defendants and did so pro bono. Two, however, had their own attorneys and a few represented themselves. Quigley supported such pro se defense. Author of a forthcoming book on the Living Wage, Quigley has crossed the line himself at Benning. An educator, he focused on empowering our defendants. He encouraged them to choose the plea (guilty or not) that worked best for them and to shape their own individual defense strategy.
Prior to trial week, Quigley and the SOA Watch support team sent each defendant extensive written material for preparing their cases. Most arrived in Columbus several days before the trial for various legal and prison workshops, some given by former SOA prisoners of conscience. There were parallel workshops for supporters.
Quigley and his legal team submitted several motions (seeking a jury trial; calling for the necessity defense; and for international law expert Francis Boyle to appear as witness). Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth denied these and with the standard lawlessness of US courts throughout the trial ignored international law. This despite the fact that Constitutionally, international law is the highest law of the land.
The prosecution was lackluster, not even taking the trouble to provide the basic elements of its case. Why work when the verdict is foregone?
Faircloth allowed all defendants, however, to testify at length and with little restriction on content. Some even led the court in song. The testimonies one defendant spoke of her husbands torture in Guatemala were eloquent and occasionally confrontational. This education surely was important to family members: some no doubt, had been questioning whether their loved one needed to risk imprisonment for this cause.
Last year, in May, Judge Faircloth sentenced over 20 SOA Watchers to six months in prison. Interestingly, a few months later (the day before our annual November vigil action), he quashed the Mayor of Columbus post 9-11 injunction against SOA Watch; this victory assures SOA Watch the ongoing right to demonstrate just outside Ft. Benning every November.
By trials end, around 10 pm Friday, Faircloth had found one defendant not guilty a first for us in this court. One by one he sentenced the rest, allowing each to make a pre-sentencing statement. Faircloth offered one cluster of nine defendants the option of serving six months probation at WHISC if they took every class there. The nine rejected this curious proposal, choosing not to attend that which they condemned.
Rae, Mike and 13 other repeaters were sentenced to six months; Laura and 13 other first-timers got 90 days; and Linda and six other first-timers who had pled guilty got six months probation. All but eight (low-income) defendants were fined. Fines totaling $24,000 ranged from $500 to $5000 the first time a fine over $3000 has been levied against us. These sentences were more harsh than the federal probation department had recommended a fact that, to the ire of the judge, leaked out during the trial.
After sentencing Friday, most of the defendants were released on a $250 cash bond. Each will self-report, probably within a few weeks, to a federal minimum security prison in their region at a date and site yet to be determined by the Bureau of Prisons. In solidarity with local prisoners mostly people of color who seldom get the choice, several of our defendants, including Laura, chose not to self-report. These the US Marshals immediately took into custody.
We dont know when Laura will be transferred to a federal facility. To express solidarity, write Laura c/o Muscogee County Jail, 700 Tenth St., Columbus, GA 31901. To financially support Laura, Mike and Rae while in prison their 12 cent an hour prison wage wont stretch far make (tax deductible) checks payable to South Presbyterian Church; send them to the CNY SOA Abolitionist office, 340 Midland Ave., Syracuse 13202.
Will Draconian Sentences Stop Our Work?
Around 10 am, on the morning after the trial, a young woman walked up to Bennings main gate. In sight of the guard, she swung the gates together and locked them with a bicycle lock. She hung up a banner: Lock Up SOA/WHISC Not Peacemakers! Then with another bicyle lock around her throat, Beckie Johnson locked herself to the gate thus blocking the entrance to the base and sat down serenely.
It took three hours for the MPs to unblock the entrance and unlock Beckie. She was transported to the local jail. Then she was released with a ban and bar letter after it was found that the jail was too crowded to accept her.
Ed is part of the SOA 37 support team. For more info, call him at 315-478-4571. Also check the SOA Watch website, www.soaw.org. The CNY defendants' court statements will be reprinted in the next Abolitionist newsletter.