The federal trial of the final group of individuals from among the 96 who peacefully crossed into Fort Benning, Georgia to protest the continuing operation of the US Army School of the Americas (SOA) last November concluded on February 12. In a departure from past practices, the court had divided the defendants into two groups. All those brought to trial either pled or were found guilty of trespass. Two other defendants who had pled guilty of destruction of government property under a plea bargain agreement face a maximum sentence of 12 months in prison and a $100,000 fine, but will have to return to Columbus at a later date for sentencing.
As reported in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, protesters had argued that "they were engaging in patriotic dissent against an institution they believe contributes to terror inflicted on Latin Americans by soldiers trained here." Judge Faircloth's response was that "their court-protected right to demonstrate, protest and express their grievances against their government stops at the Fort Benning boundary line." Sister Kathleen E. Long, 55, of Chicago, one of nine Catholic nuns convicted of trespass, stated that her trespass "was part of her theology of resistance and not with criminal intent."
As with past groups of human rights advocates, the membership was varied, consisting of nuns, a priest, a reverend, veterans, union organizers and students. Again, the age groups ranged from nine who were in their teens, 31 in their twenties, to seven in their seventies. While most of those prosecuted were first time line-crossers, 18 had been arrested at Fort Benning before.
In examining the harsh sentences handed out by Judge Faircloth, certain patterns are discernible but numerous exceptions are evident. Most of the 17 who received the maximum six-month sentences were "second timers," but a few were "first offenders." In contrast, two recidivists were among the 29 who received only probation, and another received only home confinement. The use of a home confinement sentence was a new wrinkle in the judge's repertoire, as was the assignment of community service (250 to 500 hours) to most of those who had received probation. The use of one-year probation is also an interesting variation, since it effectively precludes getting back to Fort Benning (or anywhere else) for the following November's vigil. Most of the fines were $500 or $1000, but the largest was $2500. It seems that Syracuse's own Rae Kramer, in the previous year's batch of defendants, has retained her distinction as the only person receiving the maximum $5000 fine for trespassing.
Dan is a School of the Americas Abolitionist.