Yet Again: 85 SOA Watchers on Trial in January

Lisa Hughes

Last July Lisa was the first and only School of the Americas Watch defendant ever to be found not guilty by the federal court in Columbus, GA. What follows is adapted from her letter to family and friends as she prepares for trial for trespass at Ft. Benning yet again. At trial with Lisa will be Central New Yorker Doris Reed, 78, the eldest of the 85 defendants.

Because of my emotionally exhausting trial last July, I considered waiting until 2003 to cross again and risk prosecution. However, due to the critical state of the world, I felt I needed to once again put my body on the line. Someone needs to stand up and say no to more violence, no to more militarization, no to empire.

This past November 16th and 17th, I _ along with thousands of others _ took part in the SOA Watch annual vigil and protest at the gates of Ft. Benning, GA. I crossed again, one of 90 who walked around a fence onto Benning, home of the SOA (also known as WHISC).

All of us were immediately arrested. The five or so minors among us were lectured and released. The rest of us were processed (search, picture, fingerprints) by both the US Army and the US Marshals. I believe the Marshals were there as a result of the Patriot Act. Any act of dissent, a crucial part of democracy, is now seen as a threat to national security. I was asked the name, age, address and phone number of all my family members, the type of car I drove, my financial information, my medical info. When I hesitated to answer some of the questions (friends names, where I "hang out," etc.), I was threatened with not being released.

Next we were taken in metal shackles _ cuffs to the ankles and chain around the waist with hands cuffed to that _ to the Muscogee County jail in downtown Columbus. There was no heat in the jail. All the officers were wearing jackets and we were allowed only scrubs and flip flops (no socks). We spent most of our time curled up in our beds with our sheets and cotton blankets trying to stay warm.

We received dinner at 10 pm (I was taken into custody around noon) and were awoken for breakfast at 4 am. At 9 we were forced to leave blankets behind and transferred to a holding cell (also chilly) to await arraignment before Magistrate Faircloth. After the first group of 12 or so women left for court, the 33 remaining women were transferred to a single very small holding cell. Lunch arrived at 4 pm.

There was amazing solidarity and strength in our group. We all advocated for those who needed medical attention until they got it. In the morning we gathered for a prayer circle and tai chi. We did chain massage, organized walking circles, shared prayer, song and stories as to why we were there.

At our arraignment, a $5000 bond was placed on each of us, supposedly because we were flight risks. Even the nuns! In SOA Watch's 12-year history, no one has ever not shown for trial. People cross the Benning line as a statement of conscience, looking forward to putting the SOA itself on trial. We were required to pay 10% or $500 _ which is to be returned at the end of trial _ to be released. There was a lot of scrambling to raise the $40,000 needed to free us all.

I was amazed at the people I was arraigned with. Once again we have a breadth of ages (20-78), a wonderful mixture of men and women, wisdom and youth. There are about eight Catholic nuns and many college students, at least four Latinas (from the University of San Francisco) and a few Hispanic men. I'm grateful to have this ethnic diversity and Spanish-speakers in the group!

Here's how our pro bono lawyer Bill Quigley _ who was also our lawyer last July _ describes us: "Your nonviolent social justice activist group includes many students, teachers, retirees, Catholic sisters, counselors, nurses, homemakers, missionaries, volunteers, social workers and therapists, and also includes an accountant, an engineer, an airline captain, two farmers, an artist, a lawyer, a priest, a pastor, a bricklayer, a salesperson, a newspaper deliverer, a printing manager, and a paralegal. You are from all over the country and include 35 people under twenty-five years of age and 28 over fifty."

Trial _ the largest SOAW trial ever _ is set for January 27, 2003. Very soon! I know many of you have a hard time understanding why I choose this. I know my actions place a strain on my family, mostly my parents in worrying about my safety. Despite that I'm blessed to have their support. And all I can say is, I'm following my conscience. That's all any of us, with God's help, can hope to do in this lifetime.

Lisa, a registered nurse, has spent five years living and working in the rural communities of Chalatenango, El Salvador.