A federal magistrate in Georgia sentenced eleven people to prison for up to six months last week for crossing the line onto a military base in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience last fall.
In protest against the School of the Americas–a US-run training facility for Latin American soldiers that has earned a reputation for teaching torture, coercion and execution tactics–the eleven demonstrators entered the grounds of Fort Benning on November 21, in some cases by scaling a barbed-wire fence at the main gate. The sentences are not unlike those doled out to past SOA protesters, but they are, viewed from a broader perspective, strikingly harsh and excessive, especially in a year in which the use of torture has generated headlines.
“The severity of the sentences is so far out of proportion to the actions taken,” said William Quigley, a lawyer with the SOA Watch legal collective and a professor at the Loyola New Orleans School of Law. Referring to one particular case that resulted in a six-month prison sentence, he added, “If this same act happened in 99 percent of the federal districts throughout the United States, the sentence would have been a small fine or some community service.”
Indeed, as Quigley argued in court on behalf of several SOA protesters, similar actions in other regions of the country have led to far less extreme sentences. In cases stemming from nonviolent demonstrations at military bases from Puerto Rico to California, sentences have included $10 fines, six months of unsupervised probation, 100 hours of community service and thirty days in prison. But the sentences handed down in the cases of the SOA protesters of 2004, in keeping with a trend that dates back several years, were markedly different than those others. In all, two protesters received six months in prison, two others four months and seven more three months; most of those eleven also wound up with fines of $500. (Three additional protesters, two of whom were minors, received probation or deferred sentences.)
Roy Bourgeois, the Catholic priest who founded SOA Watch in 1990 and has spent a combined four years in prison for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, called the harshness of the sentences “a grave injustice.” But he added that the steep prison terms would not, by any means, silence the voices of those who took a stand against the SOA–which was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001. “When they send us to prison, they cannot silence us,” he said. “We have discovered, as so many people before us who have inspired us discovered, that the truth cannot be silenced.”
When Lil Mattingly, a 63-year-old Maryknoll sister, crossed the line at Fort Benning in November, she too held the belief that no prison sentence would silence her voice. “Once people hear about this issue, they’re outraged,” she said, “so I really believe in raising awareness about it.” Despite being sentenced last week to six months in prison, she has continued to speak out against the SOA. “For me,” she said, reflecting on her sentence, which will likely begin next month, “this is an outlet to express my outrage in a nonviolent, peaceful way.”
Beyond her opposition to the SOA as an institution, Mattingly has a very personal connection to the issue. She was friends with the four churchwomen who were raped and murdered by SOA graduates in El Salvador in 1980, and she spent more than twenty years living and working in Bolivia and Nicaragua, both of which have experienced barbarity at the hands of US-trained paramilitary forces over the years. “We have tried not to focus just on our sisters,” she said, referring to the widely known churchwomen killed in El Salvador, two of whom were Maryknoll sisters. “Because unfortunately, we know that it’s the same for so many families throughout Central America.”
Citing a number of other human rights atrocities committed by SOA graduates over the years, several of the protesters bound for prison said that their stiff sentences simply illustrated a glaring contradiction. “Any system that puts people like [my fellow protesters and me] in prison while war criminals have their pictures hanging on the Wall of Fame at the SOA is just unacceptable,” said Brian DeRouen, a 27-year-old graduate student at the University of Dayton, who is facing four months in prison for his actions at Fort Benning in November.
Despite complaints about the system and the sentences, the movement to close the SOA–emboldened by its largest demonstration in history in 2004–has shown no signs of letting up. “We embrace the sentences as humble acts of solidarity with the victims of the School of the Americas and US foreign policy,” said Bourgeois. “And in a way, those going to prison now will once again inspire more people to join the movement.”
And so the campaign to close the SOA will press on, and in all likelihood continue to grow. But the excessive prison sentences handed down last week in Georgia highlight the forces of opposition that SOA protesters face as they work to shut down the decades-old military institution. As Quigley, the SOA Watch lawyer, said, “The people who taught the torture don’t even go to court, but the peacemakers are sent to prison.”