After Jail, At Time to Give Thanks

After Jail, At Time to Give Thanks by Steve Clemens

Spending parts of two days in the Muskogee County Jail in Columbus, GA a few days before Thanksgiving helps to remind me of why I need to be grateful in my life.

I am doubly blessed at this time because I was able to act on my conscience and take a risk for peace as well as being joined in that witness by some incredible people. The Community of St. Martin has rented a van or bus for the 12th year in a row to help people travel to Columbus, GA to continue the call to “Close the SOA”. The School of the Americas, renamed “The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC)” in 2001 after the U.S. Congress narrowly defeated a bill to close it, has been linked to a multitude of atrocities and human rights violations over the past several decades. Many of the thousands who join the nonviolent protest at the gates of Fort Benning where the school is located have traveled to Latin America and have spoken to victims and family members of victims who have suffered at the hands of graduates of the SOA under the guise of “fighting counterinsurgency”, stopping the “spread of communism”, or “opposing Liberation Theology”. Today the excuses for the brutality and inhumanity emanating from its graduates include “fighting the war against global terrorism” and “stopping the drug trade”. Our nation has yet to learn that using tactics of torture, rape, and terror only leads to increasing the spiral of violence rather than solving any issues.

The School of the Americas Watch, a group of peace activists led and inspired by Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois, has organized an annual vigil, rally, and solemn funeral procession/remembrance for the weekend in November which mostly closely coincides with the anniversary of the martyrdom of six Jesuit priests who were killed by SOA graduates in El Salvador in 1989. Each year, the number of protestors grows – this year approaching 20,000. Organizers said that the gathering this year had almost half of the attendees as high school and college-age young people which help balance out those of us with graying and balding heads. Over the past 16 years, more than 200 persons of conscience have been jailed for their nonviolent acts of civil resistance to this “school”.

After my trip to El Salvador this spring with my son Micah, I began thinking that this might be a time to once again consider risking arrest by carrying my prayers as far on to the base as possible, hoping to pray at the site of the school itself. Knowing that virtually all of those who have been arrested for entering the base since 2001 have received prison sentences as a result, it was important not to make such a decision casually. My time of discernment about taking such a step was complicated by Hurricane Katrina. Wanting to respond to the needs created by the hurricane, I contacted Mennonite Disaster Service to see if I could help. After some back and forth, it appeared they could best use me next Spring, making entering at Fort Benning again a possibility. My wife Christine would prefer me spending 6 months rebuilding Mississippi or Louisiana rather than sitting in a federal prison but said she’d support me in what I felt called to do. I am so grateful for such a partner!

When I told my two sons about my decision to risk arrest, Zach told me he’d like to join me in riding down to the vigil on the CSM bus. I was really pleased to see his interest rekindled in this issue as an adult. He had traveled with me several times over the past 12 years but school work/schedules discouraged his participation in more recent times. He arranged to reschedule two midterm exams at his college to be present when I “crossed the line”. In Minneapolis, I had a send-off from our Wednesday AM vigil group in front of weapons-maker Alliant Techsystems and then another send-off from our Community of St. Martin’s circle before the bus left on Friday morning for the 24 hour ride to Georgia. Those traveling on our bus also circled up for a prayer and blessing on Sunday morning prior to our joining the witness. Such signs of support and caring are essential to sustaining a spirit of resistance over the long haul.

Carrying a small wooden cross with the name of the martyred Archbishop Romero, I participated in the solemn procession until the time came when the first group would attempt to enter the base. We walked along the fence and after hugging some of my supporters, Zach watched as I crawled under a portion of the fence that others had lifted for me. Sam Foster, a Veterans For Peace member from Minneapolis followed closely behind. I knelt in prayer and was fairly quickly grabbed by a Military Police, handcuffed, and hauled off. We were processed at two locations on the military base over the course of about six hours before being bussed in cuffs and shackles to the county jail to be booked and processed again as federal prisoners. After a cold and noisy night in the “geezer cellblock” (all the prisoners in this cell area were 50 or older), we were taken to court the next morning for arraignment and a bail hearing. [I will write more about the jail time and courtroom events soon]. I posted a $1,000. bond, promising to return for trial slated to begin on January 30.

I returned from Georgia with David Harris, another Vet For Peace from our AlliantAction circle, who served as Sam and my support person. I’m grateful for all the prayers and expression of support I have received as I continue this journey.

(please check out more information about the opposition to the school and to view pictures of the protest at

following is a local newspaper article:

Protesters get first day in court

36 SOA Watch demonstrators arrested

Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Posted on Tue, Nov. 22, 2005
From New York to California and from Wisconsin to Washington D.C., the SOA Watch's weekend protest brought three dozen people to the confines of the Muscogee County Jail.
On Monday, 34 SOA Watch protesters pleaded not guilty to crossing onto Fort Benning over the weekend, with two others pleading guilty. The 36 arrested is triple the number taken into custody last year.
This year's group is significantly older than last year, with 20 of the 36 older than 50. Last year, four of the 12 arrested were older than 50. Trials are scheduled to begin Jan. 30, 2006.
Christine Gaunt, 49, of Grinnell, Iowa, pleaded guilty to re-entering the military installation after being banned for five years after trespassing in 2002. She was sentenced to six months in prison and a $2,000 fine. The maximum punishment for the federal misdemeanor is six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Donald Nelson, 62, of Summertown, Tenn., pleaded guilty to entering the post and was sentenced to 90 days in prison. He said he was motivated to cross over not because of violence, but because of his conscience.
"I've been trying to figure out how to deal with the terrorism the SOA has caused," he said. "I want to take some action. I'm looking for a better way, but I haven't found one."
Nelson was arrested Sunday at the protest, where 15,000 SOA Watch protesters gathered outside the main gate of Fort Benning. For the 16th consecutive year, the protesters demanded the closing of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas.
As they have since the demonstrations started in 1990 with six people, the protesters are calling for the closing of the institute, which trains soldiers, police and administrators from Latin and Central America. SOA Watch cites human rights abuses that have been committed by military personnel trained by the U.S. Army.
U.S. Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth held arraignment hearings for the protesters, some of whom remained silent and let their attorneys enter not guilty pleas. Others spoke of their personal convictions to protest. The mood was light-hearted, as Faircloth joked with the defendants throughout the daylong hearings in the Columbus Recorder's Court building.
Gail Phares, who pleaded not guilty and was given a $1,000 bond, told the judge she planned on being in court for her Jan. 30 trial and the judge agreed.
"I look forward to seeing you," he said to the Raleigh, N.C., woman. "But you are too far out of the jurisdiction, so I'm going to need (financial) assurance."
Father's offer denied
Faircloth gave a Georgetown University student a break because he told the judge he was financially dependent on his parents and that $1,000 was too "excessive." After a long pause, Faircloth agreed.
"Just because of the way Georgetown plays basketball, I'm going to reduce your bond to $500," he told Donté Smith, 19. "But don't tell anyone."
Thirty people received a $1,000 bond, Smith got a $500 bond and two men got bonds of $1,500 and $2,500. John LaForge, 40, of Luck, Wis., received a $1,500 bond because of an extensive past of unlawful entry to other military bases, as well as the White House, dating back to 1981. Faircloth placed a bond of $2,500 on James Walters, 41, of Columbia, Mo., because of his criminal past, which includes nine felony and 11 misdemeanor charges, although the number of convictions was disputed in court.
Father Jerome Zawada of Cedar Lake, Ind., offered to stay in jail on behalf of his "companions" who were already sentenced. Zawada was the last defendant to have a hearing Monday and the judge had already set bond for the others, so Faircloth rejected it.
"Your offer is impressive, and I hope they know you offered to do that for them," Faircloth said. "At the same time, I cannot accept it."
Zawada told the judge he wasn't going to post bond and intended to stay in jail until his trial.
"We are very eager to return to the trial to continue our message," he said.
Sentenced after pleading guilty on Monday :
• Christine P. Gaunt, 27, Decatur, Ga. -- 6 months in prison, $2,000 fine; • Donald W. Nelson, 62, Summertown, Tenn. -- 90 days in prison.
Pleading not guilty; bond set for release pending trial :
• Buddy R. Bell, 23, Wood Dale, Ill. -- $1,000 bond; • Frederick C. Brancell, 79, Madison, Wis. -- $1,000 bond.
• Robert S. Call, 72, Hasbrouck, N.J. -- $1,000 bond; • Charles F. Carney, 47, Kansas City -- $1,000 bond.
• Stephen D. Clemens, 55, Minneapolis -- $1,000 bond; • JoAnne N. Cowan, 56, Boulder, Colo. -- $1,000 bond.
• Anika D. Cunningham, 26, Bowling Green, Ohio -- $1,000 bond; • Scott J. Dempsky, 30, Demark, Wis. -- $1,000 bond.
• Joseph Deraymond, 55, St. Fremansburg, Pa. -- $1,000 bond; • Kenneth F. Crowley, 65, Washington, D.C. -- $1,000 bond.
• Samuel O. Foster, 70, Minneapolis -- $1,000 bond; • Jonathan P. Robert, 49, Grinnell, Iowa -- Bond deferred pending state hold.
• Michael Lee Gayman Jr., 26, Davenport, Iowa -- $1,000 bond; • Sarah C. Harper, 36, Emoryville, Calif. -- $1,000 bond.
• Rita O. Hohenshell, 30, Des Moines, Iowa -- $1,000 bond; • Jane M. Hoskings, 37, Luke, Wis. -- $1,000 bond.
• John M. LaForge, 49, Luck, Wis. -- $1,500 bond; • Elizabeth A. Lentsch, 68, Oak Ridge, Tenn. -- $1,000 bond.
• Robin Lloyd, 57, Burlington, Vt. -- $1,000 bond; • Linda O. Masburn, 63, Brevard, N.C. -- $1,000 bond.
• Liam O'Reilly, 22, Durham, Maine -- $1,000 bond; • Dorothy Parker, 76, Chico, Calif. -- $1,000 bond.
• Gail S. Phares, 66, Raleigh, N.C. -- $1,000 bond; • Judith Ruland, 47, Springfield, Mass. -- $1,000 bond.
• Delmar J. Schwaller, 81, Appleton, Wis. -- $1,000 bond; • Donté Smith, 19, Washington, D.C. -- $500 bond.
• Edward J. Smith, 38, Harrisburg, Pa. -- $1,000 bond; • Cheryl F. Sommers, 68, Berkeley, Calif. -- $1,000 bond.
• David A. Sylvester, 55, Oakland, Calif. -- $1,000 bond; • Priscilla K. Tresca, 66, Cleveland, Ohio -- $1,000 bond.
• Louis J. Vitale, 73, San Francisco -- $1,000 bond; • James L. Walters, 41, Columbia, Mo. -- $2,500 bond.
• Francis H. Woolever, 72, Syracuse, N.Y. -- $1,000 bond; • Jerome Zawada, 68, Cedar Lake, Ind. -- $1,000 bond.
Protesters from the November 2004 SOA Watch demonstrations who were convicted of misdemeanor trespass and sentenced in January in U.S. District Court by Judge G. Mallon Faircloth:
• Alice Gerard, 48, Buffalo, N.Y. -- six months in prison, $500 fine; • Robert N. Chantal, 52, Americus, Ga. -- 90 days in prison, $500 fine.
• Elizabeth A. Deligio, 28, Chicago -- 90 days in prison, $500 fine; • Brian D. DeRouen, 26, Dayton, Ohio -- 120 days in prison, $500 fine.
• Meagan Elizabeth Doty, 22, Dayton, Ohio -- 90 days in prison, $500 fine; • Ronald E. Durham, 24, Chicago -- 90 days in prison, $500 fine.
• John Thomas MacLean, 79, Ashfield, Mass. -- 90 days in prison; • Lelia J. Mattingly, 63, Maryknoll, N.Y. -- six months in prison.
• Elizabeth K. Nadeau, 27, Minneapolis -- 90 days in prison, $500 fine; • Michael P. Ring Sr., 65, Wall, N.J. -- 12 months probation, $1,000 fine.
• Daniel J. Schwankl, 31, Siler City, N.C. -- 90 days in prison, $500 fine; • Aaron Peter Shuman, 32, Oakland, Calif. -- 120 days in prison, $500 fine.

Risking Arrest at The School of the Americas. November 2005

A Prayer For Peace –by Steve Clemens. November 2005

On November 20th I join more than 10,000 fellow citizens at the entrance of Fort Benning in Columbus, GA, adding my voice to the growing chorus calling for the closure of “The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC)” aka “School of the Americas (SOA)”. This peaceful/prayerful witness has been taking place in November for the past 15 years to coincide with the anniversary of the martyrdom of six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter in San Salvador in 1989. The U.N. Truth Commission set up after El Salvador’s long, bloody civil war concluded that responsibility for the assassinations of these people of faith (as well as countless others) was directed and carried out by military personnel who had been trained at the SOA before committing these murders of unarmed advocates for justice in El Salvador.

I had the opportunity to travel to El Salvador this past April with the Center For Global Education at Augsburg College to be present for the national recognition of the 25th anniversary of the martyrdom/assassination of the Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero. I had read several books that have been written about his life, collections of his sermons and pastoral letters, and had viewed the motion picture released about his life and death. The love of the common people for his life and witness in El Salvador gives evidence that he has become a patron saint for the church in that small Central American nation. His murder has also been determined to have been ordered by a graduate of the SOA.

Our group also made a pilgrimage to two other sites during our week in El Salvador besides the places where Romero and the Jesuits were killed. We traveled to the chapel in the countryside built on the site where the bodies of three Maryknoll nuns and a lay religious worker were hastily buried after their rape and murders in December 1989. Again, the murders and human rights abuses to Jean Donovan, Maura Clark, Ita Ford, and Dorothy Kazel were linked to graduates of this school. We prayed for forgiveness for our complicity as citizens of the nation that trained and paid for their killers. We also were blessed to spend time with the survivors of the massacre of Copapayo, a small village outside of Suchitoto. After visiting the site of the original village and the ravine/lake shoreline where more than 150 were gunned down by the Salvadoran military, we were invited to visit their new village up-lake from there to share a meal with some of the survivors. Again, these murders of the peasants was directed by, and carried out by, SOA graduates.

As the annual litany of names of the thousands killed in Central and South America by SOA graduates is sung in the prayerful, solemn memorial remembrance, it is my intent to carry a small cross painted with the name of Monsignor Oscar Romero on to the military base and to walk toward the location of this school of torture and assassination. It is my intent to “give legs” to my prayers for peace and an end to the violent oppression that this school symbolizes. It is likely that I will be arrested by military police before I am able to reach the SOA buildings but I will walk as far as I am able, each step a prayer for both the victims and the perpetrators, for our governmental leaders and all of us taxpayers who are complicit in the on-going crimes committed by the product of this institution.

The SOA/WHINSEC is a symbol of our national foreign policy which has led to the tortures of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib and many other prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and many secret locations run by the CIA around the world under the misguided aim to quell “terrorism” by violence and intimidation in order that the “beneficiaries” of the American Empire can continue a standard of living at the expense of the world’s poor. The SOA continues to train military officers of Colombia who have been implicated in human rights abuses. I go to Fort Benning and the SOA confessing my own failure to more fully follow the life and teaching of Jesus who calls us to a lifestyle of justice and compassion. My prayers and act of civil resistance to these powers of death are a small attempt to give a voice to the voiceless, to speak and act in solidarity to the victims of our national policies which are embodied in this institution which has produced so much evil over the years. I pray that this saying “NO” to the powers of death is swallowed up in the “YES” embodied in the life and teaching of Jesus and I will continue to work for a world of justice, compassion, and equal opportunity. I ask all of you to join me as you are able to work and pray to close this school and change our policy. (You may learn more about this “school” at , including the call for cessation of all classes at the school by Amnesty Int’l. USA and an investigation of human rights violations connected to the school).