From Courtroom to Prison:
The School of the Americas Witness Continues by Steve Clemens
Trial and Sentencing.
I expected to receive the maximum sentence of six months in a Federal Prison (for nonviolent direct action at the School of the Americas facility in November). My sentence of half that amount makes me feel like I got off easy. The government prosecutors did not certify the prior arrest/conviction records of defendants, and thus could not include them for consideration at sentencing. Therefore, my life of “crime” was not in evidence, other than my “Ban and Bar Letters” for prior trips “crossing the line” at Ft. Benning, GA.
It seemed at times that Judge G. Mallon Faircloth had the Biblical disease of “a hardened heart.” For six years he has heard testimony from principled resisters about the nature of the School and about their witness acting on behalf of the victims of torture. Hearing defendants of all ages (our group ranged from 19 to 81 years old) speak from the heart about their commitment to nonviolence, only to continue to send nuns, priests, students, and others to prison must take a toll on the one’s soul.
The Idolatry of the Law.
The focus of the prosecutors was always “Did you cross the line?” rather than “Why did you cross the line?” The Government was only interested in documenting illegal presence on the base, not whether something illegal is being taught there. The Judge made a pre-trial ruling prohibiting defendants from using an International Law and/or Necessity as a defense, despite a well-reasoned thirty page brief from defendant lawyers. What would he have said if Martin Luther King or Susan B. Anthony or members of the Boston Tea Party had stood before him?
The courtroom discourse of deterrence seems to go hand-in-glove with our present national preoccupation with the efficacy of terror and torture. Our empire threatens others with nuclear weapons or economic destabilization or torture, hoping they will conform to our policy demands. Yet this fails to work against those who value freedom and conscience over intimidation and bluster. So Fr. Jerry Zawada, a Franciscan priest, was sentenced to six months in prison, and yet returned not once but twice more. The defendants were not acting on a whim; they had counted the cost carefully before deciding it was their turn to speak for those who have no voice in the policies of the empire.
One defendant recalled the defensiveness of her German cousins who lived there during the Third Reich. The guilt and shame of their silence could not be mitigated by the refrain “But we didn’t know what was really going on.” Yet there was Judge Faircloth doing his Pontius Pilate imitation, insisting that it is the Legislative and the Executive Branches of government that sets policy about the SOA. I reminded him in my statement at sentencing that “German judges were also prosecuted at the Nuremberg Tribunals for their complicity in War Crimes.” When will any branch of our government stand up and say “no torture, no rape, no disappearing, no murder” by agents of our government?
When told that one of our fellow defendants was put in the “hole” for two weeks upon arriving at federal prison because the necessary paperwork was not done at the courthouse after sentencing, and that he had to remain on his bed for seven consecutive days because his basement segregation cell was flooded, the judge replied, “I don’t tell the Bureau of Prisons how to run their prisons and they don’t tell me how to run my courtroom.” Instead of being a check and balance to the misdeeds of government, our courts are more likely to practice cowardice, silent when torture is trumpeted by the present Administration in Washington, and deaf to the Sixth Article of the U.S. Constitution which requires judges to honor International Treaties signed by our government.
Our prison sentences come less than a week after a military jury in Colorado found a U.S. Army interrogator guilty of negligent homicide in the torture and killing of a detainee in Iraq, yet decided not to jail him. Two years after Christian Peacemaking Team members reported on the torture and mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi detention centers, only a handful of low-level soldiers have be prosecuted, while the architects of those policies (Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, John Ashcroft, and the President) are off the hook. I pray that our actions and willingness to go to prison sends a strong message to Iraqi citizens that there are some Americans who denounce the practice of torture and murder.
Focusing on Empire through the School of the Americas.
Our witness is profoundly connected to the occupation of Iraq. Meanwhile, out of the media spotlight, peace activists, union leaders, and others continue to be gunned down in Columbia, the nation that has the largest number of troops presently being trained at the SOA. Much of the recent destabilization in Haiti can also be traced to graduates of the SOA. The SOA is a symbol of an empire bent on world domination, whether it is by economic rewards and/or strangulation, mercenary armies, or direct military intervention.
How do we resist this march of the empire? If democracy depends on the “consent of the governed,” how do we withdraw that consent? Several defendants talked about “speaking truth to power” in our trial preparations, but I think we do more truth telling with our feet than with our tongues. Kathy Kelly reminds us that “what you see depends on where you stand.” When we sit in our new Federal Prison homes in the next couple of months, what we will see is the underbelly of the empire. When our nation spends in excess of $500 billion this year for the military (not counting Veterans Affairs or war-incurred national debt payments), there is no money left from the federal coffers for education, the environment, healthcare, housing, or other human needs. My protest against the SOA is also a cry of “nunca jamas!” to empire and domination.
Our witness as privilege.
I suspect there are very few other defendants who come before this judge with a roomful of supporters. I had four friends who traveled more than 1,000 miles from Minnesota to stand with me, and two more who came from West Virginia. As a wealthy, educated, healthy white male I expect to be listened to, given the benefit of the doubt. Even though I chose to represent myself in court (rejecting the fee imposed by the judge on each defendant for using an “out-of-state lawyer!), I had ready access to lawyers if I had a question. Still, being on trial at the “mercy” of the judge gives one a small taste of losing some of that control, and it will be further challenged when I enter the prison grounds. Still, I need to remember that even this loss of control is the result of a deliberate choice I made when I decided to cross the line.
On the airplane ride home from the trial (privilege again!), the pilot walked through the cabin to greet several soldiers dressed in desert fatigues returning from the war in Iraq. “Thank you for your sacrifice,” was the refrain I expect they will hear repeatedly as they try to re-assimilate into civilian life. Warriors around the world hear the same from their supporters: Nazi soldiers, Contras, Tamil Tigers, paramilitaries in Columbia, Mujahedeen. I also expect that we “prisoners of conscience” will be greeted with the same commendation when we walk out of prison. Is this a way we can continue to live vicariously through “the sacrifice” of others without getting our own hands dirty or giving up our comfort and security?
Yet those going to jail are not necessarily more committed – it is only one form of resistance. It will take the gifts and calling of all of us to shut down the SOA: people demanding their Representatives and Senators to pass HR 1217 to investigate the record of atrocities by the SOA; people in the streets attempting to disrupt “business as usual”; letters to editors and representatives; conversations with friends and family; delegations with Witness For Peace and Christian Peacemaker Teams; and other creative ways to add our “No!” to the Domination System.
We’ve been given a gift. Many of us will be going to prison during Holy Week. Specifically, it looks as though we’ll start our sentences the day that the church commemorates Jesus’ own civil disobedience, when he “cleaned money-changers out of the Temple.” Since Judge Faircloth is choosing not to do pre sentencing investigation reports in advance on us, we are likely to spend Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter in “the Hole”. Although our “suffering” will be insignificant in comparison with that of the original Holy Week, or with the present day victims of those trained at the SOA, it will provide us a better context for reflection during that sacred time.
Our journey into “the belly of the beast” will also coincide with the April 15 tax frenzy. We remind friends of the cost to the taxpayers for our principled protest: as some of us will likely be headed for Penitentiary instead of work camps, the per diem expense to harbor our “criminal” consciences will be even greater. Although the waiting has been difficult for some of us, hopefully we can use these next few weeks to prepare psychically for the journey ahead. To enter prison with the knowledge and support of people world-wide is a privilege few people have, so we are cognizant of our responsibility to be present to those we meet “inside” as we together struggle to recover the soul of our nation.
My report date is April 11th. My place of service for the next three months on behalf of “those who have no voice” will be prison in Duluth. My Bureau of Prisons number is 92565-020; if you wish to send me any mail after I arrive, it can be addressed as follows:
Stephen D. Clemens 92565-020
FPC Duluth Federal Prison Camp
PO Box 1000
Duluth, MN 55814