Why I'm Going to Prison - Pretrial letter. Dec. 2005

Why I’m Going to Prison
Steve Clemens. Dec. 1, 2005

Dear Friends,

Almost 25 years ago, I went to jail for six months as the result of a prayerful protest against nuclear weapons in Amarillo, TX. At that time, it was left up to my Dad to explain to family members why his son was in the slammer. Before I head off to what may be another six month sentence in a Federal Prison, I felt it best to try to share with you the reasons why. In 1981 we didn’t have the luxury of the internet and e-mail and with Wilma conveniently providing e-mail addresses with the Clemens Family Corporation newsletter I now have the ability to do this.

Let me say at the outset, I am not trying to “convert” you to my position and I am well aware that many of you do not share my perspectives on what some might see as “political” matters. I offer the following only in the hope that you might better understand me and my values and actions so that when we interact with each other, you have a better idea of who I am. I trust that as we work to be honest with each other we can also work on healing some of the sharp and bitter divisions that seem to proliferate in our culture. We can only “respectfully disagree” when we take the opportunity to listen to one another. I confess that too often I’ve neglected to speak a word when my silence has implied consent with something I understand to be wrong. Sometimes I’d added my “two cents” into a conversation without the context of my life experience and values and it has seemed to be strange or bizarre. So here is some of “why” I am likely to be headed off to jail (again).

My Dad always instructed me as I was learning to use a gun before hunting season to “never, ever point your gun in the direction of a human being” and “never aim your gun at something you don’t wish to kill.” Although I was only twelve when I learned to fire his old German mauser rifle prior to my first deer hunt, those words stuck with me and ultimately led (in part) to my declaration to be a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. That decision in the fall of 1968 set me on a path which has led me to understanding the Gospel and the way of Jesus as a commitment to nonviolence, ironically returning me to some of the same Anabaptist heritage that most of my relatives abandoned in the aftermath of World War II.

That conviction, that Jesus’ life and teaching are a call to love one’s enemies as well as one’s neighbor has been both a challenge and growing edge in my life. One of the biggest challenges for me in recent years has been to re-image God in light of those teachings. For me, to confess Jesus as Lord has meant to work for a more just society, praying and working for peace and reconciliation. Because many wars are initiated over economic reasons, the many years I spent building homes for low income families at Koinonia and with Habitat for Humanity was part of my commitment to peacemaking.

While living in Georgia in the ‘80s, I often helped drive a bus to the Texas-Mexico border or from Georgia to the Canadian border filled with refugees from the wars in Central America. From those refugees I learned about the atrocities committed by their own militaries (and paramilitary units), many of whom had been trained by the U.S. Army at the School of the Americas (renamed but with much of the same content in 2001 as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security and Cooperation). I heard first-hand (via a translator) of stories of rape, torture, disappearances, and murder committed by graduates of the SOA. Twenty-five years ago, one of these graduates ordered the assassination of the Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, a man who I have come to love and deeply respect for his faith, his compassion for the poor, and his commitment to justice. Other SOA graduates have been named by the UN Truth Commission as being responsible for murders of nuns, priests, teachers, union members, and others working for a more just society in their countries in Central America.

I helped start a weekly silent prayer vigil at the entrance to Fort Benning (home of the SOA/WHINSEC) back in 1983 and traveled regularly over the next 7 years to be present there. After moving to Minnesota in 1990, a growing nationwide movement to shut down the SOA was begun and I’ve traveled to Georgia for an annual protest and vigil each of the past 12 years. (Over the years, Christine, Micah, and Zach have joined me; Zach went with me again this year.) Several times I joined other people of faith in “crossing the line” – entering the base in an act of symbolic civil disobedience to protest against the continuation of a school and national policies which promoted the use of rape, torture, and other human rights abuses in the name of anti-communism, the drug war, and/or the “war on terror”. Because I was among hundreds, and later thousands of others taking this step, I was not prosecuted for the civil disobedience when only a handful were singled out each year to be sent to trial and jail. However, since 9/11, everyone who has “crossed the line” (now 3 - 12’ high fences) has been prosecuted and most have received 3-6 month prison sentences. [Note: the fences are only up for our annual vigil. Other days of the year one can drive on to the base without interference.]

Having traveled to El Salvador this past March with my eldest son, Micah, to commemorate the martyrdom of Oscar Romero, and having met with some of the survivors of the Copapayo massacre in their new “base Christian community”, I decided this was the year I should consider risking my freedom to stand with these humble peasants to say no to a national policy which winks at torture in Abu Ghraib and continues to support regimes in places like Columbia where peasants are being killed in wars fueled by American tax dollars. My understanding of Jesus’ call to be peacemakers necessitates taking risks for peace in a similar manner to the witness for racial justice by Martin Luther King, the stand for women suffrage by Susan B. Anthony, and the nonviolent actions which, I believe, helped end the Vietnam war.

Many people view such acts of civil disobedience to be political statements. However, my choice to carry my witness to Fort Benning was/is primarily a result of my faith rather than my politics. My intention was to walk to the location of the School of the Americas to both pray for peace as well as a prayer of confession for my complicity in the violence symbolized by that training school for Latin American military personnel. To the degree that my lifestyle and consumption patterns continue to create hunger and economic disparity in our world, the mere fact of my identity as a citizen of the U.S. has made me complicit in the actions taken by our elected leaders. Our nation spends more on its military than the next 25 nations combined because our leaders think we want them to protect our excess consumption of the world’s food, energy, and other natural resources. My “crossing the line” is an attempt to “put legs on my prayers” by putting my body in the way of “business as usual”. [More info about SOA is available at www.soaw.org]

I am scheduled for trial on Jan. 30 and face up to 6 months in prison and/or a $5,000. fine. I am immensely grateful to have a spouse, sons, and a faith community who support me in taking these steps for a better world. If in some small way, my action (along with 36 others, mostly also people of deep Christian commitment) helps lessen our readiness to use military force against the poor of the world, the probability of 6 months in a federal prison is worth it. I pray that attempting to act on my faith will be seen as an acceptable offering to our loving Creator who longs for all peoples to be reconciled.

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