Why is the Army So Afraid of Dissent?

Why is the Army So Afraid of Dissent? – Making It Difficult to Get Arrested at the SOA by Steve Clemens. November 2008

When the annual “Close the School of the Americas” vigil first began in 1990, there were only 13 people fasting by the main gate to Fort Benning in Columbus, GA. Over the past 18 years, the annual vigil has grown exponentially. The past three years have seen about 20,000 people attend and the crowd has grown increasingly younger. However, something has significantly changed over the years.

In the early ‘90s, the School of Americas Watch saw civil disobedience as a way to grow the movement. Individuals symbolically entered the army base by “crossing the line” – a line painted across the highway leading into the army base- thus demarking a “trespassing” charge for those who refused to leave after being ordered to do so by the Army. From previous experience, the SOAW movement recognized that the local Federal Judge, Robert Elliot, a hard-core racist who held that position for more than 30 years, would likely send “trespassers” to prison. Those civil disobedients, in turn, would use their incarceration to raise the profile of their cause in a way similar to Dr. King’s powerful “Letter From the Birmingham Jail” – speaking from jail/prison has a profound moral credibility and would cause friends and relatives to consider joining the struggle to close the School.

In 1996, 60 people were arrested for “crossing the line” and most were sent to federal prison for 1-6 months, depending on whether they had crossed before and received a “ban and bar letter” from Ft. Benning. Those who had already been barred from the base usually received the maximum 6 month sentence the federal law allowed for criminal trespass. Close to 650 persons crossed the line the next year and were surprised when the base commander fed them all a meal before they were released. The government picked a smaller number of those arrested to prosecute (since it would have been prohibitive to prosecute so many) and they went to prison while the others received ban and bar letters.

In 1998, emboldened by the fact that with increasing numbers of “line crossers” many would not be prosecuted, more than 2,000 committed the act of civil disobedience and, once again, only a handful were prosecuted and shipped off to prison. The fact that 2,319 people were willing to risk 6 months in prison for an act of conscience to close the SOA must have been a sobering wake-up call to the military officers and their civilian Columbus city supporters. The overall crowd gathering for the annual vigil had also swelled to more than 5,000. 1999 saw the crowd approaching 10,000 for the vigil and 4,408 “line-crossers”. 65 of those were “booked” after arrest and 23 prosecuted but the overwhelming majority were told they were under arrest, placed on school busses and driven off base and released!

The movement was indeed growing along with the number of people who decided to take that extra step of civil disobedience. In 2000 it appeared that more than ½ of the 12,000+ attendees were ready to take that risk and when more than 6,000 crossed the line, it took so long to process those arrested that about 2,000 walked back off the base leaving about 4,300 of us to be booked, photographed, finger-printed before being issued a 5-year ban and bar letter. Prior to this, most of the ban and bar letters were for only the period of one year. Clearly the Army was concerned about the growing numbers – thus the massive booking procedure that year. Again, however, the reality of jailing and trying so many people led the decision-makers in the army or the government to try only 22 of the 6,000+. Hopefully, the threat of 6 months in prison might keep at least some from crossing that line!

The terrorist attacks of 2001 changed the nature of the annual vigil dramatically. The School of Americas Watch had to go to court to even gain permission to gather outside the main entrance at Ft. Benning. Many of us were planning on gathering there anyway, risking arrest without even entering the base. But the fear and hysteria surrounding 9/11 was clearly felt on the military base as well. No longer could we merely walk on to the base to commit our civil disobedience- there was now a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire installed across the entrance! With this new wrinkle, 31 people were arrested for sitting in the street. But our protest wasn’t against the City of Columbus but rather the training of foreign troops to oppress their own people. So in 2002, 96 protesters went over or under the fence, were arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned.

In 2003, a second chain-link fence was installed along with a brightly painted line on the road just on the Columbus city side of the new fence. Thousands of people stepped over that line to place their crosses, flowers, and other symbols on the new fence. For 29 others, this wasn’t sufficient and they climbed over or under the fence and were arrested. They were prosecuted and went off to federal prison. By now over 170 persons had gone to prison as part of their witness for nonviolence and against the SOA. They were joined by 15 more in 2004, and I was one of the 37 prosecuted and jailed in 2005. By then a third fence was in place for this weekend of protest (but all were removed for the rest of the year) and we crawled under the fence in order to have the “privilege” of going to jail for justice. The fence was stretched tighter in 2006 so the 16 who chose to commit civil disobedience cut a hole in the outside fence in order to enter on to the military property. Almost all who went over or under the fence since 9/11/2001 got prison time for their efforts with only a few getting sentenced to a fine and probation.

Even with the (almost) certain knowledge that one would get a prison sentence for entering the base, the Army was flummoxed about how to keep these principled activists out. Whether it was a decision by the Columbus government or the military, in 2007 and 2008, new chain-link fences were installed along the sides of the road leading to the base entrance –thus preventing potential civil disobedients from walking along the perimeter a ways before trying to climb up and over or scamper under it. It seems the Army and the city government is scared to death of massive civil disobedience making it almost impossible to get arrested the weekend of the protest. In 2007 only 11 were able to get on to the base (and thus to prison) and this year the 6 who decided to cross had to drive to a different entrance –away from the protest- to enter. It seems one has to go to get effort to get arrested!

Why is the Army so afraid? It appears that prison sentences have been effective not in keeping people away but rather has had the effect of growing the movement. The more than 280 who have gone to prison for reasons of conscience related to the School of the Americas has resulted in more than 20,000 people gathering for the annual protest each of the past three years. If prison hasn’t served as an effective deterrent, maybe one of the few options left is for them to hide behind all their fences –hoping we will get distracted and go away. That, or maybe they can question why are so many of their fellow citizens outraged about what is going on behind those fences. Does the Army have as much courage to look at itself as those who are protesting against the notorious School of the Americas? Maybe a new President and a new Congress will finally close down this relic of the Cold War and our present obsession with empire. May it be so!

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