Reflections on My SOA Trespass Trial

It’s “Only” Three Months – When I Expected Six.
Steve Clemens. February 2006

When one expects to receive the maximum sentence of six months in a Federal Prison, a sentence of half that amount can make one feel like they got off easy. The government prosecutors (U.S. Army JAG Officers) made the mistake of not certifying the prior arrest/conviction records of defendants and when the SOA Watch Legal Collective attorneys objected to including them in consideration at sentencing, the Judge had little choice in sustaining their exclusion. Therefore, my life of “crime” was not in evidence other than my “Ban and Bar Letters” given to me on prior trips “crossing the line” at Ft. Benning, GA. Unbeknownst to me, my five-year ban and bar expired the night before I entered Ft. Benning this year. (I mistakenly thought it had two more days when I entered and expected to be doubly charged for trespass and violating the ban and bar.) The SOA Watch lawyers reminded the judge that to sentence someone who did not violate the ban and bar as harshly as someone who did would send a message to others that honoring the exclusion from the base was meaningless - thus my three month sentence rather than the expected six.

It seemed at times that Judge G. Mallon Faircloth had the Biblical disease of “a hardened heart”. To hear testimony now for six years from principled resisters about the nature of the School of the Americas, to hear the witness of acting on behalf of the victims, to hear defendants of all ages (our group ranged from 19 to 81 years old) speak from the heart about their commitment to nonviolence – and then to continue to send nuns, priests, students, and other community activists to prison must take a toll on the judge’s soul.

The courtroom oozed an 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 U.S. Government represented by the JAG Officers (what ever happened to the separation of powers between military and civilian courts?) was only interested in documenting one’s illegal presence on the base, not whether something illegal is being taught on base. The collusion of the Judge with the Army’s intention was clearly evidenced when the Judge made a pre-trial ruling prohibiting defendants from using International Law and/or Necessity as a defense: this ruling despite a well-reasoned thirty page brief from defendant lawyers and without any rebuttal argument submitted by the prosecution! Whenever the judge sentenced a defendant, he explained that we had broken the law – assuming automatically that it called for punishment. If Dr. King, Susan B. Anthony, Thoreau, Gandhi, or members of the Boston Tea Party were resurrected and stood before our Judge, would he repeat the mistakes of the past by sending principled resisters to prison?

The chief values exhibited in the courtroom seemed to be those of punishment and deterrence. These values seem to go hand-in-glove with our present national preoccupation with the efficacy of terror and torture. If you threaten others (with the BOMB or with economic destabilization or other weapons of policy or warfare) then hopefully they will cease doing what you dislike or begin doing what you want. Despite history as recent as our Vietnam War days, it continues to fail to work against those who value freedom, self-deterrence, or their conscience over intimidation and bluster. What does the judge do when he gives six months in prison to a Franciscan priest and he returns not just once but twice since doing that time to commit the same act again? Fr. Jerry Zawada unashamedly told the judge this is his third time crossing the line since 9/11, not waiting for the prosecutor to ask the judge to “throw the book at him”. How does one deter a principled act of conscience? These defendants were not acting on a whim or fancy, most had counted the cost for months if not years before deciding this was their turn to add their voice on behalf of 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 rise and reign of the Third Reich. The guilt and shame of their silence or inaction was often attempted to be mitigated by the refrain “we didn’t know what was really going on”. Instead of saying “I don’t know what the SOA/WHINSEC is doing”, Judge Faircloth does his imitation of Pontius Pilate when he “pontificates” from the bench that it is the Legislative Branch and the Executive Branch of the government that sets the policy regarding the operations of this “school of assassins” (not a term he would use) – the Judicial Branch merely upholds those laws. I reminded him in my statement at sentencing that “German judges were also prosecuted at the Nuremberg Tribunals for their complicity in War Crimes.”

Whatever happened to the concept of checks and balances that is always touted in our high school civics classes? When will any branch of our government stand up and say “no torture, no rape, no “disappearing”, no murder” by agents of our government? Like Pilate, the Judge also “wiped his hands” of any responsibility once he sends the convicted off to prison. When told a fellow defendant was “put in the hole” for two weeks upon arriving at his federal prison destination without the necessary paperwork being done at the courthouse after sentencing, and after being informed that said political prisoner 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”.

In recent years we’ve heard a lot about the pitfalls (or advantages) of “activist” judges or “activist” courts. In reality, instead of being a check and balance to the misdeeds of government, most courts are more likely to practice cowardice. How many courts were willing to rule that the undeclared Vietnam War was unconstitutional? Where are the courts today when torture is trumpeted by the present Administration in Washington? When will courts heed the Sixth Article of the U.S. Constitution and honor the requirements of International Treaties signed by our government and “bind all judges” in the land? Theologically, is it reasonable to expect the court, a “principality and power,” to not be fallen and in captivity to the service of death?

It is instructive to compare our trial court with another. 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 but decided not to jail him. I pray it is some comfort to Iraqi citizens that our actions and willingness to go to prison sends a strong message that there are some Americans who denounce our practice of torture and murder. It has been more than two years since Christian Peacemaking Team members reported on the torture and mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi detention centers yet only a handful of low-level soldiers have be prosecuted allowing the upper echelon officers, Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, John Ashcroft, and the President off the hook.

Some may question why we focus on the School of the Americas - isn’t that so 1980s while we need to focus our energies in stopping the occupation of Iraq? While the U.S. media focuses on Iraq (and even there usually only from the vantage point of the Green Zone), members of the peace communities, union leaders, and other progressives continue to be gunned down in Columbia, the nation that has the largest number of troops presently being trained at WHINSEC. Like the Contra campaign in the Reagan years, this war is fought for U.S. interests by proxy armies. Our alleged concern for democracy is exposed for lie it is when one looks at the present situation in Haiti. Much of the recent destabilization there can be traced to graduates of the SOA/WHINSEC or, most recently, by direct intervention of the U.S. in the ouster of its popularly elected President who was kidnapped by the U.S. with the complicity of the Canadian and French governments after a destabilization campaign orchestrated from Washington. The SOA is primarily a symbol of the larger reality 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? Do we stop shopping when our President calls on us to consume our way out of the post 9/11 depression? 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 (among others) reminds us that “what you see depends on where you stand”. When we sat overnight in the Muscogee County Jail, when we stand in our new Federal Prison homes in the next couple of months, what we will see is the underbelly of the empire. Our fellow defendants from the Catholic Worker movement see this reality every day on the streets of our cities. When our nation spends in excess of $500 billion this year for the military (when you add the new request for the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars into the Department of Defense budget, 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, while in the context of Abu Ghraib and Columbia, the anniversaries of martyrdom in Central America, is also a cry of “nunca mas!,” no more! to empire and domination.

One of the most helpful sessions of our pre-trial meetings was the discussion of 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. Although by far most of those arrested plea bargain and don’t go to trial, those who do rarely have the show of support we enjoyed. As a wealthy, educated, healthy white male I expect to be listened to, given the benefit of the doubt. Being on trial, at the “mercy” of the judge, gives one a small taste of losing some of that control that I so often take for granted. Even though I chose to represent myself in court (rejecting the obscene fee imposed by the judge to charge each defendant for using an “out-of-state lawyer), I had ready access to consult with any of the lawyers if I had a question. Yet from past experience I know that sense of being in control will be sharply 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 time-and-again as they try to re-assimilate into civilian life. I’m sure warriors around the world hear the same: Nazi soldiers, insurgents, Contras, Tamil Tigers, paramilitaries in Columbia, private “contractors” (aka mercenaries) in Iraq, Mujaheddin, the list goes on. “Thank you for your sacrifice.” I expect political prisoners or “prisoners of conscience” have been greeted with the same when they walk out the prison doors. Is it 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?

Going to jail may be the easier route than continuing to find creative ways to resist the empire. I recall the conversation between Thoreau and Emerson – [In times like these] why are you not in jail? 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 this symbol of a foreign policy of domination: people demanding their Representatives and Senators to past HR 1217 to investigate the record of alleged atrocities of SOA, people in the streets attempting to disrupt “business as usual”, letters to the editors, 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. Can we hear the present-day voice of Jonah to our Nineveh-like empire to repent? Will we?