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!

Regrets? I Have a Few

Regrets? I Have a Few by Steve Clemens. November 16, 2008

It is now almost two weeks since the landmark political tsunami of the Obama election occurred. I think the fact that my working as an election judge until past 11PM on Election Day might be one reason for my obtuseness. I didn’t get to see the images on the widescreen TV from Chicago where a quarter-million or more had gathered in Grant Park to await their hero/leader, the President-elect. I missed the iconic image of Jesse Jackson standing near the platform with tears running down his face. It was the same Jesse who stood over the body of his slain mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., forty years before. Was this at least a partial vindication of Martin’s dream?

I didn’t see that image live –I saw it replayed the next day or two along with the video of Oprah standing in the crowd, her head buried for a time on the shoulder of a man she never met before - a billionaire, standing among the “hoi polloi”, the common folk, awaiting the appearance of Barack, Michelle, and the Obama children.

I should have known. After all, his best-selling Autobiography was entitled The Audacity of Hope. This hope that garnered nearly 63 million votes on November 4, 2008 was audacious all right! Some people merely wanted a change after being tired of fear, isolation, and a culture of greed gone bankrupt. But others voted with HOPE, an audacious hope that America might regain some of the “innocence” lost or squandered over the past eight years.

The HOPE of still others -who never were distracted by the fairy tales of the culture which spun such na├»ve claims of “innocence” for a nation whose history reeked from the stench of genocide of indigenous peoples, the enslavement of others, wars of conquest and aggression against Spanish-speaking neighbors and those in islands across the Pacific – was more historically grounded. It remembered the country responsible for war-time internment and later the use of the nuclear bomb against those of Asian ancestry. The list of offenses that any empire leaves in its wake could fill this page. But, despite knowing this shameful past, some still went to the polls the first Tuesday in November thinking “I’m gonna vote for HOPE”.

For some, Obama was the embodiment of the change. His multiracial and multicultural past was a central part of that symbolism. For others, Obama was primarily an imperfect vessel who might be a figurehead for a movement which was clearly more progressive than he was willing to be as a candidate. At least in Obama, a fresh face on the political scene, there could be a politician who might listen and practice a politics of humility and inclusiveness.

It took me several days and experiences before recognizing the powerful explosion of HOPE that erupted all over the world at 10 PM CST when the TV commentators declared Barack Obama as America’s 44th President-elect. Demonstrations happened worldwide. People danced in the streets. Parents named newborns after the electoral winner. Having arrived home too late to watch the returns, and, working so hard that day that I decided to sleep in the next morning rather than attend the weekly Alliant Tech vigil, I processed most of the election results privately.

My first inkling of the HOPE revolution came with our Minnesota Peace Team meeting on Thursday. It was confirmed at the gathering at St. Joan of Arc Church on Sunday to hear John Dear and again that evening with my own faith community, the Community of St. Martin. Everyone wanted to celebrate and talk about what a hopeful moment this was! Same thing happened at my Sabbath Economics group circle on Monday evening and at the Vets for Peace gathering for the Armistice Day remembrance a week after the election. It seemed everyone was expressing their hope and optimism – even though it was still “guarded optimism” from some. The Alliant Tech vigil a week after the election results continued this theme. Here were some hard-core activists, some I knew shared my skepticism about Obama’s campaign positions, especially on military spending, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, the death penalty, … the list could go on. But still, the over-all atmosphere of HOPE.

Thursday evening I attended an anti-racism lecture by Victor Lewis. He positively glowed as he danced, pranced, and sang at the beginning of the talk –celebrating the incredible events of the past week. Over and over people said, “I never believed I would see this in my lifetime! I knew it would happen eventually, but so soon?” So soon? We’ve been in the wilderness the past 40 years after our cultural prophet was slain. And Barack is no Martin.

What is audacious to me is thinking that this change might happen with somebody so middle-of-the-road politically as Barack Obama. I was expecting and dreaming of a prophetic voice like that of Dr. King to move the masses. Yet I heard African-American fathers talk about how they could now honestly tell their sons and daughters, “You can aspire to any position you want!” Somehow, by not talking about race, not talking about class, discrimination, and other injustices, people have HOPE for CHANGE. Obama may not be the embodiment but at least he is the messenger.

I’m saddened that I failed to see the depth of the political symbolism of HOPE the Obama campaign obviously engendered. Oh, I saw the importance of the symbolism worldwide of a multicultural person as the titular head of government – so often referred to as “the most powerful person in the world”. The U.S. President may be –in that he nominally controls the deadliest arsenal of military weapons. But, as the world so clearly sees now, our lame-duck emperor has no clothes and very little political or persuasive power. Even John McCain shied away from his embrace during his campaign.

Who is “the most powerful person in the world” today? It might be Obama in that he has captured the imaginations around the globe of new possibilities. It might be Nelson Mandela or the Dali Lama. Military power is only one type of power; the power to stir the imagination and mobilize people is clearly another. Fear is a powerful motivator – but has it met its match with HOPE?

Two weeks ago I thought the symbolism of my vote for a Lebanese-American, Ralph Nader, also could send a powerful message of supporting a person of Middle-East descent as my President. I didn’t have any illusions that he could win the election but felt that his positions most clearly meshed with mine. But I failed to fully comprehend the wellspring of HOPE that Obama’s election would generate. Oh, there is plenty of work to do – we must pressure Obama to do the right thing in many areas. I don’t have the illusion that he is even a progressive – despite the McCain mantra that “Obama is the most liberal person in the Senate”. If true, we are really in trouble. But “HOPE springs eternal”.

May the HOPE engendered in this election be embodied in both “our physical bodies and the body politic” as my friend Ched Myers describes the call of the nonviolent, activist Jesus. When Jesus healed individuals, he also addressed the politic/social injustice that oppressed them as well. May it be that kind of HOPE that we embrace.

My Letter to the Pope

Dear Pope Benedict,

I write to you as a fellow Christian from the Anabaptist tradition who has numerous Roman Catholic friends and colleagues. I also write as a personal friend and admirer of Father Roy Bourgeois who I've known since 1983.

I strongly urge you and others in the Roman Catholic hierarchy to reconsider the threat made to Father Roy to excommunicate him because of his principled opposition to the continued second-class status of women in the church. I can't make a better argument for their full inclusion than Roy has already done so in his letter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on November 7. I can report to you my own personal observation: If Father Roy is excommunicated as threatened, many other faithful Catholics will join him in leaving the Church. (A close friend already left several months ago after she tired of the "abuse" she has felt from Church hierarchy.)

I write this out of love for the Body of Christ. While I have many differences with the Roman Catholic expression of that Body, (and, frankly don't know where I stand from your perspective after your confusing and condemning words reportedly said by you about other Christian denominations shortly after you were elected to your position as Bishop of Rome), it is crucial that Christians send out a message to the entire world that the embrace of Christ is for all- equally- and that there is no clear double-standard for women that many of us perceive in the practice of Islam in many cultures.

Only when women, created in God's image, are valued and treated equally with men in all respects by the Church will we experience the full power of the Spirit in our midst.

In sadness and Christian love,

Steve Clemens

You Can Blame Me: My Vote in 2008

You Can Blame Me: My Vote in 2008 by Steve Clemens. Election Day +2, 2008

If Al Franken fails to surpass Norm Coleman in votes after the state-mandated recount in the next several weeks and Norm is sworn in for another 6-year term, I guess you can “blame me”. I just couldn’t justify filling in the oval before his name on the ballot. No, I didn’t completely lose my mind or my conscience and vote for Norm Coleman! Nor did I succumb to the tempting “a pox on both your houses” for such a plethora of disgusting negative adds by the Franken and Coleman camps by supporting the libertarian ideas embodied by Independent candidate Dean Barkley.

I don’t like voting against others. When given a choice, I prefer to vote for what I want - rather than against others. So I wrote in Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer for Senate. None of the candidates whose names appeared on the final ballot have laid out policies and ideas that take seriously the environmental and economic crisis that awaits us if we fail to rapidly address climate change challenges that Jack’s campaign chose to tackle head-on. None of the other candidates addressed the need to drastically cut military spending by significant amounts (50%, for starters) if we wish to reject American exceptionalism and imperial claims.

This Senate vote was an easier one for me despite the projected closeness of the race due to the personal nastiness of the Franken campaign during the DFL caucus and endorsement process. My vote for President, however, caused me much more anguish. During the primaries and most of the general election campaign (after Kucinich and Edwards dropped out), I wanted Obama to prevail over the policies and record of Senator Clinton – but I was clear that Ralph Nader would once again get my vote as in 2000 and 2004.

I started to vacillate after hearing Tom Hayden explain his support for Obama despite many of the positions taken in debates and on the campaign trail. At one point even icons such as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn advocated voting for Obama with the proviso of doing so without any illusions about the real nature of his positions and our need to continue to pressure him to change policy once elected. Zinn later recanted and advocated only supporting Obama in close swing states but to support Nader in states where the vote would not likely to be close.

An extra dilemma in this campaign is the dreaded “Bradley effect” – the notion that the public opinion polls won’t accurately reflect the deep-seated racism in some people who won’t admit they won’t ever vote for a person of color but can’t overcome that bias when marking their ballot. Should I cast my ballot for this person of color even if I don’t agree with some of his crucial positions to “correct” for the racial bias in our society?

So, about a week before the election, I had decided to reluctantly vote for Obama – to choose the possibility of “hope” and “change” that might go beyond the limits of a campaign where candidates vie for “centrist” positions. Obama at least might listen and consider progressive positions once elected. At least there is that possibility of hope. But, to assuage my conscience, I felt I also needed to write to him about some of the important areas where we parted ways so he wouldn’t take my vote as a carte-blanch endorsement of his campaign and policies. Here is what I started to write:

Open Letter To Barack Obama: My Vote in 2008 by Steve Clemens

Only twice in the nine Presidential elections of my adult life have I marked my ballot for a candidate of one of the two major political parties. I lived in Massachusetts in 1972 so I voted with the majority when George McGovern carried that state as his only electoral victory. The other time was after eight straight years of “Ronnie the Popular” with wars still raging in Central America; I felt to elect the former head of the CIA who had served as the Vice President during those years was too much. Even though I detested the vacillations and compromises of Michael Dukakis, and thought his ridiculous posing in a tank to show he was not “soft” on national defense was pandering, I voted for him primarily in opposition to his main party opponent. To help assuage my conscience, I also wrote him a letter attempting to clearly spell out to him what my vote was NOT endorsing in his platform and campaign “promises”.

And so, Senator Obama, I feel the need to share with you why I will (with hesitation but also hope) cast my ballot for you to serve as our 44th President. It is not an easy decision for me. While I feel the symbolism of your election would have tremendous benefits for our national reputation and relationships around the world, I’m very concerned that some of the positions you have taken to secure your electoral victory do not signal the changes (or continuations) I wish to see.

I would love to see the titular head of our government represent the growing diversity and multiculturalism of the USA. It is also important that the electorate send a clear message of the wrongness of our on-going war on and occupation of Iraq. Your opposition to the war plans back in 2002 are noted and appreciated by many of us in the peace community. However, your announced desire to increase military personnel in Afghanistan makes me seriously question both your judgment and analysis of the misguided “War on Terror”. There are no military solutions to genuine security and justice concerns throughout the Middle East and particularly Afghanistan. It is not a helpful response to fight terror with terror and the record of killing civilians in Afghanistan by our bombing attacks will continue to be counterproductive.

Your equivocation on the death penalty disturbs me. The entire world looks at our criminal justice system as deeply flawed by the racism evident in its world-record (per capita) prison population. We need clear, principled leadership from all our main branches of government to change these regressive and demoralizing policies that most other governments around the world already have done so.

I am deeply concerned about the nature and design of the massive economic bailout of Wall Street …

I planned to finish writing this on Election Day. But the night before, a friend who is an election judge asked me if I could help him out by working at a polling place with him as a deputy election judge. I felt it was my civic duty and ended up working more than 15 hours, thus failing to have the time to write to/about Obama before he was declared the President-elect.

The specter of past campaigns came to haunt that decision to vote for Obama. I got an email from the Nader campaign that Ralph would be interrupting my plans to hand out goodies to the neighborhood kids on Halloween night by speaking nearby at the University of MN. Although Obama has a book called The Audacity of Hope, it is really practiced by Nader - when his campaign asked for a $10 “donation” ($5 for students) to attend his speech! I guess when you aren’t raising hundreds of millions like Obama, and you aren’t likely to get any donations from Wall Street or corporate tycoons, and you get shut out of the national TV debates, you need to pay the bills somehow.

Ralph Nader doesn’t have the charisma or eloquence of Barack Obama. But he is very clear about his analysis of our present situation and the need for our political leaders to address it honestly without pandering or caving in to the wealthy corporate interest groups. It is more important that my vote reflect my convictions than merely be an expression of “hope” that this politician might change. Is the analogy similar to the woman who marries hoping to “change” her husband down the road? Why not find the right partner who can grow with you rather than always feel the need to change them?

Many observers commented about “fear” as an issue in recent American political campaigns. I decided I couldn’t let fear of a Bradley effect or a McCain win affect my vote any more than “fear” of “terrorists”, “immigrants”, “gay marriage”, or other issues that might affect other voters. Even “fear” of a Sarah Palin presidency should a cancer-ridden John McCain not survive a full term is still a vote out of fear rather than conviction.

That Halloween night, I decided to cast my ballot for the Nader/Gonzales ticket. I say this somewhat confessionally. There are many good reasons why almost all of my close friends voted for Obama (and probably Franken as well). I don’t sit in judgment on them and their reasons to do so. Frankly, the decision was easier for me because it became apparent in the last month of the campaign that Obama would easily carry the electoral votes in Minnesota – thus giving me the “luxury” of favoring my conscience over the expediency of trying to keep McCain out of the White House.

Had I finished my letter to Obama, I would have addressed core issues for me in the political realm: War and “defense”- what makes us more “secure” and what threatens our “security”, Wealth & poverty- care for the marginalized, Healthcare and the need for a single-payer/universal coverage system, Human rights, Environment, …

What I will commit to is to continue to work for creating political space (an opening) for progressive change by doing my day-to-day work of nonviolent direct action, educating myself and my neighbors and fellow citizens about issues confronting us, trying to give a voice to and on behalf of the poor and marginalized. My vote on Election Day is less significant than what I do on behalf of my nation, our citizens, and our world the other 364 days of the year. If we create the political space, maybe courageous politicians will arise to embody our values and convictions. And, someday, maybe we can elect them! In the meantime, we have to continue our work.