Metropolis: Wednesday, May 15, 2003
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Prison for Protest

Activists arrested at the School of the Americas may not find much comfort at Carswell.

By BETTY BRINK

The 85 handcuffed men and women were herded into a fenced military compound to await their interrogators. Temperatures were below freezing, but their coats, scarves, gloves, and other possessions had been taken by guards. Ranging in age from 18 to 70, all had been body-searched twice, “a hand stuck in every orifice,” one said. After being questioned, they were taken to a large, unheated building full of trash. The women shared a couple of rows of dirty bunk beds with no covers, one water fountain, a sink with no running water, two toilets, and one shower open to the view of male guards. Those with heart conditions, high blood pressure, diabetes, or asthma were not allowed to have their medicines. At the other end of the building, the men were no better off. And as the temperatures dropped that night and the prisoners huddled for warmth, the ever-alert guards separated them.

The prisoners weren’t the victims of some Third World dictator. They were Americans, arrested on Nov. 17, 2002, by the U. S. Army at Fort Benning, Ga., for the crime of trespassing.

That day, about 10,000 human rights advocates from across the country had gathered quietly outside the grounds of the School of the Americas, the Army’s counter-insurgency training camp for Latin American military and police forces that’s been based at Fort Benning since 1984. They were there to protest the school’s use as a training ground for some of Latin America’s most infamous human rights abusers. Several protesters were Catholic nuns who had been tortured and raped by Central American paramilitary forces. Many carried white crosses for the thousands of “disappeared” of those countries, the long-missing political opponents of U. S.-supported Latin American dictators. In an act of civil disobedience, 85 protesters walked onto the restricted grounds of the base and were promptly taken into custody.

Sonja Andreas was one of them. Eventually convicted of trespassing, the 54-year-old woman from Wichita, Kan., this month walked onto another federal facility — the federal prison system’s women’s facility at Carswell — to begin serving her three-month sentence.

A few hours before she surrendered herself, Andreas sat on her bed in a Fort Worth motel and talked about indignities she has already suffered at the hands of military and civilian police in Georgia and about the deeply held beliefs that led her to the gates of Fort Benning and, on May 6, to Carswell.

“We were protesting a terrorist training camp on our own soil” — and ended up getting treated like terrorists themselves, she said.

The psychiatric nurse was shocked at the harshness of the treatment. “We were not the terrorists,” she said. They were peaceful and non-violent, she said, yet were treated as if they were “this big threat” to the peace and security of the nation. The body searches, she said, were especially humiliating to the Catholic sisters who had been raped by Central American soldiers.

The Army, she said, “made everything so difficult and cruel.” After spending the night on the base with no heat or cover, they were taken in shackles to the jail in Columbus, still with no coats or medicines. There they were arraigned; jailers took the rest of their clothing and issued thin polyester prison jumpsuits and flip-flops. Another night in heatless cells followed. “We were issued one thin blanket [each], but it was hardly enough to keep out the cold,” Andreas said. They were fed, at least, but not allowed any phone calls. It took outside human rights groups several days to determine who had been arrested and to raise the bail money, set at $5,000 each.

At the base, she said, several soldiers acted with kindness, including one who gave his coat to a shivering older woman only to have his superior take it away. But in Columbus, civilian jailers “were rude, discourteous, and verbally abusive.”

Maybe Columbus is getting tired of dealing with this bunch of discontents. More than 4,000 have been arrested there in annual November protests since the group known as SOA Watch started picketing outside Fort Benning in 1990. Those protests followed a congressional investigation that found that the men who murdered six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her teen-age daughter in El Salvador on Nov. 16, 1989, were paramilitary officers trained at the School of the Americas. Then in 1991, the New York Times got its hands on SOA training manuals, reporting that the techniques taught there included “torture, execution, blackmail and arresting relatives of those being questioned.”

The list of the school’s infamous graduates includes Panamanian dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos, the leader of El Salvador’s death squads, and the paramilitary assassins of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero. In 2000, a U.S. State Department report identified two SOA graduates, both Colombian military officers, as the killers of Alex Lopera, peace commissioner for the Colombian department of Antioquia, and two colleagues in that country in 1999.

For 12 years, human rights advocates have struggled to convince the U.S. government to close the so-called School of Assassins. In addition to those arrested — The West Wing’s Martin Sheen was one— thousands more have marched in opposition, including Fort Worth State Rep. Lon Burnam and City Councilman Ralph McCloud.

Andreas, a Mennonite and divorced mother of two grown children, learned about the SOA and its horrors only a few years ago. She had little experience with public protests and none with arrest. Coming from a religion based on nonviolence, “I had to go, to be a witness,” she said. But it wasn’t until she was actually walking down the road to the Army base that she decided to take the extra step into civil disobedience, she said. “Grief washed over me; I had left friends behind,” she said. “It was like a mini-death.”

In court, she argued that the larger crime — the U.S. government’s operation of the SOA — justified breaking a lesser law. When the judge threw out that defense, Andreas pleaded guilty and “made it very clear to him that if I received probation and was restricted in my political activity, that I would be back again next year and do the same thing.” Because she has severe asthma, she was sent to Carswell, the country’s only federal prison hospital for women inmates with chronic and severe illnesses.

By now, Carswell has hosted at least four such protesters. Unlike most other inmates, these prisoners of conscience feel just as compelled to talk about the wrongs they see at Carswell as about the horrors of the SOA. A former SOA protester who spent 18 months in Carswell, Kathleen Rumpf of Syracuse, N.Y., was the catalyst for most of the stories on medical neglect there that Fort Worth Weekly has reported over the past four years.

As she prepared to enter the Fort Worth prison camp, Andreas was worried about keeping her own medications, including an inhaler, that she needs to control the asthma. “I understand they like to take all your medicines, reevaluate you, and issue you their own,” she said. “That could be disastrous for me.”

A few days later, a Wichita friend, Charles Carney, sent word that, as Andreas had feared, prison doctors refused to dispense her medications. She had trouble breathing that night. “She did receive an emergency inhaler,” Carney wrote, but it was not hers and “not exactly what she needed.”

For Andreas, those two cold and fearful nights in Georgia may prove to be nowhere near as dangerous as three months in Texas.



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