Saturday, September 24, 2011

Alice goes to Ecuador!

Exploring Ecuador!
This winter and early spring, I spent nine weeks in Ecuador, learning Spanish and doing volunteer work at an organic agriforestry project. Here are some of my impressions of my experience:
Week one: It took me much of the week to adjust to the altitude in Quito (9895 feet above sea level). I also became acquainted with my house parents Alicia and Galo and my teacher Consuelo at the Banana Spanish School (where we did indeed eat a lot of bananas). I got an introduction to Ecuadorian culture when Consuelo took me to a colorful, lively market, filled with all sorts of fruits, vegetables, baked goods, flowers, and other assorted products. There are no English translations for the names of any of the fruits that I purchased. I also got to explore the countryside when Alicia took me out of the city to visit her father, who lives with several of his sons and their families on a small farm, where they grow vegetables and fruits. The fruit trees include lemon, orange, and avocado. I enjoyed climbing a tree to pick some of those delicious avocados. It was truly a culinary adventure.
Week two: After a long week of mind-bending language exercises, I went back with Alicia to visit her father. I drew in my sketchbook and picked avocados and lemons. Alicia made lunch, which consisted of soup and chicken and rice and vegetables. There was popcorn to go into the soup, instead of the crackers that I am accustomed to adding. I truly enjoyed all of my meals but learned, after a bout of indigestion, that I have to be a little more careful when on my culinary adventures.
Week three: Because Consuelo needed to spend more time with her children, I had a change in teachers. I enjoyed getting acquainted with Carlita. We took walks through Quito, and I learned grammar and vocabulary while dodging cars (street crossing in Quito is exciting, to say the least, because there seems to be no concept of pedestrians having the right of way). During the week, I also celebrated Valentine’s Day with my family and with the language school. This holiday is a big deal in Ecuador. It is called "El Dia de la amistad y amor" (day of friendship and love). Quito has the title "la ciudad de los geranios" (city of geraniums). Much of the city was decorated with geraniums on Valentine´s Day. Alicia and her husband Galo went out for a romantic evening. Irene (a doctor who lives with the family) and I took Ody (the family’s French poodle) out for a walk, much to his great glee. Many people and dogs were outside, celebrating the day (it seems that nearly everyone in Ecuador has a dog!). Later, we saw a band marching out of the nearby church, followed by people dancing to the lively rhythms.
Week four: On Tuesday, Carlita and I went to “La Mitad del Mundo” (literally translated, that’s “the middle of the world”). We started with a walk through Quito. I had fun exploring architecture and trees and gardens. After a bus ride, which featured people boarding the bus to sell all sorts of stuff, including chocolates, ice cream, DVDs (all pirated), and loads of other stuff, we arrived at our destination. I was offered a tour with either a Spanish- or an English-speaking guide. I chose the Spanish-speaking guide so that I would get more practice with my listening comprehension. I saw all sorts of interesting things relating to life in the Amazon rain forest, including a giant tarantula, an enormous snake, and a hammock that’s large enough to accommodate an entire family. As an added bonus, I was able to stand directly on the equator, with one foot in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern hemisphere!
Week five: This was my first week at Bosque de Paz, an organic agriforestry project in the northern part of Ecuador, about 30 miles from the border with Colombia. The family that owns the land consists of Piet Sabbe, originally from Belgium, his wife Olda Peralta, from Las Esmeraldas, on Ecuador’s Pacific coast, and their two daughters, Naomi and Maikin. There were five volunteers: Kevin and Aurelie from La Reunion (near Madagascar), Rolf and Natascha from Germany, and yours truly from... Gringolandia!!!  (That’s the name that Mexican painter Frida Kahlo gave to the United States!) I learned that there are 20 different species of bamboo grown at Bosque de Paz. In addition, there are the banana, coconut, and grapefruit trees and groves of lemon trees and papaya and yucca. If you´re lucky, as I was when I was planting turnips one day, sweet fruit will fall from a tree and split open at your feet and you can have a taste test. If you’re even luckier, you’ll be invited, as I was late one afternoon, to do “social work”: Piet and his children and the volunteers sat at the table on the porch and shelled cocoa beans. That evening, we enjoyed a delectable chocolate spread on our bread!  Another day, when I was super lucky, we drank coconut milk. There is no word in any language that can adequately describe how luscious that was!
Weeks six and seven: I interviewed Piet, who told me his story. A mechanical engineer, he came to Ecuador in the early 1990s to work on an engineering project. He got married and never left Ecuador! He also became interested in the concept of habitat restoration. With his savings, he purchased a small parcel of land in northern Ecuador in 1995. That is how Bosque de Paz (“Peace Forest”) got its start. When Piet and Olda took possession of the property, they observed that the lower part of the main valley had been deforested and replaced by pastureland for cattle to graze.  Because the trees, which act as sponges for the precipitation during the rainy season, were gone, the water washed the top soil from the valleys and the steep slopes. What was left was arid grassland in the valleys and just the remnants of forest on the slopes. In the past, the entire area was a humid cloud forest, filled with many species of plants, birds, monkeys, and other animals. Piet’s first step to restoring the land was to plant bamboo, which grows rapidly and is a good building material.  He also planted vetiver grass, which is stiff and can be used to prevent runoff. After more than 15 years, Piet describes the land as a “young forest.” Piet walks to the forest remnants and collects plants and seedlings in hopes of restoring the forest to its original condition.
Week eight: I spent a few days at Pikyu Pamba, a Quichua community near Ibarra. I was there for a ceremony, which occurred on Monday, March 21st (the vernal equinox). The ceremony was begun with the lighting of the fire, which is considered to be the male spirit.
Next, a deep hole was dug in the earth.  Our Quichua hosts described the earth as our mother, the Pacha Mama. Then food, including potatoes, yams, yucca, beans, chicken, pork, corn, plantains, and pineapples, was prepared. All of this was placed in the hole, along with rocks that had been heated in the fire. Once all of the food was in the ground, hot water was poured over the food. Immediately, steam rose from the hole, which was then covered by a thick cloth and by dirt. A group of musicians began playing their instruments. We took off our shoes and socks, and we danced joyfully to the lively, energetic music. We let our feet sink into the soft, gentle earth, and it felt good. Later, volcanic ash was spread over the stomped-on, squashed earth.
Half an hour later, the dirt and ash was lifted and carefully removed. The food, which had been steamed under the ground, was removed and put into baskets, which were carried into a large building.
Before we could begin to eat, a plate of food was prepared and was taken outside for Pacha Mama. She is our mother so she is honored by being fed first. Then we all enjoyed a meal, which was a celebration of love for our beautiful earth.
Week Nine: During my last week in Ecuador, I reflected on my time there. Carlita and I also managed to visit “el centro historico” (the historic center) and the Botanical Gardens (los jardines bot├ínicos).
In the Botanical Gardens, I saw a display of orchids. They are determined plants that will grow just about anywhere. They will grow on rocks and on the tops of tall trees, as well as from the ground. They come in many colors and sizes. I saw examples of plants from a variety of ecosystems in Ecuador, from rain forest to sierra. Unfortunately, as explained in at the Botanical Gardens, the beautiful ecosystems are endangered by poorly planned, out of control development.
And a final thought of my experience: Despite all of the ecological problems that I observed in Ecuador, many of which we have experienced here in the United States (the destruction of much of the great northeastern forests, among others), I truly enjoyed my time in Ecuador. Shortly before I left, I wrote on Facebook and in a group email: “I never imagined that I would become so attached to people here in Ecuador. And I never imagined, when I first arrived, that I would come to love Ecuador as much as I do right now.”

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The trial that wasn't

Off I went to Washington, D.C., on an overnight bus ride, ready to put the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly known as the School of the Americas) on trial. I left shortly before midnight on Saturday and arrived on Sunday morning at the Megabus station, not too far from Union Station.
Sunday was a day for preparation for the Big Event. With the assistance of our attorney advisers Mark Goldstone and Ann Wilcox, we held a mock trial. Mark played the role of the judge and Ann played the role of the prosecutor. I must say that they did a fine job. We also had a visiting attorney from Cleveland who played the role of the police lieutenant who read us the warnings while we were simulating dead people (victims of SOA graduates) on the White House in front of the White House on April 10th. I must say that he was thoroughly annoying. Hence, he did an excellent acting job.
The real police lieutenant's name is Lt. LaChance.
After the mock trial was over, both Mark and Ann said that we were ready to win our trial.
I never had any doubt about the outcome of the trial I was sure that we would be acquitted. So I never wrote a sentencing statement.
On Monday morning, the group of fifteen defendants, lawyer advisers, and support people gathered in front of the courthouse. Before we entered the courthouse, we had a press conference. Most of the media seemed to have come from Russia! In fact, all of the media came from Russia! No U.S. media showed up.
After the press conference, we filed into the building one by one to clear security.
Inside the building, we were ready to find our courtroom. We walked down a long corridor. People were everywhere, waiting outside of every courtroom. Some were standing, while others sat on the floor. All were waiting for their turn to experience justice. Seeing that horde of people sitting around all of those doors that were supposed to open up to justice made me wonder how the system functioned at all.
It wasn't long before we got our answer.
We went into the courtroom and, before long, we were called before the bench. Judge Frederick Sullivan of the D.C. Superior Court had all of us sit in the jury box. He informed us that he was swamped with cases and really couldn't devote the time that it would take for us to have a proper trial. He said that he would try to find a judge for us who was not swamped with cases. He suggested that we go to the cafeteria or the the witness room and wait for about an hour or so.
We went to the witness room and filed in. It was a small room with three chairs and sufficient floor space for most of us. We didn't have long to wait, however. Someone knocked on the door and said something about the prosecutor needing to speak with us.
The prosecutor, Brian Kim, stated that he was not prepared to try the case. He said that he had no witnesses. Apparently, the Tar Sands protests, that resulted in the arrests of more than 1,200 persons between August 20th through September 3rd, wore out the police to the point at which they were not ready to appear in court as witnesses.
Hmmmm.
It really does seem as if the system crashed.
Our case was abruptly dismissed. It was, however, dismissed without prejudice, which means that the government can refile the charges if it so chooses.
That probably won't happen.
We left the courtroom and walked past hordes of people who were still waiting for their day, or their brief moment, in court.
It is a sad commentary on the state of justice in Washington, D.C.
And the situation in Washington, D.C., is undoubtedly the same in other cities and states throughout the United States.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Alice goes on the road: a reflection

Walk for a Nuclear Free Future: As a child, I believed that the world would be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust before I could grow up. As a result, the "what do you want to be when you grow up, dear" questions took on an abstract quality for me.
Well, I am happy to report that, all of these years later, I'm still alive and trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up! I am much less happy to report that the world, which was not destroyed when I was a child, is still in peril. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the possibility that they could be used also exists. Despite my lifelong dread of a nuclear holocaust, I have never protested against nuclear weapons. Until I went to the federal prison camp in Danbury, Connecticut, in April of 2004, for crossing the Fort Benning fence while protesting against the School of the Americas (Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), I had never met anyone who had been involved in protesting against nuclear weapons. There, I had the good fortune to meet Sister Ardeth Platte, who was serving a 41-month sentence for a Plowshares action at a nuclear weapons silo in Colorado. Ardeth quickly became a mentor and an inspiration for me. She explained to me that her action was an expression of love and of faith. That faith is also expressed by the World Council of Churches in its statement: "The production and deployment of nuclear weapons, as well as their use, constitute a crime against humanity."
Since becoming friends with Sister Ardeth, I had wanted to do something to express my hope for a nuclear-free world as a way of honoring her determination and her sacrifice. So, when the opportunity presented itself for me to join a Walk for a Nuclear Free Future this year, I was happy to participate. I couldn't do the entire 700-mile walk, but I was able to join this group for a little more than half of the walk. In March, I walked from Buffalo to Rochester, a distance of 100 miles, in one week. From April 11th until the first of May, I walked from Utica to New York City. This was a distance of approximately 265 miles. It took me through the Mohawk Valley and the Hudson River Valley into New Jersey and, finally, over the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan. Part of the mission of this journey was to visit all six nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy). I visited half of the nations: the Tuscaroras in Lewiston, the Senecas in their Tonawanda territory near Akron, and the Mohawks in their Kanatsiohareke community near Fonda.
Also, many of my fellow walkers were from Japan. I learned from them that people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still suffering the effects of the nuclear attacks. These people, called Hibakusha, survived the initial bomb blast but suffered from illnesses due to radiation exposure. Among them, there is a high rate of leukemia and other cancers, as well as thyroid problems. Their children have suffered, too, with birth defects and other health issues.
Similar health problems also plague people in places where nuclear weapons were developed and tested, both during World War II and later, during the "cold war," which was called "cold" only because it didn't involve direct conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. The cold war claimed many victims throughout the world.
I heard terrible stories of birth defects in the Tuscarora territory, where leakage of waste materials from the Manhattan project was found. One of the walkers, Al White, a Cayuga who lives in the Seneca Nation's Cattaraugus territory, talked of a baby who was born in the Tuscarora territory with two rectums. He said that people in the Cattaraugus territory are exposed to toxic materials that have leaked from the West Valley plant. "The biological and chemical warfare done to our people continues today and our people are suffering." 
When I arrived in New York City on May 1st, I went to the Riverside Church, where a conference was being held on the topic of a nuclear-free world prior to the start of talks on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at the United Nations. These talks are held once every five years. I heard a presentation called "Global Hibakusha."
Claudia Peterson, a medical social worker, said that people in her community in Utah drank contaminated water and they ate contaminated meat and vegetables. The contamination, which affected parts of Nevada and Utah, was caused by nuclear weapons tests that had been conducted at the Nevada test site, located in the Nevada desert. Between 1951 and 1962, more than 100 nuclear bombs were detonated at this site.
"The U.S. government assured us that everything was safe. People were living downwind from the tests. We watched loved ones suffer and die." Claudia's father-in-law, a uranium miner, died of cancer at age 63. Claudia talked about the many family members who died of cancer. She said that she remembered holding her six-year-old daughter in her arms when the child died of cancer. She said that her sister died of melanoma at age 36.
"I wished that I could die," Claudia said. "You are changed by loss and suffering. The heartache never goes away. The wound never heals. I never dreamed that I would have to do this. My story never changes."
Abbacca Anjain Madison is a former senator of the Marshall Islands from Rongelap Atoll. She talked about the disastrous results of above-ground testing done by the United States in the Marshall Islands. She said that 67 atomic and hydrogen bombs were tested there. One of the most devastating tests was done over the Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954. "At the crack of dawn, we saw a bright light in the west," the former senator related. The light was accompanied by a loud noise. Small children cried. A strong wind blew. A bitter rain fell on everything. People washed in the rain, thinking that it was soap. Their skin became itchy, and they suffered pain in their eyes. The water was poisoned but the people didn't know. No warnings had been given to them. Their bodies were covered in painful wounds. Their hair fell out. People suffered from lung, thyroid, stomach, and brain cancer.
A few days after the nuclear test, a research study, called Project 4.1 (Study of Response of Human Beings exposed to Significant Beta and Gamma Radiation due to Fall-out from High-Yield Weapons), was organized. It was done so without the consent or knowledge of the "human guinea pigs." According to the final report of Project 4.1, people in the Ailinginae, Utirik, and Rongelap atolls experienced "significant" exposure to radiation, from 14 rads in the Utirik atoll to 175 rads in the Rongelap atoll. After the nuclear testing, "women gave birth to 'jellyfish' and to deformed and dead babies," Abbacca siad.
"People are dying of radiation and cancer," Abbacca explained. "The future is so bleak."
She shared the story of the Marshall Islands as a cautionary tale. "Learn from our experience. Let us help each other."
The United States ended its above-ground nuclear tests in 1962 and its above-ground nuclear tests 30 years later. The nuclear threat, however, still exists. An aging stock of nuclear weapons is maintained by several countries throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. Depleted uranium, which is made from nuclear waste products, has been implicated in increased numbers of leukemia cases in Iraqi children.
Grand Island walk: It has now been two months since the Walk for a Nuclear Free Future ended. Since then, I have been walking around my own community. On Friday, July 2nd, I walked along the Niagara River. I picked wild raspberries and I watched boats in the river. After several hours, I reached Beaver Island State Park, where I met a group of archaeology students and their professor, Dr. Lisa Marie Anselmi. They were busily digging for artifacts of the early- to mid woodlands period. I got a tour of the site and an explanation of the project by a student named Jess. She showed me the "test pits" that were dug to determine if there was anything there of interest. If there was, then larger holes, called "units," were dug. Jess showed me how the students sifted the dirt for artifacts. It was a lot like panning for gold! After I left the archaeology site, I walked to the beach, where I saw many people having fun in the sand and in the water.
It was a peaceful and educational walk. But I couldn't forget that even this close to home, I was still affected by the dark legacy of the cold war. The fact that nuclear waste, as well as other waste products from the heavy industry on the Niagara Falls side of the river, has been identified in the Niagara River means that any fish caught there probably is not safe to eat. And, yes, people do go fishing in the river.
My experiences this spring and early summer have taught me that it's long past time to get rid of the nuclear weapons.
Bertrand Russell once said: "War doesn't determine who is right -- only who is left." Nuclear war changes that reality, too. In a nuclear war, it doesn't really matter who is right because, when it's over, no one will be left.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Scattering to the Winds

Today, my Buffalo group (Vicki Ross, Jim Anderson, and Tom Casey) left Washington, D.C. It was great to have them with me over the weekend. I look forward to seeing them soon, as I am heading home on Wednesday morning.
The Washington, D.C., portion of the Peaceable Assembly Campaign ends early tomorrow afternoon. After that, as the saying goes, we all scatter to the winds. We've already started scattering. We will have a small group for our last vigil in front of the White House tomorrow. The police (both Park police and Secret Service uniformed police) will have other groups to babysit.
One of the interesting things about vigiling in front of the White House is all of the different people who meet us and want to take pictures with us. Today, a large curious group of tourists descended upon us. They had already taken out their digital cameras and were ready to click away. It wasn't hard to persuade them to get into the picture.
"Where are you from?" we wanted to know.
"Russia!" said one of the women.
The Russians smiled gleefully as they held up signs calling for an end to war, an end to military aid to Israel, and the immediate closure of Guantanamo and Bagram.
After the photo session, the Russians walked away, chattering with great animation.
Another interesting thing about vigiling in front of the White House is watching all of the various characters who seem to come there on a regular basis. There is a man who dresses in a black suit and a top hat. He actually looks as if he belongs in the nineteenth century. He has a stick and uses it for some sort of elaborate display that looks as if he is saluting a king, instead of a president. He never speaks. There is another man who goes to the other extreme. He dresses us as some sort of superhero (but none that I would recognize) and he carries a big sign critical of President Barack Obama. Then he shouts about the government wasting money and collecting taxes. The man in the black suit came to the White House. The superhero has been missing for a few days. Either he ate some kryptonite or he's off fighting the good fight against all comic book villains.
Well, those are just two of the characters who frequent the street and sidewalk in front of the sidewalk.
I'll add some more stories and photographs after I return home.
Bye for now.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Judge Faircloth's last hurrah

U.S. Magistrate Judge G. Mallon Faircloth in Columbus, Georgia, presided over his last trial of SOA Watch fence crossers. He is set to retire this June. Three fence crossers showed up in court. One of them didn't come for his court appointment. Judge Faircloth issued an arrest warrent for the missing protester and promptly sentenced the other three to six months in federal prison each (no, not collectively as in two months each). I still think that six months in prison for crossing a fence is a tad excessive. One of the fence crossers went straight to jail. That was Father Louie Vitale. The other two will self surrender at a later date to some federal prison.
Maybe by next year, no one will cross the fence because SOA/WHINSEC will be closed by executive order.
That will be change that I can believe in.

The not so secret service and other musings

Today, I was in front of the White House with the Voices for Creative Nonviolence folks. A group had come from Minnesota to join us and to engage in a civil resistance action in front of the White House. The group had come well-prepared for the action. They brought decorated shoes and t-shirts. I was given one of the shirts. On the back, it said "Minnesotans for Peace." On the front were red handprints. They looked like bloody handprints. They could have been Lady MacBeth's handprints. She had lots of blood on her hands.
We also have lots of blood on our hands as a result of the actions of the U.S. government.
I can no longer keep track of all of the wars that the United States has fought since the end of World War II. I've never understood the point of all of those wars, probably because no one has given me an explanation that I can accept. I've heard:

  • We have to protect our way of life.
  • We are protecting our freedom.
  • They have weapons of mass destruction and will attack us.
  • They want to kill us so we'd better kill them first.
The first one doesn't make any sense whatsoever because I don't know what this way of life is supposed to be. We have homeless people but I don't think that we're fighting to protect the right of homeless people to live on the street. We have millions of people who don't have health insurance but I don't think that we're fighting to protect the right of people to go to emergency rooms because they can't find a doctor who will provide them with preventive health care. We have inadequate mass transit in much of the country but I don't think that we're fighting  to protect the right of people to sit in traffic jams and not go anywhere because there are too many cars with one person in them. We have people who graduate from high school unable to read but I don't think that we're fighting to preserve illiteracy.
I could go on and on but I think that you get the idea.
All right, I'll go on to the second one. This one really annoys the heck out of me. We are fighting in (enemy country du jour) to protect our freedom. I am not sure of which freedom needs to be protected with remote control bombing (drone attack), depleted uranium, and other weapons. Oh, wait. Isn't depleted uranium a weapon of mass destruction (see excuse number three for attacking the enemy du jour)? Never mind. I'll get to that later. At any rate, this is the one that seems to be the juiciest propaganda of all of the excuses. I actually hear this nonsense in the mainstream media. This is what passes for news reporting: (Someone far too young) made the ultimate sacrifice in (name the foreign country) to protect our freedom. All too often, that can be translated to (Someone far too young) was killed when the truck that he was riding in came into contact with an roadside bomb. That someone far too young probably joined the military because he was promised money to attend college after he left the service. Or perhaps he was an illegal immigrant and he was promised citizenship, instead of deportation.
That has nothing to do with my freedom. My freedom is not protected by guns and bombs; it is protected by the U.S. Constitution. And it is not threatened by some foreign power. It is threatened by my own government. I am told where I can stand or sit when I want to criticize the government's policies. Most of those places ("free speech zones") are places where the governmental officials who need to change policies never frequent. How can I petition governmental officials for a redress of grievances if the governmental officials can't see me? So I break a few rules. I have no desire to protest just for the satisfaction of having protested. If I wanted to protest for my benefit alone, I could make a picket sign and march around my house, all by myself. But that's not what I want. I want governmental officials to know that I am waiting for the change I can believe in. I am waiting for an end to war and to torture and to secret CIA prisons.
I speak out and I write my viewpoints, as I am doing now, and I don't give the military permission to kill in the name of my "freedom." I'll protect my own freedom, thank you.
How about the third excuse: They have weapons of mass destruction and will attack us. Has anyone noticed that we have more weapons of mass destruction than any of our "enemies"? We have nuclear weapons and depleted uranium and who knows what other types of weapons of mass destruction. We could kill every man, woman, and child on the earth several times over. We have so much weaponry that I can remember thinking, as a little girl, I will not live to be an adult. We will have a nuclear war and everything will be taken away by a huge mushroom cloud of death.
Of course, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were fictitious so we don't hear that one any more about Iraq.
Ahh, but Iran has a nuclear program.
Darn! We can't put out the fires fast enough. Of course, when you're trying to put out fire with fire, you might get a few flames.
So. The last excuse that I can think of. We've got to kill them before they kill us. That seems to be applied to "terrorists." Terrorists are people who target civilian populations. I could mention the drone attacks that killed civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan, except that it was "us" that did that act of terrorism. Ooops. Did I just call the U.S. government a terrorist?
Never mind.
So, back to the original topic. The protest against the war that's supposed to protect our freedom to do something or not do something but I don't know what. Yes, we wore shirts with bloody handprints. We symbolically threw shoes at the occupation. Then we sang and marched around in circles on the sidewalk in front of the White House. People started lying down for the die in. They lay on the cold hard cement to represent the war dead, both military and civilian. But that was a problem for the police. They have deemed that an illegal protest. We can protest in that "picture postcard zone" all we want, as long as we keep moving. We just can't have any stationary protests. The government is probably trying to ensure that we get our exercise when we protest. Um. Maybe. If we stand still or lie down, we get arrested for having a stationary protest. I guess that it's not freedom of speech or assembly that we're fighting these wars to protect because I've been arrested twelve times for trying to exercise these rights where someone can see me, not in a "free speech zone" for the benefit of other protesters or for no one at all.
As I was marching, I noticed that the cops had started putting crime scene tape up. Uh oh. Was I going to be arrested by accident. The cops then gave a warning and I skedaddled. Fast. Apparently, that was the cops' second warning. They give three warnings before they start telling us that we're in violation of some ordinance prohibiting free speech and that we are about to be arrested for unlawfully exercising our first amendment rights, which apparently are only symbolic and not real but seem to be worthy of sending our young men and women to be killed.
Once I got to the non-arrest side of the yellow crime scene tape, I resumed singing but not marching in circles. I waved to the White House but doubt that President Obama was looking out the window. He's too busy increasing the defense budget and sending more troops to Afghanistan. I wish that he wouldn't do that. Would he listen to me? I'd like to think that he would. He used to be a community organizer. Well, now he is the community organizer in chief and I am part of his community so I'd appreciate having a minute with him to express my concerns.
But, instead of talking to the president, I talked to police. I noticed this one cop was a member of the uniformed secret service. He had the word secret printed really big on his shoulder patch. The word secret was also printed really big on the police car. I had to ask so I did. If I can't ask the president about the war, at least, I could get some of my questions answered. And one of them was if the word secret is printed all over the place and the secret service police officer is in uniform, how is it a secret? The officer just started giggling. Another police officer laughed when I told him that I had been arrested three times in front of the White House.
These exchanges make me happy and give me home. The experience is never a protester vs. police sort of thing. I have never once protested against police. They don't set policy. They are put there to keep me separated from the people who do set policy.
It's the government that creates the us vs. them policy, who tells us that we have to kill the "enemy" so that "the enemy" doesn't kill us.
I was thinking about all of this outside on Pennsylvania Avenue, in front of the White House. I was thinking about the oil that we lust after and all of the other natural resources that we lust after. Of course, we don't fight wars for oil. Do we?
We sang "courage brother, you do not walk alone, we will walk with you and sing your spirit home..." and then we sang "courage sister, you do not walk alone, we will walk with you and sing your spirit home" to the thirteen folks participating in the die in as they were tied up with plastic handcuffs and taken to be patted down before being put in the police wagon.
At this moment, the group of them is in Washington, D.C.'s Central Cell Block. It is a holding facility... two to a little cage... um, cell... the walls are metal, the bed is metal, the toilet and sink are metal... the only food and beverages that are offered are one bologna sandwich and one plastic cheese sandwich (both with mayonnaise) and bug juice. No water. Just bug juice. It's very hot. You feel like a rotisserie chicken when you're in there. Yes, I was in there last week for a different protest. I'll write about that protest later. Central Cell Block is an experience that's not exactly on the official Washington, D.C., tour. It's not so terrible. We survive.
But those wars are a different story. Many people don't survive.
Maybe, if we protest enough, we'll get the attention of someone in government and we can tell that someone that too many people are being killed for... um... I don't know. People I know keep telling me to stop protesting, that no one will listen to my criticisms.
I don't think that I can do that. I can't stop protesting because no one is listening but I could stop protesting because someone is listening and is implementing changes. That's all I want: to be heard, to feel as if I really do live in the democracy that the media keeps claiming I live in.
I've learned a lot lately. I've learned about the mystery of the secret service not being very secret and I've learned about pretending to be on a great adventure in a submarine when you're spending the night in Central Cell Block because it really does look like a submarine but I still can't figure out why we are having these wars and letting our talented young people and the talented people of Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan get killed for nothing at all. I don't understand that and I don't accept that.
So that's it for today. My musings about the not-so-secret service and war and lies and free speech that isn't all that free after all...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Day Two in the nation's capital

When I was in college, I was a political science major. I truly felt that I could work within the system and help to effect long-lasting change.  I spent a semester here in a Washington semester program. I was a part-time intern in the office of Rep. Dan Marriott of Utah. He was a conservative Republican. I was not. I had to write letters to constituents on his behalf. I simply wrote the opposite of my own position. I startled myself by how persuasive I could be at disagreeing with myself.
Unfortunately, after I graduated, I could not find a job on Capitol Hill.
Despite being shut out of the system, I still believed that the system could work.
Over the years, however, I have learned otherwise. 
I met torture survivors and found out that my government had been responsible for training the military personnel who carried out the torture. I learned that my government had given these military personnel training on the most advanced weaponry that they then used on their own people.
I started becoming very disillusioned with my government.
How could this happen?
We have a constitution. We have laws. Americans helped to write all sorts of human rights legislation.
How could our government get so much out of control?
In 2002, the government that I had once believed in opened a prison for "enemy combatants" in Guantanamo. Everything about it was secret. I wondered what was going on. 
In 2003, President George W. Bush got us into a war after telling us that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. And, for the most part, Americans believed him. Even members of Congress believed him.
I was absolutely sure that President Bush was lying.
I wanted to emigrate.
I didn't want to live in a country with a president who lied. I didn't want to live under a government that was accused of torturing "enemy combatants" who didn't even get the same privileges as "prisoners of war."
I didn't understand how our country, supposedly the best and most civilized in the world, could stoop to torture. After all, we have computers. We are technologically advanced. Therefore, we must be civilized.
Well, no.
Today, when I was standing in an orange jumpsuit and a black hood in front of the Hart Senate Office Building, I thought about these things. We have technology but it does not make us civilized. In fact, it makes us even less civilized. As an example, we can bomb people by remote control (drone bombing). Is that the action of a civilized people?
Today, I learned that three detainees at Guantanamo, who were said to have committed suicide while in detention, were placed in a secret CIA prison within Guantanamo and were allegedly tortured to death. They died, said Joe Hickman, who had been a sergeant of the guard at Guantanamo in 2006 because they were tortured to death. Rags were stuffed down their throat and they died.
I would like to think that the system would work and that these horrendous deaths will be investigated and the culprits punished appropriately.
But I am not sure that I have enough faith left in the system to believe that it will do the right thing.
So, tomorrow, I will be outside with people from Witness Against Torture and Voices for Creative Nonviolence's Peaceable Assembly Campaign to dramatize to the government that it is time for it and for all of us to be accountable for our actions. 
I hope that someone will listen and that the names of those three men -- Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi, and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani -- are not forgotten. 
That is why I will be outside tomorrow, to remind those in government who still believe that the system can work to please, please... make that system work.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Day One in Washington, D.C.

I arrived in Washington, D.C., today after traveling by plane, bus, and train. I settled in at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker house, which will be my home for the next two weeks. At about 4:30 p.m., I hopped on the Metro and headed to the White House. As I walked to the White House from the Metro station, the sun started to set. At the White House, I joined the Witness Against Torture group, who were holding vigil. Most of them were dressed in orange jumpsuits and black hoods. Some of them held up signs demanding that Guantanamo and Bagram be closed immediately. Others carried a huge banner that called for the closing of Guantanamo. Unfortunately, Guantanamo is still open, despite President Barack Obama's promise to close it within a year. That promise was made last year.
I stood with Sister Ichikawa, a Buddhist nun, who comes to many of these events. She has a drum, which she beats rhythmically. I joined in the chanting of "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo" with her and with the others standing in front of the White House. I also stood with Buddy Bell, who was part of the Walk for Peace last summer in Wisconsin. That was the 22-mile walk from Camp Douglas to Fort McCoy from August 7th through the 9th. It was a wet walk. That was the one where nine of us were arrested for "crossing the line" at Fort McCoy. Four of us "repeat crossers" were taken ninety miles away to the Dane County Jail in Madison. Strangely enough, Fort McCoy issued a federal hold, despite the fact that all four of us were civilians. I was told that the military cannot issue a hold against civilians. We were held overnight and released the next day, without ever seeing the inside of a courtroom. To this day, there are no pending charges against any of the nine of us who "crossed the line."
But that was five months ago.
So today, I am in Washington, D.C., with the orange jumpsuit crew.
News media people came to photograph and interview people in orange jumpsuits.
At about 6:15 p.m., Sister Ichikawa and I followed the group in jumpsuits as they marched down the street in single file. It was a silent procession. The only person who spoke was Carmen Trotta, a Catholic Worker from New York City, who played the role of the guard. He issued the command to the "detainees" to march or to stop and stand still. He also handed out the signs for them to hold up.
The orange jumpsuit vigil and parade was a very striking display under the street lights. The plethora of lights that make the White House glow in the dark also added to the dramatic effect of the group in orange jumpsuits.
I'll write more tomorrow.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Update on October White House protest

My appointment with the court for arraignment was October 27th. I did not go to court because I had signed a letter authorizing an attorney to enter a not-guilty plea on my behalf. As it turned out, charges against all participants in the October 5th action were dismissed by a judge in the D.C. Superior Court.
So, unlike the war in Afghanistan, which seems to go on and on forever, my legal case ended swiftly.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Orange Jumpsuit Brigade


On October 5th, I was dressed fashionably in an orange jumpsuit and a black hood. OK, fashionably for Halloween maybe. The jumpsuit, which I put on over all of my clothes and jacket, made me look like a rather large pumpkin with a stem.
Well, my pumpkinlike appearance was one of the few amusing parts of my experience, which took me from the Supreme Court to McPherson Square to the White House to the U.S. Park Police station at Anacostia (southeast Washington, D.C.). The other amusing part of the experience was Team Torture. This was made up of several people dressed in striped prison uniforms and large heads. The large heads included George W. Bush, Condoleeza Rice, and Dick Cheney. All of them were wearing baseball caps, but don't think that any of them are ready to play in the World's Series! But they were ready to meet and greet their fans, with Team Torture trading cards, including a rookie card for Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld!
These cards make great collector's items and stocking stuffers for the person on your Christmas list who already has everything.
Once Team Torture had finished meeting and greeting fans outside of the Supreme Court, where Sonia Sotomayor was waiting to complete her first first day in her new Big Government Job, the Orange Jumpsuit Brigade marched away. As we were led away, Dick Cheney gave us two thumbs up! I wonder if he gave two thumbs up to the real detainees.
We marched in pairs from the Supreme Court to McPherson Square. We must have been a very odd sight... a long line of people, all dressed in orange jumpsuits and black hoods. Perhaps people in Washington, D.C., are used to that odd sight. It was kind of a long walk to accomplish when your vision is obscured. Fortunately, there were people to warn us when to step onto a curb and when to step down from a curb.
At McPherson Square, the orange jumpsuit brigade could relax a little and remove the black hoods. We heard speeches and poetry and music from a variety of people, including Emma's Revolution. Emma's Revolution sang "Peace Salaam Shalom" and "One" (about the School of the Americas) and another song (I forgot the title). It helped that the sun was shining and that it was a pretty autumn day. I also enjoyed seeing some of my friends from this past August's Walk for Peace from Camp Douglas to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, including Joy First, Jennifer First, Kathy Kelly, Gerald Paoli, and Joshua Brollier.
At about noon, we had to put our black hoods back on for the march to the White House. We marched right up to the sidewalk. This time, we were lined up with four persons to each row. Before long, we were at the fence. Some of us were able to chain ourselves to the White House fence while others were thwarted by cops, who seemed to be ready for us.
Names of the dead were read out loud. These included U.S. servicemembers, Afghans, Iraqis, and Pakistanis. We called for the dead to be mourned, the wounded to be healed, and the wars to end. Some people tried to deliver a letter to the president at the press gate but, I was told later, the Not-Very-Secret Service forcefully removed the protesters. So much for the first amendment... you know, that part that says that all citizens have a right to seek a redress of grievances from their elected officials...
Well, those of us in the "picture postcard zone" didn't really get much of a chance to seek a redress of grievances, either. Sixty-one of us were arrested and handcuffed with those truly uncomfortable plastic straps. We were thoroughly and less than gently patted down and were driven (in an air conditioned bus!) to the Anacostia police station, where we were ticketed and released.
We actually had to return to the police station the next day to finish our processing and to be given our court dates.
More later.

October lobby day

At eight o'clock in the morning, on October 7th, I joined a group from SOA Watch to stand vigil outside of the Capitol South metro station. The picture here was actually taken during a similar vigil in 2008. I posted this photograph because, during this vigil, I was at one end of the banner that is pictured here, and I didn't have hands for photography.
We stayed at the metro station for a little more than an hour. Some of the people who were heading to work or to lobby at Congressional offices took our brochures and postcards; others did not. I very much appreciate the time that those who stopped to speak with us so early in the day. I know that some of them probably haven't had their morning coffee yet. Not everyone is a cheerful morning person!
After standing vigil at the metro station and watching the hordes of people walk toward their destination, I went to the Rayburn House Office Building to do a little lobbying. In the course of about two hours, I visited fourteen offices, including the office of my own representative in Congress, Louise Slaughter. I talked mainly to receptionists as most of the foreign policy aides were either in meetings or on conference calls. I left information with the receptionists for the foreign policy aides on HR 2567, Rep. Jim McGovern's legislation to suspend operations of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly called the School of the Americas) and to investigate that military training school. You can find more information about the legislation at http://www.soaw.org.
Visiting Congressional offices is always a good experience. I got two copies of the U.S. Constitution, candies, peanuts, and lots of chances to use hand sanitizer. In fact, in the Rayburn House Office Building, there are hand sanitizer stations conveniently located in the hallways. The hand sanitizer stations work automatically, just by sensing that hands are ready for the fluid. When I left the Rayburn House Office Building, my hands felt very clean.
OK, well, it's good to clean hands to avoid those nasty flu viruses.
At the same time, let's clean up U.S. foreign policy. Call your Congressional representative's office today and ask him or her to co-sponsor HR 2567.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

two-year anniversary



On September 19, 2007, I was released from the federal prison camp in Danbury, Connecticut, after completing a six-month sentence. Since that date, the world has spun around the sun two times. In these two years, I have walked hundreds of miles. I have continued to say yes to life and to human rights and no to torture and assassination and war. I have crossed the line twice at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, to say enough is enough. It's time to bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. The National Guard members, who have been deployed over and over again, are needed at home, not overseas. Their families and their communities need them.
In a few weeks, I am going to Washington, D.C., to participate in a civil resistance action at the White House. It is scheduled by the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance for October 5th, the eighth anniversary of the start of the Afghanistan war. Please join me there. You can sign up for that action by going to http://vcnv.org/ncnr.
Enjoy the sunlight and the late summer colors and I'll write more later.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Speaking out against torture


(photographs: The one with the man in the orange jumpsuit and the black hood is a depiction of a Guantanamo inmate. The people in the photograph (with the exception of the child) are all torture survivors. They include Sister Dianna Ortiz, a Ursuline who was brutally tortured while serving as a missionary teacher in Guatemala, and Mirna Anaya, a torture survivor who is now a member of the Supreme Court of El Salvador)

At the end of June, the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) held its annual Survivors week in Washington, D.C. Events that occurred during the week included a conference, held at Catholic University, titled "Torture Never Again," and a 24-hour vigil, held in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House.
I attended a morning session of the conference at Catholic University and heard from several speakers, including Jennifer Harbury (the widow of Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, a Mayan resistance leader, who was captured by Guatemalan military, tortured, and then killed extra-judicially in the early 1990s), Father Roy Bourgeois, and Catherine Grosso, assistant professor of law at Michigan State University College of Law. Also we had one speaker named Colleen. (I don't know her last name or anything more about her.)
Here is some information that was offered at the conference:
According to Colleen, on the issues of torture and extraordinary rendition, Human Rights USA, TASSC, and other organizations have been working on putting together a criminal complaint to hold former officials, chiefly in the Bush administration, accountable for their actions. There is a Spanish court that may try to charge U.S. officials. This can only occur if the United States does not object. The alleged culprits must travel to Spain on their own. They will not be extradited to Spain to face justice.
Catherine defined torture as ill treatment. Examples of torture include holding a person in isolation or solitary confinement for long periods of time. She talked about Supreme Court cases concerning torture. She described a 1936 case involving a man named Ed Brown and a few others. These individuals were stripped and beaten by police. They were forced to confess to crimes. The state of Mississippi said that the federal constitution had no place in a state court. The Supreme Court said otherwise. It said that the interrogation of Mr. Brown and the other men violated basic basic principles and that evidence obtained by torture cannot be used in court. "It (torture) violates who we are as a nation." In an earlier case (1897), a man named Mr. Ram was forced to strip. He was never touched. He was told that he committed a crime. Mr. Ram ended up by confessing to the crimes because he was humiliated. The Supreme Court ruled that the confession was not voluntary, that the man was the victim of coercion.
These days, Catherine said, we have the issue of different standards being applied to Americans and people whom are termed to be "terrorists" and "enemy combatants." During the Bush administration, we had policy and practice that "chipped away at the ban on torture." This ban includes federal law against torture and an international convention against torture that was signed by President Ronald Reagan.
Although the Bush administration is now history, the current Obama administration has done little to investigate alleged abuses. Catherine said that President Obama "articulated that the Bush policy violated standards. He has not investigated. His silence speaks volumes." Catherine does not exempt Congress from criticism. She said "Congress has done nothing."
Jennifer said that we will not be "cured" of the scourge of torture with a few trials of former administration officials. "It is naive to think that it started with 9/11 and George W. Bush." She said that Americans have been involved in torture for years, either in the role of advisors or even supervisors. "We can't fix this problem unless we deal with the crimes."
The crimes of torture, Jennifer charges, include crimes against civilian populations. These civilian populations include people who have been termed "insurgents." This is a very loose term. In Latin America, for example, during the "dirty wars" and the various civil wars, the term "insurgents" frequently included priests, nuns, labor union organizers, teachers, journalists, and anyone who criticized their governments.
Jennifer talked about a common excuse that torturers use for abusing their victims, the "ticking bomb." She explained that torture doesn't work in that situation. "When people are tortured, they say anything. There was one guy who claimed to be Osama bin Laden's driver." (Apparently, Osama bin Laden never rode in this guy's car and, who knows... maybe the guy didn't even have a car...) According to Jennifer, in basic training, military types are taught to compartmentalize information. "You don't have the information unless you need to know it." So the information about where the ticking bomb would be located would not be shared with hordes of people. If the wrong person is grabbed and then tortured, well guess what happens? That person will say anything to get the pain to stop. He'll say where the ticking bomb is. Then, the bomb disposal squad will go to the wrong place because, of course, that person doesn't actually know where the bomb is. While the bomb disposal squad is looking for the nonexistent incendiary, the real bomb will go Ka-boom!
Jennifer said that the U.S. government resorted to torture because it was afraid. "Fear is deeply ingrained in the United States," she said, adding "Torture does not gain us security."
Father Roy talked about his experiences of having been in Vietnam as a Naval officer and in Bolivia as a Maryknoll missionary priest. He said that in Vietnam, "it was common knowledge that torture was policy." He said that pilots bragged about how easy it was to get information.
In Bolivia, under the dictator Hugo Banzar, torture was common. Father Roy said that he visited prisoners and documented the torture. He brought the information to Washington to try to get the U.S. government to put an end to it. Shortly afterwards, he was forced out of Bolivia. He then went to El Salvador. In November 1989, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter were massacred by military. Those Jesuit priests had been friends of Father Roy's. Father Roy discovered that the United States trained the assassins at a school called the School of the Americas.
Shortly after the massacre, Father Roy formed an organization called "School of the Americas Watch." In November 1990, nine persons fasted at the gates of Fort Benning. By November 2008, more than 20,000 persons gathered at the gates of Fort Benning.
"We want the school of torture closed down," Father Roy stated.
Father Roy said that training manuals were discovered in 1996. These training manuals give detailed instruction to the military on how to torture people. These manuals got the attention of Congress.
Currently, the School of the Americas Watch continues to work for accountability. Father Roy said that SOA Watch uses several approaches to achieving this goal. One is the Latin American initiative. Representatives of SOA Watch have gone to 15 Latin American countries and have spoken to leaders, including six presidents, to ask them to withdraw troops from the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (the new name for the School of the Americas). Father Roy stated that there is a "sea change taking place in Latin America and that there is great hope."
Unfortunately, a few days after this conference, there was a coup d'etat in Honduras and the democratically elected president was forced out of the country in his pajamas.
The School of the Americas Watch is also working to get legislation passed. The current legislation, proposed by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) is HR 2567, the Latin America Military Training Review Act of 2009.
"There will never be healing and reconciliation unless there is acknowledgement of crimes and torture."
During the question and answer session that followed, torture survivors from all over the world talked about change that they wanted to see and their feelings about the current realities throughout the world.
Grace from Uganda talked about her cry. She said that many opposition leaders are rotting in cells. Government leaders in the UN Security Council do not talk about that, she said. "I am going through hell," she said. "No one is on the ground watching. This is my cry!"
A man from West Africa said that the United States is trying to found an SOA-type school in Africa.
An Iranian woman said that young people are tortured in the streets in Iran. "They want democracy. They are not terrorists."
And one person said, "Bush encouraged torture. Thousands were in prison. Many died. No one talks about them. They just want freedom. (President Barack) Obama is our last chance."

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Father Roy Bourgeois


"You don't teach democracy out of the barrel of a gun."
The Buffalo Common Council declared March 14th to be Father Roy Bourgeois Day in Buffalo. The Erie County Legislature also issued a proclamation in Father Roy's honor.
Father Roy Bourgeois was presented with those proclamations on March 14th, when he came to Daemen College to speak about SOA/WHINSEC and about other issues of war, peace, and justice.
Father Roy talked about his own life experiences, first as a young man in Louisiana, who studied geology and had hopes of becoming rich in the oil fields of Latin America. His sense of patriotism then caused him to go into the U.S. Navy as an officer. He volunteered for shore duty in Vietnam, where he witnessed the devastation of war. In an interview that I had with Father Roy back in 2001, he told me that volunteering to help at an orphanage in Vietnam changed his life. He came to the conclusion that God was calling him to be a missionary. After Father Roy left the military, he enrolled in the Maryknoll seminary near Ossining, New York. He was ordained as a Maryknoll priest in 1972 and was then sent to serve in Bolivia.
Father Roy said that he was shocked by what he saw in Bolivia:
"The men with the guns ran the country." Those gunmen were under the command of dictator Hugo Banzar Suarez, who had support from the U.S. government.
He said, however, that the poor people, with whom he worked, did not give up hope in the face of these seemingly insurmountable obstacles. "The poor became our teachers," he said.
His missionary work did not win him any points with the Powers that Be in Bolivia. Because of his work with Bolivia's human rights commission, he was arrested and was later forced out of Bolivia.
His next mission was in El Salvador. This Vietnam veteran could not believe the conditions in El Salvador in the late 1970s. "I've never seen anything like El Salvador. It was the slaughter of the innocents," Father Roy said.
When Father Roy came back to the United States, he learned that the Salvadoran troops, many of whom had been involved in such incidents as the El Mozote massacre, in which 900 men, women, and children in one village were massacred, were coming to the United States to be trained in military tactics. In fact, Father Roy said, 500 troops had come to Fort Benning, Georgia, for training in the early 1980s. When Father Roy realized what was happening, he organized a protest right in front of the Salvadoran barracks at Fort Benning. With two others, he walked onto the grounds of Fort Benning, dressed as high ranking officers. They were saluted! At night, they climbed a tree just outside of the Salvadoran barracks. When the lights in the barracks went out, Father Roy turned on a boom box, set to top volume to play Archbishop Oscar Romero's last homily. The lights in the barracks went on again and military police were called.
When military police arrived, the three intrepid protesters were ordered to get out of the tree or get shot.
The protesters got out of the tree and were taken to the Muscogee County Jail. Eventually, they were tried and sentenced to federal prison.
That protest, however, apparently had nothing to do with the School of the Americas.
At the time, very few people knew about the existence of the School of the Americas. Those few people were mostly Panamanians.
The School of the Americas had been established as a cold war school to train Latin American troops to fight against the "Communist menace" back in 1946. It was placed in the Panama Canal Zone. Eventually, Panamanians referred to the school as "la escuela de los golpes" (the school of coups) and "la escuela de los assessinos." Some of the coups that the Panamanians were referring to occurred in the Dominican Republic and Guatemala in the early 1950s and in Chile on September 11th, 1973. When President Jimmy Carter renegotiated the Panama Canal treaties back in the late 1980s, one of the issues that could not be resolved was the continuation of the SOA in Panama.
The SOA was kicked out of Panama and was reopened at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1984.
In 1989, an event occurred in El Salvador that resulted in shock and horror and Congressional attention to U.S. military policy in Latin America. This event was the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter. Many members of Congress had attended Jesuit schools, so they were shocked and horrified to find out that six Jesuits, who had worked at the University of Central America, were killed by Salvadoran military, funded by the U.S. government.
It didn't take long before the existence of the SOA became known. The connection was made for many, including Father Roy, between military training and massacres when a Congressional panel reported that, of the 27 killers involved in the massacre of the Jesuits and their co-workers, 19 of them were SOA graduates. In 1990, Father Roy Bourgeois founded the School of the Americas Watch and moved into an apartment across the street from Fort Benning's main gates.
Over the years, SOA Watch grew from a small group of people who protested and fasted at Fort Benning's main gate to a large movement that holds annual protests at Fort Benning and lobbies Congress to close the school, which has since been renamed "the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation." Father Roy has referred to these protests as "poking the beehive."
The bees don't like that, and they tend to sting. Over the years, many people have been arrested on the grounds of Fort Benning, have been charged with trespass, and have been sentenced to federal prison, probation, or house arrest.
The movement to close the school has been working hard over the years to encourage Congress to close the school through legislative action. A number of bills have been introduced to Congress to close the school, first by Rep. Moakley of Massachusetts and later by Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.
The current bill, introduced last month, is HR 2567 and is titled the Latin America Military Training Review Act.
Father Roy also talked about work that SOA Watch is doing to encourage governmental leaders in Latin America to stop sending troops to the school in hopes that, if there is no demand for the school, it will have to close down, due to lack of interest. So far, the following countries have stopped sending troops to the school: Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, and El Salvador.
"There is a sea change taking place in Latin America," Father Roy said. "A lot of the fear that was alive in those countries has been replaced by hope."
When Father Roy is not speaking on behalf of SOA Watch or working on closing the School of the Americas (in his copious free time), he travels. He has been to Iran and Iraq.
"War destroys hope," said Father Roy, who has been involved in the movement to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan said.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Alice's court statement


On August 10, as a part of the Witness Against War walk, thirteen of us attempted to walk onto the grounds of Fort McCoy, located near Sparta, Wisconsin. We were hoping to speak to the National Guard troops who are trained at Fort McCoy. We were also hoping to give them a letter to let them know that the government's authorization to deploy the National Guard (the war powers resolution of 2002) has expired and was not renewed.
During the walk, I had met many people whose loved ones, members of the Wisconsin National Guard, had been deployed over and over again. This is very hard on the members of the National Guard and on their family, friends, co-workers, and employers. Those encounters spurred me to choose to go onto the grounds of Fort McCoy and speak with the soldiers, as someone who wanted the best for them.

I feel that the National Guard is needed at home. During times of natural disaster, it is the National Guard that we call on to take care of our needs.

When the thirteen of us arrived at the main gate of Fort McCoy, we were met by police, who told us not to pass a barrier that they had established. We did pass the barrier and we were arrested and charged with trespass. Shortly after we were processed, we were issued tickets and were released.

On January 12th, we had our trial before Magistrate Judge Stephen Crocker in Madison, Wisconsin. We each had a chance to speak our piece... peace... and were found guilty and fined $75 each.

Below is a copy of my court statement:

Since I returned to Western New York in September after completing the 500-mile Witness Against War walk from Chicago to Saint Paul, Minnesota, I have continued to walk nearly every day. I have walked along the Niagara River and through the City of Buffalo. I walk through two state parks in Grand Island, the town where I live.

I walk for exercise and to find interesting things to photograph for the Grand Island Dispatch. I work as a freelance photographer and reporter for that newspaper.

Sometimes on my walks, I see parents walking or riding on bicycles with their kids. I see people catching fish, or at least trying to. I see people walking dogs. I see people jogging in all kinds of weather, even in snow and wind. During my weekday walks, I see kids returning home from school. I see kids playing on the slides and climbing equipment at the nearby playground.

In other words, I experience normal every day life on my walks.

Last summer, I had similar experiences. I saw bicyclists and joggers and kids going to summer school.

But a few incidents served to remind me that the lives of many of our friends and neighbors are far from normal. One of those incidents occurred in Jefferson, early in the morning, as we were starting our day’s walk. We could see the kids heading off to summer school. We crossed a street near the school. A crossing guard spotted us and our banner. She went to the middle of the street to help us. As I passed her, she turned to me and said, “I support what you do. My son is in Iraq for the fifth time. I just want him to come home.”

In another town, we were at a church for a potluck dinner. A woman there looked at me, wanting to talk. I could see sadness in her eyes and feel heartbreak in her voice as she told me that her son had been killed in Iraq.

I heard about police departments that were short staffed because so many of the officers were also members of the National Guard, who had been deployed overseas.

The normal every day life that I saw as I walked was nowhere near as normal as it appeared.

When I heard the sadness and longing that people had for their absent family members, friends, and co-workers, I had to wonder why the normal every day lives of these communities was being disrupted and destroyed. Why have National Guard troops been deployed over and over again, far away from home and from the families and communities that need them? Why are National Guard troops continuing to be deployed to Iraq, even though the War Powers resolution of 2002, which gave the Bush administration the authority to deploy the National Guard, has expired and was not renewed.

On August 10, 2008, I went with a group to the gates of Fort McCoy to talk to the troops, to tell them that they were needed at home to do the work that the National Guard is meant to do, especially disaster relief. I had a letter to give them that offered details of alternatives to deployment for them. I never spoke to a single soldier. We were arrested before we could speak to the soldiers or to give them our letters.

I felt that my presence that day at Fort McCoy was necessary. I did not feel that I did anything that could be described as illegal. I felt that I was simply exercising my first-amendment right of free speech. On the other hand, I did perceive the government as violating the law, by continuing to deploy National Guard troops after the authorization to deploy them has expired.

It is time for National Guard troops to come home. They are needed here. I hope that my presence at Fort McCoy on August 10th helped to serve as a reminder that our National Guard troops are needed at home, even though I never had a chance to speak to the soldiers.

When the deployments finally end, the National Guard troops and their families and communities will be able to start healing and, eventually, will be able to return to their normal, every day lives.

Friday, September 19, 2008

One-year anniversary

Last year, on September 19, 2007, I was released from the federal prison camp in Danbury, Connecticut, after completing my six-month sentence. As happy as I was to get turned loose onto an unsuspecting world, it was a sad experience, too. I had to leave behind friends, who had far longer sentences than I had.
Spending time in prison, especially when that time is measured in years, not in months that can be counted on one or two hands, is very hard on women. Many of them are mothers, and they must endure long separations from their children. The children grow up without their mothers, which is hard on them, too.
I believe that too many people are in prison. Keeping people in prison is expensive and nonproductive. I would very much like to see more people sentenced to probation and community service and restitution (if necessary) than to prison sentences. I would also like to see more use of restorative justice. It is important for people to take responsibility for their actions, to apologize, and make right what they have made wrong. Occupying space in prison does not accomplish any of that. So these are a few things that I have learned from my time in prison.
I have also learned that being in prison is challenging but it is an experience that the overwhelming majority survives. They then go on to other things and other adventures. I have also learned that going to prison for something that you believe in is somewhat difficult but far from impossible. I believe that change can occur when ordinary people, such as me, are willing to make sacrifices for the things that they believe in.
In two months, there will be another vigil at Fort Benning. Undoubtedly, some people will choose to cross the Fort Benning fence. Might you be one of them? Would you be one of those who chooses to take that step (literally) to say yes to life and human rights and no to torture and assassination? Or, if you prefer to travel to Arizona, rather than Georgia, might you take that step, instead, at Fort Huachuca? I would encourage you to think about it. I have no regrets about having crossed that fence and, I believe, that, if you crossed the fence, too, you would not regret it.
And, speaking about steps, I have finished my 500-mile walk from Chicago to Saint Paul, Minnesota, with Witness Against War (see http://www.vcnv.org). It was a good experience, and I will write more extensively about it in later posts. Above is a photograph of me on the top of Brady's Bluff at Perrot State Park, in Trempealeau, Wisconsin. The upper Mississippi River is in the background.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Witness Against War

Hi all!
I am part of the Witness Against War walk from Chicago to St. Paul, Minnesota. We started the walk on July 12 and will finish on August 30.
For more information and to see the blogs that I have posted, take a look at the Voices for Creative Nonviolence website at http://www.vcnv.org
Bye bye for now, and I will post on this blog when I return home!

Friday, May 09, 2008

Sharing the message in Washington, D.C.



Our colorful message in favor of human rights certainly attracted a lot of attention on Monday morning, near the Capital South metro station. Plenty of people who work in Congressional offices take the metro to that stop. They couldn't miss us with our signs and big banners.
OK, I know that the name of the school at Fort Benning, Georgia, is no longer "School of the Americas" or "SOA." It's the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation" (a real mouthful). But the message is the same... close the school and get an independent commission to investigate the instructions.
A bunch of us spent much of the day on Monday on Capitol Hill. We visited the offices of House Members and Senators and we talked to foreign policy and military policy aides in those offices. It was a very interesting and educational experience. I learned about the difference between an "authorization" bill and an "appropriations" bill. All government programs have to be reauthorized each year. Hence the "authorization" bill. But that bill doesn't pay for the programs. That is done with an "appropriations" bill.
I also learned that, in each Congressional session (two years), many bills are proposed and then are sent to committee. A good number of these bills tend to languish in committee because they lack support. Support for a bill is measured in the number of co-sponsors who sign on to that particular bill. So it is necessary for people who want a bill to be passed to contact the offices of their members of Congress to ask them to co-sponsor the bill.
In the case of Rep. McGovern's bill, HR 1707, the Latin America Military Training Review Act of 2007, we are doing well with co-sponsors, but we could be doing better. If your House member is not yet a co-sponsor of HR 1707, please ask him or her to become a co-sponsor. The best ways to do that are by calling, sending a fax, or visiting the office. If your House member is a co-sponsor, please contact the office to express your thanks. Members of Congress feel much better about taking a position on an issue when they know that they have support from their constituents.