Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Alice's Continuing Adventures

During the hottest part of July, I went to the Washington, D.C., area to attend to some legal matters. I had been arrested near the Pentagon in March, along with approximately fifty other individuals. We were attempting to deliver a coffin to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld when we encountered a hastily built fence and hordes of police. The fence was placed near a parking lot, out of sight of the Pentagon. It became obvious to me that, if we were to stay in this fenced in area, we would be protesting for our benefit only. Although I had not intended to risk arrest that day, I was so shocked by this blatant violation of my first amendment right to seek redress of grievances of governmental officials that I impulsively made the decision to cross that fence.

The charge against me was “violation of a lawful order.” It is a class B misdemeanor. The court in which the case was to be heard was the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia.

I arrived in Washington, D.C., on July 18. I was greeted by a wall of heat and by the sight of lollipops melting on the pavement. Almost before I knew it, I was near the White House, protesting the Israel-Hezbollah war. It was the hottest, sweatiest protest that I had ever experienced! I saw the Code Pink group, which was fasting and vigiling at Lafayette Park. I met several people from the Middle East, who just wanted to see the violence stop. One was Mohammed, who is from Morocco, where, he told me, people of all faiths live together in peace. Another was an artist, Mona. Originally from Egypt, she lives in the Washington, D.C., area. Her paintings, which can be found at monaart.com, reflect her North African roots.

During the few days that I was in Washington, D.C., I spent much time in the Palestine Center., 2425 Virginia Ave., NW. The first time, I saw a documentary film titled Improvisation, directed by Raed Andoni, about a musical family, the Joubran brothers. These brothers play traditional Arab music. The movie depicted their relationships with one another and the rest of their family, their practices, the playing and construction of the ‘oud (a traditional Arab instrument), and their performances. It also gave viewers an impression of life in Ramallah, under the Israeli occupation. It was a beautiful movie about music, life, love, and perseverance in spite of man-made obstacles.

Also, at the Palestine Center, I heard an informative talk about Hamas and how it came to win the election in the Palestinian territories. The speaker, Nadia Hijab, offered an historical perspective of the region, the series of negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and the Palestinian resistance movements. It was an interesting, yet disturbing talk. She asked, “Where do we go from here? The region is doomed without a comprehensive solution. How many people will die before this reality is recognized?”

On Friday, July 21, I was in court. I found out that the judge assigned to the case was Theresa Buchanan, who was well-known for sending protesters to jail. I was horrified. I had not anticipated the possibility of being sent to jail, even though I was aware that the maximum sentence for this charge was six months in prison plus a big fine. I had intended to plead “no contest” and to ask the judge to sentence me to “community service” and “probation” (the prosecutor said that “probation” had to go along with “community service” so that there would be someone to “supervise” me).

As it turned out, Judge Buchanan would not accept a no-contest plea. So I chose, along with 13 co-defendants who were in court that day, to plead not guilty. We were proceeding “pro se” (defending ourselves). Some of my co-defendants did a fine job in giving an opening speech and in cross-examining the chief prosecution witness, Major William Stout of the Pentagon Police. He insisted that he had designed a “free speech zone” for us so that we could enjoy our protest in a nice, secluded spot. Under cross-examination, he acknowledged that the spot was so secluded that no one in the Pentagon could either see us or hear us. After the prosecution rested, the judge shocked everyone in the courtroom by abruptly dismissing the charges.

That abrupt dismissal ended the trial of the century, which most certainly did not live up to that title.


That is the new title of the Erie County Fair. I entered two pastel paintings, two crocheted doilies, and one small crocheted blanket into the contests at the Creative Arts Building. One of the paintings was a still life of (what else?) food… a loaf of bread, a jar of pickled vegetables, and a hunk of cheese on a plate. The other painting was a portrait of a girl dressed in an eighteenth century costume singing as she sat on the ground in front of a harp. When I went to the fair with my family, I was thrilled to find out that I had won two ribbons for my efforts. That was sort of like the frosting on the cake. Just having the stuff on exhibit is a big treat for me. But it’s always fun to win.


In September, I spent ten days in the Midwest. I was in Chicago, Illinois; LaCrosse, Wisconsin; and Decorah, Iowa. I went to visit people, to experience life in the Midwest, and to speak to groups about the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

In Chicago, I stayed with Voices for Creative Nonviolence, an organization founded by Kathy Kelly and Simon Harak, and dedicated to providing humanitarian aid and witness to war in Iraq. It is always good to see the Voices for Creative Nonviolence folks. They had been in Washington, D.C., from February to March to fast and to protest the war in the “Winter of Our Discontent.” A few of them had crossed the fence with me at the Pentagon on March 20.

One of the unexpected highlights of my Midwestern trip was a train ride between Chicago and LaCrosse. I was treated to a guided tour by two narrators, who were volunteers with the Trails and Rails program, sponsored by Amtrak and the National Park Service. The narrators told stories and shared facts and historical data about the areas, as we were passing them.

After getting off the train in LaCrosse, I was greeted by my friend Mary Cary, whom I hadn’t seen in more than twenty years. The two of us had been students in the University of Missouri-Columbia, when we last saw one another. We were so happy to see one another! Mary introduced me to her friend, Perry-O Sliwa. The two of them had arranged for me to spend the next several days at Perry-O and David Sliwa’s farm outside of Decorah, Iowa.

My time at the organic farm was delightful. I spoke about WHINSEC at Luther College and at the Friends meeting house in Decorah, as well as at a Friends’ meeting in Gays Mills, Wisconsin. I went to a workshop on how to build solar food dehydrators. I spent time outdoors, picking berries and walking. I experienced the beauty of the Iowa countryside, with its valleys and ridges and rivers.

After spending several days in Iowa, I returned to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where I stayed with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. I gave a talk about WHINSEC at the Franciscan Spirituality Center. Mary gave me a tour of downtown LaCrosse. I stood with the Women in Black at their weekly vigil. I enjoyed a walk alongside the Mississippi River. I even got to see a ballet called “Dracula,” presented by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet at Viterbo College. It was dark, dramatic, foreboding, and highly entertaining.

The Sliwas, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, and Voices for Creative Nonviolence were kind and gracious hosts. It was a fantastic opportunity for me.

I enjoyed my time in Iowa and Wisconsin so much that I would consider going out there for a longer period of time, if I could find the right community.


The time is rapidly approaching. I’m going back to Fort Benning next month. I was hoping that it would be to celebrate the passage of HR 1217, but, unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Maybe we’ll have better luck with legislation with a different Congress.

I am hoping that many people decide to cross that fence this year. It is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the School of the Americas, which has had a variety of names but has always been the same school. The issue has always been accountability. If the government really believed that no harm had been done by training offered at that school, wouldn’t it welcome an investigation?

I am asking you to consider crossing the fence this year. Having 20,000 people walk onto the grounds of Fort Benning, by a variety of entrances, would make an impression on people at the school and people in Washington, D.C. Please think about it.

I’ll see you there!

(For more detail about my adventures, take a look at my blog at alicesgrandadventures.blogspot.com.)

Congress Has Its Say on WHINSEC

(June 2006 newsletter)

On June 9, I watched the debate in the House of Representatives on the future of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly known as the School of the Americas), televised on C-SPAN.

Representative James McGovern’s bill, the Latin America Military Training Review Act of 2005 (HR 1217), was offered to the House as an amendment to the Foreign Operations appropriations bill. The amendment was named for two sponsors, James McGovern (D-Massachusetts) and John Lewis (D-Georgia) and was titled the McGovern-Lewis amendment.

As the individual who introduced the amendment, McGovern was the first to speak about why it needed to be approved. He talked about the “notorious legacy” of the SOA. WHINSEC, he said, is no improvement over the old school. It has welcomed several well-known human rights violators as students. Keeping the school open is “sending the wrong signal to Latin America.” Furthermore, WHINSEC and the SOA are on the same base and they offer the same curriculum. “Excuse me if I don’t get the difference,” McGovern commented.

The opposition to HR 1217 was led by Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Arizona), chairman of the Foreign Operations Committee. “WHINSEC is a Department of Defense facility, which replaces the SOA. It trains civilians, military, and law enforcement officers to support our democratic principles.” While he acknowledged that some SOA graduates were “bad,” he claimed that more of them “uphold human rights.”

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York) had questions about Rep. Kolbe’s assertions that the majority of SOA graduates support human rights. “The Department of Defense refuses to monitor the careers of graduates,” she said. “The vetting process is broken. WHINSEC is just another name for SOA.”

Representative Barbara Lee (D-California) pointed out that “people in Latin America are not fooled by a name change.” Representatives debating in favor of HR 1217 talked about an incident that occurred in Colombia on May 19. Members of the Farallones High Mountain Battalion of the army’s Third Brigade killed ten members of an elite judicial police anti-drug squad during a thirty-minute firefight took place near the town of Jamudi, south of Cali (source: the Center for International Policy). CIP raised questions as to whether the killing of the police, which involved unprovoked shooting and the detonation of hand grenades, was “friendly fire” or something more sinister. General Mario Montoya, commander of the national army, said, “We are not going to wait for a group to arrive before opening fire. The men were simply deployed in response to a suspicious situation that presented itself in the zone.”

Hmmm, the old “shoot first, ask questions later” tactic. As I mentioned in my last newsletter, Montoya is well-known for his scorched-earth policy and for his connections with paramilitary units. He is not well known for upholding human rights. Did he learn his techniques at the SOA? It appears that he paid attention in class and applied his newfound knowledge well.

Members of Congress who argued against the amendment said that the institution is noted for its human rights training. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Georgia) identified himself as a member of WHINSEC’s Board of Visitors. He said, “All students and instructors receive comprehensive human rights training” and that graduates are “not brutal and murderous thugs. The vast majority make positive contributions and serve with honor and distinction.”

Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Massachusetts) completely disagreed. WHINSEC, he argued, is the “breeding ground for unsavory thugs” who “repress, abuse, and kill their victims.”

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) commented that WHINSEC/SOA is notorious for “graduating human rights violators” and that people targeted by these graduates include educators, student leaders, and union leaders.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) talked about the February 21-22, 2005, massacre at San Jose de Apartado, Colombia. Shortly after eight persons, including three children, were killed in this peace community, the 17th Brigade, directed by SOA graduate Brigadier General Hector Jaime Rincon, was seen there. Rincon had graduated from the SOA’s “small unit tactical operations” course. “This is not an isolated matter. It is a shameful policy,” Schakowsky said.

Rep. John Mica (R-Florida) started by referring to opponents of SOA/WHINSEC as the “caffe latte crowd,” an odd comment, considering that Colombia is well-known for its coffee. Returning to the topic at hand, he expounded upon the virtues of WHINSEC and declared that it trains officers who share our values and that the program should be expanded, not cut. He didn’t mention problems concerning our own government and military with massacres, extraordinary rendition (deporting someone to a country that practices torture), Guatanamo, secret prisons, etc. Are these the values that the SOA students share with us?

Meehan addressed those issues directly. “The U.S. administration has done little to hide contempt for human rights,” he stated. “Cutting funding is a small step in the right direction.”

The new WHINSEC graduates are becoming fewer in number, however, as demand for the program falls. So far, Bolivia, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina have announced that that they are no longer sending students to the school, and the list could soon get longer. Enrollment has declined by 40 percent. Most of the students now come from five Andean nations, and U.S. students are filling empty seats. As enrollment declines, the budget for the school does not.

None of the opponents to HR 1217, from the cantankerous Mica to the genteel Gingrey, were able to explain why funding for WHINSEC has remained the same while the number of students has declined. They also were unable to explain the lack of accountability and the fact that no independent investigation of this school and its graduates has been performed. School supporters simply repeat public relations offerings from WHINSEC. They also do not mention Amnesty International’s November 2002 report, “Unmatched Power, Unmet Principle.”

After the allotted thirty minutes, the debate was over, and a roll call vote was held on the McGovern-Lewis amendment. It was defeated by the vote of 188 to 218.

Our work continues.

Alice E. Gerard

Alice Goes to Washington: SOA Watch Lobby Days!

(May 2006 Newsletter)

1. Plan Colombia: On Sunday, April 23, I attended a workshop organized by SOA Watch at American University on Plan Colombia.

The panelists included Erik Giblin, a program officer for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, and Berenice Celeyta Alayon, one of four Colombian recipients of the 1998 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. The panelists said that Colombia’s history is “very complex” and includes a strange set of alliances between “Mafia-type powers,” local dictators, guerrillas, drug lords, paramilitaries, corporations, and the military.

Various elements regularly target human rights activists and labor leaders for assassination. In 2005, sixty trade unionists were killed, and not a single killer was brought to justice. One of the most notorious of the plots, Operation Dragon, involved threats against Celeyta Alayon and others. After several people received a tip that they would be killed during the week of August 23, 2004, they contacted the Colombian attorney general, and a raid was conducted in the cities of Cali and Medellin. Materials found were evidence of the surveillance of 170 persons, with contact information, a power point presentation, a detailed map of the SINTRAEMACALI labor union, and the notebooks of Lt. Colonel Julian Villate Leal of Colombia’s Third Brigade. It was learned that information had been leaked from Colombia’s secret police (called DAS) to the would-be assassins. In addition, the lieutenant colonel, now retired, has been well educated. He studied military tactics in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas; the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California; and the School of the Americas, where he also served as an instructor. He was also the dean of Colombia’s Escuela Superior de Guerra (National War College) from 2002 to 2004. Despite all of the evidence, no criminal charges have been filed against any of the participants in the conspiracy known as Operation Dragon.

Why is the United States offering Colombia such massive quantities of military aid? The State Department regularly certifies Colombia as having an adequate human rights record to receive military aid while, at the same time, detailing in its annual country report numerous human rights violations that should be sufficient to deny Colombia military aid. Is drug eradication the real goal of Plan Colombia, which was designed by SOA student General Mario Montoya? Alleged to have been a former leader of right-wing paramilitaries, Montoya commanded the 24th brigade in Putumayo and the 21st counter-narcotics battalion. The 24th brigade has been barred from receiving U.S. aid because of evidence of its cooperation with right-wing paramilitaries at La Hormiga. Montoya is known for his scorched-earth campaigns in Putumayo. Despite these charges, this SOA graduate has been permitted to design a big piece of U.S. military policy in Latin America. Why is that?

Could it be that Colombia is, as the panelists said, “extremely rich with resources,” with untapped gold and with potentially more oil than Venezuela? Not all are eager for the oil to be drilled. The U’Wa Indians, for example, say, “Oil is the blood of the mother earth. If mother earth has not given her permission to open her up, how can we allow this?”

2. Father Roy Bourgeois’ report: In March, Lisa Sullivan, Carlos Mauricio, and Father Roy went to South America as “citizen diplomats” to ask governmental leaders to stop sending troops to WHINSEC. Father Roy said that it was a “special joy” to go back to Bolivia, where, in the 1970s, he had been a missionary priest. He said that he had both “good memories” and “memories of fear.”

“It is incredible,” Father Roy said, “Fear is in the past…. Evo Morales is the first indigenous president after 500+ years.”

The “citizen diplomats” spoke to Evo Morales early one morning. Then, they moved on to Uruguay and Argentina and spoke to the defense ministers of those countries. Both defense ministers said, “You don’t have to tell us of this school. We know about it. No more of our troops will attend.” The defense minister of Argentina is the widow of a man who was “disappeared,” along with thousands of others, during the “dirty wars” of the 1970s and 1980s. Uruguay’s minister of defense is a lawyer who defended political prisoners when that country was a dictatorship.

Even when WHINSEC is closed, there will still be more work to accomplish. “There can be no healing until the wrongdoing is acknowledged,” said Father Roy. “People in Latin America want the truth.”

The “citizen diplomats” intend to visit governmental leaders in Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Paraguay this summer to ask them to stop sending troops to WHINSEC.

3. HR 1217: On April 24, Juliana Illari, Shirley Way, and I visited the offices of Representatives Louise Slaughter (D-NY-28) and Brian Higgins (D-NY-27) and Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer to ask them to support this legislation. We now have 130 cosponsors to Rep. Jim McGovern’s bill, and we’re looking for a Senate sponsor. WHINSEC/SOA has been operating for sixty years. Enough is enough! Let’s get this school closed this year!!!!

4. Poking the Beehive: Father Roy said our actions in Fort Benning, his work in Latin America, and our work in Washington, D.C., “poke the beehive” of the government and military. Let’s continue poking the beehive at home by continuing contacts with Congress, and by holding call-in days, writing letters to the editor and op-ed pieces, and by speaking about that school to groups. Donations to defray the cost of this work can be sent to SOA Watch, P.O. Box 4566, Washington, D.C. 20017. We’re having success, and it’s time to follow that up with more success!

Alice E. Gerard, Grand Island, NY