Trial and truth in a Georgia courtroom

IssueSeptember - November 2001
News by Claire Hanrahan

For three days in May in a US courtroom, 26 citizens attempted to break through government deceit to speak the truth: that the US Army School of the Americas – renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Co-operation (WHISC) – is the sinister source of horrendous violence.

It is a place where Latin American soldiers are trained in the murderous techniques of counterinsurgency. Graduates of the school have participated time and again in documented torture, massacre, and disappearance of thousands and thousands of Latin American people who were seeking only to assert basic human rights and to live cooperatively and peacefully in their native land.

US Magistrate Judge G Mallon Faircloth, an erudite man of pleasant demeanour, listened carefully to the testimony of each defendant – from a 19-year-old Michigan student to an 88-year-old Franciscan nun from Iowa. He was meticulous in his adherence to the due process of law. Then came the sentencing. On 23 May he found each defendant guilty of a Class B Misdemeanour and, with odd reasoning, he issued a variety of fines and sentences – from three years' probation to one year in a federal penitentiary. I received a sentence of six months' imprisonment and a US$500 fine.

I admitted to crossing and re-crossing that white line painted across the road into the Fort Benning Military Reservation – home of the School of the Americas (WHISC). I am guilty only of persistence in nonviolent efforts to make my dissent clear and unmistakable. The judge offered each of us the “privilege” of self surrender. He then ordered a $250 cash surrender bond to assure compliance and to cover any costs the Federal Marshall might incur tracking down any who fail to surrender on the appointed date. Now I am back home with my friends and my garden awaiting the summons. The peas swell in the pods as they climb the fence and the strawberries offer a sweet burst of flavour as a morning gift. The fullness of this Appalachian spring time surrounds and embraces me, and the brave and powerful company of my co- defendants, who spoke with such clarity and integrity, stays with me as I attempt to absorb this new reality. Sometime in the next month, by order of a courteous and well-mannered Georgia Judge, I will join the growing numbers of United States citizens imprisoned for nonviolent actions. I will be a political prisoner in a country increasingly dominated by a dangerous corporate-military alliance that has put precious democracy in grave peril. My herbal garden companions, like the fragrant lemon balm, uplift my spirits. The evergreen rosemary keeps me mindful of those whose oppression I cannot ignore. I am uplifted also by the many hundreds of supporters who were with us in that Georgia courtroom, and the ten thousand and more others who gather at Fort Benning each year to answer a law more sacred and compelling than the directive of the Commanding General.
It is ironic that this military base, where the expression of democratic dissent is prohibited, harbours an Institute that claims to teach democracy. It is an Institute whose deadly fruit is not just “a few bad apples”, as they claim, but brutalised men trained to kill without mercy. The SOA/WHISC is corrupted with a systemic poison that attempts to cover murder with a shroud of lies. The US military then abandons responsibility for the human rights violations of the graduates trained at US taxpayer expense. As a US citizen I withdraw my consent from these crimes against humanity. I disregarded an exclusion order that attempts to suppress democratic dissent and to protect this sinister institute, by whatever name they call it, from the scrutiny of the American people.

The United States of America is a daunting adversary in a court of law, but the power of Truth is invincible.

I will write from prison, and endure this brief disruption from my comfortable life as a contribution to this ongoing experiment in revolutionary nonviolence. I invite every person with eyes to see, ears to hear, and a conscience not blunted or subdued, to weave into this fabric of resistance your own shining thread so that the banner we raise will be durable and bright and our sisters and brothers in Latin America will know that we stand with them on the side of truth and that in the name of all who have suffered, we say together, presente!