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18 Fort Benning protesters leave prison; Bourgeois vows return until SOA closes


Just two days back from “camp,” Mary Early was already missing the other women.

Dan and Doris Sage, meanwhile, were facing the cleanup from the wicked storms that had just clobbered the Syracuse, N.Y., area.

Early of North Palm Beach, Fla., and the Sages were among 18 persons released the weekend of Sept. 18 after serving six-month sentences for protests last November at the site of the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. The school trains military personnel for Latin American countries and has graduated some of the area’s most notorious human rights abusers.

For Early, the six months in Florida’s Coleman Prison provided a chance “to be in solidarity” with other women there, nonviolent offenders that, Early said, were being treated as violent criminals.

For the Sages, members of the Unitarian church (she was imprisoned at Danbury, Conn., he in Allenwood, Pa.) the experience was eye-opening for the amount of support shown to the prisoners by those on the outside, including hundreds of letters from strangers.

The retired couple -- Dan, 70, taught at Syracuse University, and Doris, 68, taught special education in the public schools -- said their first stint in jail was worthwhile as a way to raise awareness about the School of the Americas.

The 18 protesters were arrested along with nearly 600 others who marched in a “funeral procession” last Nov. 16 at Fort Benning.

Twenty five repeat offenders were convicted of trespass and sentenced to the maximum six months in prison and a $3,000 fine. Those arrested for the first time do not receive prison sentences.

The repeat offenders included ministers, nuns, college professors, nurses, students and grandparents. The oldest in the group is the Rev. Nicholas Cardell, 72, a Unitarian minister. Sr. Rita Steinhagen, a Sister of St. Joseph who works with the homeless and victims of torture, is 70 years old. Most were in their 50s and 60s, and the youngest was 23-year-old Christopher Jones of Portland, Ore.

Of the remaining seven arrested and given jail sentences last November, two were released earlier, according to SOA Watch, an organization working to close the facility. One person was able to postpone beginning a sentence because of illness in the family, and four who also were charged with a felony for defacing a sign at Fort Benning will soon begin serving 12-to 18-month sentences.

The school has trained 60,000 Latin American soldiers in combat skills, commando tactics and military intelligence, according to SOA Watch, which was founded by Fr. Roy Bourgeois shortly after the killing of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador in 1969.

Bourgeois, one of those recently released, has vowed to continue returning to jail until the school is closed down. The most recent attempt to shut down the facility was turned back when the House of Representatives voted 212-201 to refuse to entertain a proposal to cut $750,000 from the school’s budget for next year.

Those who recently served sentences were released in time to return to the facility again this Nov. 21 and 22 for another mass protest. Some, like Early, are considering trespassing at the fort again, an action that almost certainly would bring another prison term.

National Catholic Reporter, October 2, 1998