e-mail us
Jail stay, bail a new twist for SOA protesters

Columbus, Ga.

Moments before she trespassed onto Fort Benning, St. Agnes Sr. Caryl Hartjes was surrounded by a circle of sisters from her community. They prayed together on a patch of grass near the fence.

Hartjes teared up when a reporter asked her if she was scared. “Yes,” replied the 68-year-old nun from Fond du Lac, Wis., who has spent 50 years as a nurse and advocate for the poor, 43 of them in religious life.

Minutes after squeezing around the fence, Hartjes was taken into custody by military police. She was one of 96 people arrested Nov. 17 during the 13th annual protest in opposition to the U.S. Army School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The U.S. Army school, which trains Latin American soldiers, is based at Fort Benning, Ga. Many of the school’s graduates have been implicated in human rights violations and murders in their native countries -- including the murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, whom the large protest commemorates.

The vigil weekend, attended by approximately 11,000 people, featured speakers and musicians from North and Latin America. Vigil organizers attributed the record attendance to growing criticism of the war on terrorism, the threatened war on Iraq and the deteriorating human rights situation in Colombia.

A significant majority of the vigil participants were college students, especially students from Jesuit universities. About 2,000 people participated in a peace Mass in the Ignatian Family Teach-In tent, which served as a place of shared prayer, discussion and discernment.

By late Nov. 17, 96 people had been arrested after circumventing the 10-foot barbed-wire fence to enter the base, a trespassing violation. Most were held overnight in a local jail and required to post bond after appearing in federal court. It was the first time that protesters arrested were not released on their own recognizance.

School of the Americas Watch, the group founded 13 years ago by Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, scrambled to raise almost $45,000 to post bond for the defendants.

Hartjes, who was not released until around 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 18, said her 30 hours in custody were difficult. After being held at Fort Benning much of Sunday for processing, Hartjes was moved to a jail where she had to wear a thin jumpsuit in a cold, damp cell. She didn’t get to her bed -- with just a single blanket to fend off the cold -- until midnight.

She was awakened at 4:15 a.m. for breakfast, spent a cold day in jail and received one more meal after 4 p.m. -- no lunch.

“It was awful,” she said. “It was freezing. Between the cold and not enough food for two days, I was actually trembling. I was shaking inside. I could hardly sign my name on the papers. … The little bit of energy from the food I had was all being wasted on the trembling, trying to keep warm. It was 30 hours that I never want to repeat.”

Hartjes will go to trial Jan. 27 with her codefendants, where a prison sentence of up to six months is possible. The U.S. magistrate slated to try the case has sent scores of SOA protesters to prison, most of them for the maximum sentence.

Bourgeois said the government’s tactic of prosecuting all trespassers and setting a high bond is unjust, and will backfire. “You’re talking about poking the beehive,” he said.

“There’s no turning back,” he added. “People want peace and this is what this is all about. When we come together like this we find hope.”

Hartjes, whose story was published in newspapers all over the country, said she feels that hope.

“The Christ is imprisoned and oppressed, and we need to release that bondage wherever it’s experienced,” she said.

Patrick O’Neill is a free-lance writer who lives in Raleigh, N.C.

National Catholic Reporter, November 29, 2002