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By Rita Lucey

Convicted of criminal trespass for demonstrating at Ft. Benning, Georgia, to close the School of the Americas. But let me tell you about the School, about myself, the demonstrations, and about my co-defendants.

I am 63, the mother of four, grandmother of six, wife of 45 years, retired from business and active in community affairs. My social awareness came through life experiences and the teachings and example of those many activists for peace and justice who preceded me. As a Quaker I express this awareness through actions supported by members of my local Meeting of the Society of Friends and by many other faith communities, friends, and family.

On November 16, 1997 a solemn funeral procession led by a Methodist minister and a Maryknoll priest commemorated the eighth anniversary of the murders of six Jesuit priests and their co-workers. Bearing aloft eight black cardboard coffins filled with petitions calling for the closure of the School of the Americas, six hundred and one demonstrators "crossed the line." Accompanied only by the sound of a drummed funeral cadence we proceeded two-by-two toward the School of the Americas.

Some thirteen hundred protesters remained outside the line and remembered the people who became victims of the graduates of this infamous institution, calling out the names of the dead. The hills resounded with the response: PRESENTE! The dead, who are now voiceless, were truly with us that day.

Silently, under the watchful eye of the military and civilian police, federal marshals and military officers, we wended our way toward the School to deposit the coffins. As the end of the procession rounded a curve in the road, out of sight of the media, we were met by federal and military police.

After completing a preliminary search of each of us, we boarded buses for transportation to the detention center.

It was no secret that more than 500 participants expected to be arrested; our actions were always transparent. For three evenings we had excellent coaching in nonviolent responses to force. Immediately preceding the march, we vowed in unison, "to be nonviolent in my spirit and action." We proclaimed the nonviolent teachings that guided Gandhi the Mahatma and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The authorities were prepared for the processing of these hundreds. Bar and ban orders were issued to first time offenders, forbidding them to enter the Ft Benning premises for one year. "Repeat" offenders there were notified to appear for arraignment two days after the arrest. The arraignment was a preview of what would occur at the trial as sentences of six months and $3000 fines were imposed on the three who pled no contest.

In an open letter to the Magistrate who presided, a co-defendant, a teacher from Washington state, wrote: "I was honored and moved to be able to hear the impassioned pleas of the three defendants who pled no contest to the charges...I was shocked by the harshness of your sentence.. I actually felt physically sick when I heard the coldness in your words following so closely on the deeply humanitarian, sensitive and compassionate words of the defendants."

January 20 and 21 twenty-two defendants went to trial in the District Court, Columbus, Georgia. Representation by three excellent "pro bono" attorneys was to no avail. In this highly economically military dependent town there was no question of our guilt. Immediately after the closing arguments sentencing began. The Judge did, however, to his credit, permit us pre-sentencing statements. This alleviated some of our anger and frustration at the narrow scope of testimony he permitted. Imagine twenty-two people: nuns, ministers, priests, social workers, professors and students, seventeen of us over the age of 50, sentenced to six months in a Federal prison and $3000 fines.

The movement to close the School of the Americas is not a recent cause. A concerned group of citizens has petitioned Congress for years. They have sat on the Capitol steps, fasted, prayed (some for the proverbial 40 days), visited every single representative and senator. Having exhausted all other resources, each protester made a deliberate choice to be present here, to make another attempt to bring the School of the Americas and what it stands for to the attention of the American people.

What does this School stand for? From sources such as the UN Truth Commission we know the names of those guilty of the atrocities: the murder of Oscar Romero, the massacre of El Mozote, the murder and rape of the four church women, the assassination of union leaders, the massacres of El Junquillo, Las Hojas and San Sebastian. Of those named, over two thirds are graduates of the School of the Americas These murderers will serve not one day of punishment. Though found guilty, they were given pardons by their governments. We, who protest the teaching of human rights abuses at the School, are on the other hand, jailed.

In a recent letter to his colleagues, Representative Joe Kennedy asks for co sponsors for HR 611 to close the School. While this bill sits in committee innocent women, children and men in Mexico, South and Central America continue to suffer at the hands of the graduates of this School. One wonders if the SOA graduates are the paramilitary leaders in Mexico's Chiapas Policy? Even if, as our government claims, the manuals that espoused torture, rape, terrorism, and assassinations are no longer used, the reputation of this institution is so tainted that it needs to be closed as a symbol of our commitment to Human Rights.

Compelled by conscience to be voices for the voiceless, those of us who will be out of prison by November 22, 1998 - the date of the next demonstration at Ft. Benning, Georgia - will be there. PRESENTE! In the words of Fr. Roy Bourgeois "The Truth cannot be silenced."

On April 27, demonstrators will gather on the Capitol steps in Washington, D. C. and throughout Latin America demonstrators will voice their solidarity to Close the School of the Americas by their presence at the American Embassies.

Rita Lucey is a member of RFPI's International Advisory Board.

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