Thursday, December 2, 2010

School of the Americas Watch

Hi, All:

For those of you interested in my Human Rights activities, I spent this past weekend at Columbus, Georgia, attending the School of the Americas Annual Protest, both as a witness and observer, and also as a lawyer for the demonstrators.

This is the 21st Annual demonstration. As in the past, many people of faith and conscience gathered at the gates of Ft. Benning to call for the end to the notorious School of the Americas (SOA), now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). This year there were fewer demonstrators, probably between 4-5,000 people in all. Four people were arrested for illegal entry onto Ft. Benning property to protest the continued existence of SOA/WHINSEC. They have been arraigned and will expect trial during the next 45 - 90 days, with a likely sentence of up to six months in jail and up to a $5,000 fine. The protesters knew in advance of the possible penalties and voluntarily undertook their civil disobedience as an act of faith and conscience.

The more interesting events took place outside the formal demonstration area. Last year the "Puppetistas" (people who hold parts of huge puppets) marched outside the permitted zone, then returned with no incident. This year, when they marched out, they were arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Also, the people who went out with the puppetistas were themselves arrested if they stopped to watch what was going on. The charges were unlawful assembly and failure to disperse. Many innocent people were swept up in the actions. When they got to jail, they were informed that bail was set at between $4,200 and $5,200 for each arrestee. Needles to say, many of the 24 people taken to jail did not have the money to pay the bond, so they stayed in jail until the hearings on Sunday afternoon.

Those arrested included three or more journalists, including two from a Russian news service. When they got out, they had a lot to tell the Russians about freedom of the press and speech and assembly in the United States, from the perspective of one arrested for trying to exercise those rights. The article and YouTube postings are:

Another interesting development took place among those who decided to walk out into the street with their banners, disrupting traffic in acts of civil disobedience. There were 12 people who went into the street and were arrested. But there were only seven when they got to the jail. In fact, one of the undercover police officers actually testified at the trials on Sunday.

On Sunday afternoon, the arrested people appeared in Recorder's Court before Judge Michael Cielinski, who proceeded to hear the evidence and find everyone guilty. He even found guilty a local barber, who had done nothing more than step out of his shop to take a picture of some puppetistas on stilts. In fairness, we had been warned that this judge would find everyone guilty. During the proceedings we had negotiated penalties with the local police chief (yeah, I know it's strange that there was no public prosecutor, and the Judge and the police chief pretty much ran everything). We had negotiated fines of $100 -$500, and all the State charges were to be sent to State Court upon $1,000 bonds. Then the judge found everyone guilty and assessed fines and bonds as previously agreed. The fines and bonds were significantly lower than the bail amounts previously assessed.

I want to take note of something especially heartwarming and moving. During the time the people were in jail, others stepped forward and gave money to help bail the people out or pay their fines. Additionally, some of the people offered to put fines and bail on their own personal credit cards. As a result of the generosity of these people and others, SOA Watch raised more than $19,000, which was sufficient to pay the fines, bond out the people and pay appeal bonds for those contesting their City convictions. Everyone (except one Federal defendant, who chose to stay in jail) is now free.

We do not really know what will happen next. Everything is in flux, but we may expect to eventually go to trial on the Federal trespass charges, and possibly to trial on the State and City charges as well. At this writing I expect to take many more trips to Columbus before it is all over.

In closing, I ask for your thoughts and prayers for these people who were caught up, many involuntarily, in the system and have learned first-hand the price of exercising the freedoms that all of us possess.

Frank Schneider