While most anti-war activists are preoccupied with our military's expected role in Iraq, three Oregonians drew federal prison sentences last week for participating in an annual protest of the U.S. Army's historical links to Latin America.
Lisa Hughes, Ann Huntwork and Phil D'Onofrio were sentenced to three to six months in prison for their role in a November 2002 protest at a Fort Benning, Ga., Army training facility formerly known as the School of the Americas. All were slapped with Class B misdemeanors for their involvement.
Critics have long insisted that the school, which was officially closed in 2000 and reopened a year later as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, has trained Latin American soldiers linked to human-rights abuses. Its most infamous alum is Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.
About 90 of the 10,000 protesters assembled outside WHISC on Nov. 17 crossed the gate of the institute's entrance, an intentional act of civil disobedience, and were arrested for trespassing.
"Shrouded in black with our faces painted white, we marched onto the base carrying mock coffins and reading the names of SOA graduates' victims," explained Hughes, a former Portlander who recently moved to Valyermo, Calif. The activists then peacefully surrendered for arrest.
Roughly half of those arrested were sentenced last week. Huntwork, who had crossed the gate at previous protests, and Hughes each drew sentences of six months. Hughes, a 37-year-old war-tax resister, also got a $1,500 fine. Huntwork, a 71-year-old grandmother, was fined $250. Huntwork says she knew she might face a longer sentence, but "doing nothing is not an option."
D'Onofrio, an Army veteran from Salemattending his first protest at the school, got three months. "I'd been wanting to get down to the vigil for three years," says D'Onofrio, a 35-year-old employee of the federal Bureau of Land Management. "This year, because of the oppression happening locally and worldwide, I realized, 'I gotta do it.' The values that created the School of the Americas are the same ones leading us to Iraq."
D'Onofrio, who served two years in the Army, says the sentences were harsh. "By no means do I think the sentence is appropriate to the crime," he says. "There was no violence or intimidation. They're trying to make an example."
He's not bothered by the sentence, though: "Harsh sentences are making people question what the school is hiding."
Protesters were represented by volunteer lawyers, including Bill Conwell of Portland. Most of the remaining defendants will be tried Feb. 10. Defendants haven't been told where they'll serve their sentences. "I'm hoping it's Sheridan," says D'Onofrio.
While WHISC insists that its new mission clearly separates it from SOA's violent history, many, including former Georgia governor Paul Coverdell, characterized the school's transformation as simply "cosmetic." For more information about the protest and the history of the training school, visit the School of the Americas Watch website, www.soaw.org.