Protesters arrested in November after crossing onto Fort Benning during the 14th annual SOA Watch demonstration argued their cases Monday in federal court before U.S. Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth.
The protesters expressed little remorse for breaking the federal misdemeanor trespass law. Some instead called their crossings acts of civil disobedience and reminded the judge that movements ranging from women's suffrage to civil rights could not have succeeded without challenging laws through direct action.
Faircloth said trespassing is not an act of civil disobedience because trespassers are not taking direct action against Congress, the only body capable of shutting down Fort Benning's Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, which replaced the School of the Americas in 2000.
Peace cannot just be talked about. It is a matter of life and death for the voiceless.
I feel I must be willing to risk as much for peace as soldiers are willing to risk for war.
David Corcoran, 69, a hospital chaplain from Plains, Ill
"I can't shut down the School of the Americas just because you trespass," the judge said. "You're demonstrating in the wrong forum."
Faircloth gave 14 protesters prison sentences ranging from 90 days to the six-month maximum. He gave another four probation.
The judge reserved the day's harshest sentence, six months in prison and a $1,000 fine, for one of the two oldest defendants, 73-year-old Donald Beisswenger, a retired Vanderbilt University theology professor who ignored a ban and bar letter he received after crossing onto Fort Benning during a previous protest.
Most protesters said that violence and aggression supported by the American government are not committed in their name, whether the acts occur in Latin America or the Middle East. Crossing onto the post expresses that idea, they said.
"Peace cannot just be talked about. It is a matter of life and death for the voiceless," said David Corcoran, 69, a hospital chaplain from Plains, Ill. "I feel I must be willing to risk as much for peace as soldiers are willing to risk for war."
Many protesters echoed Amnesty International in calling for an independent investigation of past and present atrocities committed by graduates of the School of the Americas and its current manifestation, the Western Hemisphere Institute.
"I feel that there is a spiral of violence that cannot be broken unless we take a courageous stance," said Jerome Zawada, a Catholic priest from Burlington, Wis. "In the heart of God, there is no room for war, there is no room for violence, there is no room for these atrocities."
Beisswenger called atrocities committed against citizens of Latin America a war against the poor.
"Christian nations can too easily ignore abuses and atrocities done in their name," he said.
While a couple of protesters gasped when given prison sentences, most seemed prepared to accept their punishment.
"My concern is not what my government plans to do to me," said Faith Fippinger, a retired special education teacher from Sarasota, Fla. "My concern is what my government is doing to my country and my world."
Nine protesters will begin trials today at 9 a.m. in the federal courthouse on 12th Street.
Copyright 2004 Columbus Ledger-Enquirer