living the faith
Protests lead to arrest and jail for young UUs
by Donald E. skinner
When the moment came to either hold back or to go for it, they went for it. As dramatic moments go, it was a big one. For two people involved, it meant prison terms. For some of the rest, stiff fines and probation. For all of them, it was a moment that would shape their lives.
At the annual vigil and protest last November at the U.S. Army's Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC) in Fort Benning, Georgia, still known among activists as the School of the Americas (SOA), six Unitarian Universalists were among more than 80 people who "crossed the line," and were arrested for trespassing on federal property.
Of the Unitarian Universalists five are under 30. Two are teenagers. Two are staff members of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston.
Jason Lydon, 20, a Unitarian Universalist student at the University of Massachusetts, got the longest sentence, six months in federal prison and a $500 fine. Taken directly to jail from the courtroom on February 11, he's to be released in August. Mimi LaValley, 21, a UUA Youth Program Specialist, was sentenced to three months in prison and fined $1,000. She expected to begin her sentence in late March or early April.
Laurel Albina, 27, a UUA Young Adult/Campus Ministry Associate, received a $1,000 fine, one year's probation, and 250 hours of community service. Doris Reed, a 78-year-old member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Binghamton, New York, received one year's probation. Siri Larsen and Alexis Hall, 16 and 17, from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington, Indiana, also crossed onto the base but were released because they were minors. Scores of UUs participated in the vigil in other ways.
In previous protests at the School of the Americas, hundreds have crossed the line, but most were simply escorted off the base on foot or in buses. Because of heightened security after 9/11, many more were arrested last fall.
The school is considered by many to be a terrorist training camp whose graduates have been implicated in human rights atrocities throughout Latin America. A campaign to close it began in 1990. A group called SOA Watch (www.soaw.org) organizes the annual vigils.
Last November 10,000 people participated in the vigil. Since 1990 nearly 100 people have served a total of more than 50 years in prison for nonviolent resistance in response to the Georgia school. One of those was the Rev. Nick Cardell, minister emeritus of May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society in Syracuse, New York. Cardell, who died last year, served a six month sentence in 1998.
In a statement to the judge, Lydon paraphrased Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech. "I dream of a country that does not sponsor terror in Latin America. I dream of a country that takes responsibility for its actions. I dream of a country where people are truly free to express dissent and our prisons are not filled with nonviolent offenders. I dream, as King did, that all people, including the people of Latin America, will be free of oppression and exploitation by our government."
Lydon grew up in the First Congregational Parish in Kingston, Massachusetts, and has been active in Unitarian Universalist youth and young adult groups and as an antiwar activist.
LaValley, in an interview in February, said she hadn't planned on crossing onto the fort, but as the vigil proceeded, she decided that was how she could best call attention to the school. At her sentencing, LaValley, who grew up in two Unitarian Universalist communities in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at First Unitarian Church and Unitarian Universalist Church of the North Hills, told the judge, "I am here because I have refused to act as an accessory to brutality. I am here to beseech anyone who might be listening to take action to put a stop to the crimes against humanity perpetrated at WHISC.
"I also wanted to expose our government's double standard on the war on terrorism," she continued. "I feel that the same atrocities we are now seeking to prosecute people for in Arab countries, are being committed by graduates of this U.S. Army training camp." She hopes to use her time in prison to good advantage. "A prison system is a good training ground for how dominance and oppression really function. I want to pay attention to it and learn as much as I can."
Albina's travels in Central America influenced her decision to take part in the protest. In her statement to the court, she said, "Our country has amazing potential in our wealth, our resources, and our people. But I am frightened by the way our government uses and misuses this power. At what point do I decide that enough is enough? I cannot let these actions be supported by my silence, my complicity, and my inaction."
A fund has been established to help pay the fines of Lydon, Albina, and LaValley, which total $2,500. Donations will also defray travel expenses for family members visiting Lydon and LaValley in prison. Any additional funds will be donated to SOA Watch. Checks may be made out to SOA Watch (with UU SOA Support in the memo line). Mail checks to 1 Peabody Place, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130. E-mails to Lydon at email@example.com and to LaValley at firstname.lastname@example.org will be printed and mailed to them. To join an informational list serve and receive letters from them go to http://lists.uuyan.org/listinfo/uusoasupport.
Albina says people don't have to go to Fort Benning to help. "They can start an SOA Watch group in their area. They can support people who do go. They can lobby Congress. They don't have to leave home to be effective."
Larsen, 16, reported on her experience: "The military police were yelling at us that if we were arrested we'd never get into college or get financial aid. Behind us people were encouraging us by singing 'Amazing Grace.'" She said she educated people at her high school about the School of the Americas. "No one knew what it was. I had an impact just by going back to school."
Reed remembers World War II. "That was my first awareness that laws are not necessarily just." During the Vietnam era she participated in antiwar marches. In two previous School of the Americas demonstrations she walked onto the fort but was not arrested.
This time, "the judge asked why I didn't work through democratic means. Well, they don't always work. I think we have a responsibility to confront unjust laws. We've got to do something to make our government a lot more responsive to us."