Standing Up to School of the Americas

For someone just 20 years old and talking about the prospect of spending 18 months in federal prison, Charity Ryerson seems pretty matter-of-fact. She discusses her plans to have books shipped to her over the course of her sentence and the arrangements to take correspondence courses from prison. All things considered, she says, this is not a bad period in her life to be serving time.

If asked, though, Ryerson admits her mother has shed a few tears. There are times when Ryserson herself can scarcely believe what is facing her just a few years after graduating from Brebeuf Jesuit High School.

“Sometimes I wake up in the morning and say to myself, ‘I’m going to prison.’ And then I have to think, ‘OK. Breathe … Breathe.'” But Ryerson insists such anxious moments are rare, and quickly resolved when she revisits the reason for her sacrifice. “It helps a lot to realize that one and a half years in federal minimum security prison is not the same as spending one and a half years in a Latin American community where School of America graduates inflict terror on the people.”

Ryerson and Jeremy John, 21, both Indianapolis natives now living in Bloomington, face trial on Jan. 21 on charges of trespass on federal property and destruction of property. The allegations are based on events that occurred during the annual protest to close the U.S. Army’s Fort Benning-based Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of Americas (SOA). Ryerson and John are charged with cutting a padlock off a fence to allow other protesters to enter the Georgia base.

(Actually, John is charged with destruction of federal property while Ryerson faces a nearly-identical “aiding and abetting” charge. “I don’t know why they charged me with just aiding and abetting,” Ryerson says, rolling her eyes. “It’s probably because I’m a girl.”)

The School of Americas has a half-century of history as a training ground for some of Latin America’s most notorious war criminals, including Panama’s Gen. Manuel Noreiga, the assassins of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero and two Guatemalan dictators accused of genocide. The curriculum sponsored by the U.S. Army included manuals on beatings and executions and medical doctors who instructed SOA students on torture techniques. School of Americas graduates have been implicated in the murders of thousands of civilians, including six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador in 1989.

The anniversary of those killings is commemorated each November with a non-violent protest outside Fort Benning, attended this past year by some 11,000 people, many bearing crosses with the names of civilian victims of SOA graduates. Eighty-six of those protesters, including Ryerson and John, face trial later this month on federal trespass-related criminal charges.

In the Hoosier tradition of Eugene V. Debs, who famously insisted that he could not be free while anyone is in prison, Indiana is well-represented in the dock. Sister Adele Beacham, 74, and Sister Rita Gerardot, 76, both of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, face six months in federal prison for walking onto the base grounds. Sister Kathleen Desautels, originally from Indianapolis, and Father Jerry Zawada, originally from East Chicago, are still serving sentences for trespassing during the November 2001 protest.

More necessary than we think

Ryerson, who twice attended previous SOA protests without being arrested, says civil disobedience is a vital component of a movement that has come as close as five votes away from having the U.S. House of Representatives stop funding for the SOA’s successor. “There are all sorts of different resources we are using in this effort: While we are getting arrested, there is a bill going through Congress every year [most recently H.R. 1810, which counted Rep. Julia Carson (D-Indianapolis) as one of its 112 co-sponsors]. Thousands of people are writing letters, and of course there is the mass mobilization every November.

“But civil disobedience is often more necessary than we think it is. Education is probably the most important and hardest step in any kind of effort to make social change, and civil disobedience really helps with the education piece,” she says. “If I wasn’t going to prison, I wouldn’t be doing this interview with a newspaper. I have friends and family who have never been politically active at all who are now incredibly mobilized. Multiply that by 96, the number of people arrested this past November, and that’s enormous.”

Ryerson is a student at Loyola University in Chicago and a national campus coordinator for the World Bank Bonds Boycott, which aims to reform the institution whose debt policies cripple developing countries. She views her activism and impending prison sentence in the broad context of flawed U.S. foreign policy. “I consider the SOA to be the military arm of the World Bank in Latin America,” she says. “I am doing this not just for Latin American SOA victims, but also for people working in sweat shops in Asia. I am really protesting U.S. foreign policy worldwide.”

That foreign policy presents an ironic twist to opponents of the SOA. The Bush Administration is using opposition to terrorism as justification for preparing for war with Iraq, all the while refusing to shut down a U.S. institution that has nurtured Latin American terrorists. Anti-SOA activists also face a post Sept. 11 citizenry with newly energized pro-USA sentiments. But Ryerson says that a time when flag decals are again in vogue presents the perfect chance to demonstrate the true meaning of engaged citizenry.

“A real patriot is someone who appreciates the positive things about their country and the standard of living in their country, but also can criticize and make sacrifices for social change to make their country one to be proud of,” she says. “My sacrifice is for a much greater cause than my own comfort, and I’d do it again in a second.”

Fran Quigley is a contributing editor to NUVO, where this article originally appeared. For more information about School of Americas activism, check the Web site for SOA Watch.

Fran Quigley is a professor at Indiana University McKinney School of Law, where he directs the Health and Human Rights Clinic. He is the author of How Human Rights Can Build Haiti (Vanderbilt University Press).