Five days before Charity Ryerson surrendered herself to the minimum security Federal Prison Camp at Pekin, Ill., she spoke nonchalantly about the six months she would serve for cutting a padlock during a protest at the School of the Americas. Curled up on the couch in The Bloomington Alternative office, Ryerson was unapologetic about her crime, and seemingly unphased about her time.
“Personally, I’m going to put this on my resume,” she said. “I’m not going to decide that I want to join corporate America and have this thing erased. It’s part of my lifelong commitment to activism. …
“There’s a girl who just got out of the jail I’m going to. I got a letter from her, and she said I’d probably have to work in the welding shop. I’ll be carrying around metal. I’ll be the tool girl for a month or something. It sounds really boring.”
As her first month as federal prisoner #91335-020 drew to a close, 21-year-old Ryerson was no less sanguine when she wrote the Alternative in mid-August: “It’s not quite as easy here as I’d hoped, but I’m almost through my first month. I’ll certainly come out unscathed.”
Unscathed, perhaps, but not unaffected – and apparently not undeterred in her mission as a social justice activist. Ryerson’s note was accompanied by a stack of material she had already gathered on “mandatory minimums.” She promised to send information on the “prison industrial complex.”
Included in the information packet were articles on the crushing impacts that federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in drug cases have on the lives of people like fellow Pekin inmate Diana Webb.
A former attorney from Kansas City, Mo., with no criminal record, Webb is serving 150 months in prison for Conspiracy to Manufacture Methamphetamine, even though no drugs were ever produced, and her three co-defendants initially provided sworn testimony that she was not involved.
Webb’s co-defendants included a man who never did a single minute of jail time for forcing his way into her house and beating her with a baseball bat and a tire iron. He and his colleagues received reduced sentences of 46 to 60 months in prison in the drug conspiracy case after they changed their stories to help prosecutors convict Webb.
“This gives a little background on one of the appalling cases in here,” Ryerson wrote. “Since she was an attorney, she has the best documentation of her case, but I don’t think that this is isolated.”
“Anyway, tons of women here with tons they want to say but nobody hears them. Congress ignores them because they’re felons and can’t vote. The media pay little attention. They feel very isolated and don’t know how to get their stories out. It’s strange how trapped one can feel in a prison with no fence.”
In some ways, Charity Ryerson’s prison term is the fulfillment of a career goal. The Indianapolis native turned Bloomington activist has been committing acts of civil disobedience for a variety of social justice issues since she was 19.
While attending school on a full scholarship at Loyola University, Ryerson was the eighth member of the “Loyola 7,” who were arrested while protesting economic justice issues at Nike Town in the Chicago loop. “It was supposed to be the Loyola 8,” she said. “I just sat there, and they arrested everyone around me. They wouldn’t arrest me.”
Ryerson had twice before joined the thousands of protesters who, since 1990, have annually converged on the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., a/k/a the School of the Assassins. The SOA is a U.S. government-sponsored terrorist training camp for military thugs from Latin America and other Third World countries. Its alumni include former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega and the 1989 killers of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador. The protest is held on Nov. 17, the anniversary of the Salvadoran slayings.
“This was my third year going down,” Ryerson said of the 2002 SOA protest. “I had crossed the line before, but there were too may people that year, so I didn’t get arrested. They just bused me off and dropped me off.”
Led by New England priest and SOA Watch founder Father Ray Bourgeois, the SOA protests have grown steadily and raised awareness about the U.S government’s complicity in human rights violations worldwide. Last year’s drew more than 7,000 protesters, 96 of whom were arrested, including seven nuns and 10 minors.
Ryerson said that after 9/11, the U.S. Department of Defense, which had assumed control over the SOA and renamed it the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, erected a fence to keep the protesters from entering the base.
“They put up this stupid little fence that sort of goes down to this creek,” Ryerson explained, “and all the nuns go down and wade through the creek to get around, and it’s kind of a pain if you’re old and all that. So we decided to cut this lock on this little pedestrian gate, to sort of push the envelope.”
Logistically, cutting the bolt made it easier for elderly protesters to enter the base, Ryerson said, and it may have prompted more people to do so.
“But also, it sort of radicalized the movement a little bit,” she said. “The SOA movement isn’t really radical. It’s very religious and sort of spiritual. It’s a lot of prayer and singing. The actual civil disobedience is a funeral procession. It’s really very Catholic. What we wanted to do was to push the envelope and make it a little more radical.”
The other half of the “we” Ryerson referred to was her partner Jeremy John, a 22-year-old Bloomington activist who brought the bolt cutters and busted the lock and is likewise serving six months in federal prison in Terre Haute.
The 86 adults who were arrested were prosecuted for Class B and C misdemeanors of trespassing. Ryerson and John were also charged with trespassing and destruction of federal property, an A misdemeanor.
Charity Ryerson may be only 21 years old, but she has a solid grasp of the role that nonviolent civil disobedience has played throughout American history. She cites a litany of examples, from the Boston Tea Party to the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th Century.
“People act like this sort of radical action is something new or something atrocious,” she said. “Well, that’s not true. It’s been happening and happening and happening throughout history. And it’s been a really important part of history. A lot of people think that the civil rights movement would have gone through just fine had no one pushed the envelope.”
Indeed, Ryerson sees radical action through creative, nonviolent civil disobedience as a legitimate, necessary component of the 21st Century global struggle for social, environmental and economic justice. And, based on her first-person observation of repression in the Mexican state of Chiapas and her experience as a student organizer against the World Bank, Ryerson argues the times demand it.
“I don’t know what else to do,” she said. “When I think about the stuff that I know we have been doing for so long with our foreign policy, and what we’ve been doing in Latin America, what we’ve been doing in Southeast Asia with our sweat shops and with Free Trade, and with Plan Colombia and the Drug War, and obviously I can go on and on and on forever.”
As she prepared to become one of the statistics, Ryerson also pointed out that the United States has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. And more than half, 58 percent, are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes – like Diana Webb.
“That’s way above and beyond Russia and other places that have high percentages in prison,” Ryerson said. “And so, we’ve got this huge clamp down by our government on the people, and I just feel like it’s tightening and tightening and tightening. And if we can’t finally wake up and see what we’re doing to the rest of the world … ”
She cited the impact of the decision to “push the envelope” at last year’s SOA Watch protest as an example of the power of civil disobedience.
“We’ve gotten a lot of media coverage for this. When I think of the number of people who know what the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation is, just in Indiana, and consider that there were 86 people prosecuted from all over the country. …”
“I would guess that because of the two of us, maybe 500 people – not including media coverage, the people that read the articles – know about it that didn’t before. When your friend goes to jail, or a friend of your friend goes to jail, or your client’s daughter goes to jail – it’s like those links seem sort of insignificant, but they’re not. They’re actually huge.”
“When I think about the effect that one stupid little padlock has had, I mean, it’s ridiculous. That padlock cost 12 dollars, and look at the impact.”
To keep her scholarship at Loyola, Ryerson would have to return to school upon her release from prison in January. Chicago in January, two weeks after classes started? Perhaps not, she says. “I’ll probably just hang out down here.”
She and John will be on probation for a year and will not be allowed to leave their hometowns without permission. But Ryerson does not see that as too inhibiting a factor in her work.
“Yeah, we’re kind of at their mercy,” she said. “So that’s kind of irritating. But, at the same time, there are a lot of things to do without breaking the law. I’ve been very busy for the past two years being an activist, and I’ve never … I guess I’ve broken the law a few times, but I haven’t actually been caught.”
And there’s no lack of issues to work on, she says, “There’s tons, and I’m sure I can easily go a year working my ass off without getting arrested and get good work done. Personally, I’m really drawn to the I-69 thing. When I get out, I’m really excited about that.”
“So, at least for me, there’s a bazillion issues. And radical action is almost, I mean, it’s urgent, it’s necessary, it needs to be happening more.”