Showdown at Fort McCoy

August 9 was a day of preparation for Witness Against War. Preparation for the act of nonviolent civil resistance to take place the following day.

We gathered at the Lafayette Town Hall just north of Sparta. Our host’s family goes back 7 generations on this land. His aunt and uncle donated the property on which the town hall now sits.

The nonviolence workshop was to begin at 2:00 p.m. At 1:50 p.m. we looked at the clock on the wall and wondered aloud whether anyone would be coming. Only our friend Steve Carlson from Trego, Wisconsin had arrived by that time. The surrounding hills and bluffs prevented our cell phones from receiving signals, so we had no way of knowing whether those we expected to arrive were 30 seconds away or 30 minutes away (or stranded on the side of the road).

Then, as if they were waiting together just down the road and around the curve, all our colleagues began to arrive within minutes of each other. Christian Peacemaker Teams arrived with the 15 people currently training to become team members or reservists for CPT. Brian and Renee arrived from Des Moines. Ceylon and Christine arrived from Memphis. Joy from Madison and John from Eau Claire. The Lafayette Town Hall was transformed from the grouping of Witness Against War walkers to a near overflow gathering of committed social justice advocates.

Planning progressed for the following day’s action at Fort McCoy as we began to put flesh on a fairly skeletal action concept. By the end of the evening plans were in place for the following day.

Sunday, August 10, began with breakfast at the home of Dick and Violet, our hosts. We arrived at Tunnel City, our starting point that day, at 9:30 a.m., in time to meet with Sheriff Pederson to discuss the day’s walk. We explained that we intended to walk on the shoulder of the road facing traffic, as required by state traffic laws. He explained that he’d met with his officers and with officers of the Wisconsin State Highway Patrol that morning. Their intent was to ensure that the walk was able to proceed safely, and not to interfere with the walk’s progress. Indeed State Patrol and County Sheriff patrol cars accompanied the walk as it processed from Tunnel City to the edge of Fort McCoy and onward. One patrol officer turned on his vehicles flashing red and blue lights to slow traffic down along the highway (with a speed limit of 55 miles per hour and a fairly narrow shoulder), keeping a health distance form the front of the walk and backing up on an even pace with the walk.

We began walking at about 9:45 a.m. The first question mark of the day arrived three miles into the walk. At that point Highway 21, on which we were walking, enters Fort McCoy with a yellow sign informing motorists that they are “Entering a Military Area.” We were relatively certain we’d be able to proceed without any difficulty since we’d received a letter from Colonel Daniel Culver of the base advising us that normally the only time the base law enforcement would get involved along Highway 21 is if the operations of the base were being interfered with. Since we were walking on the shoulder, we were relatively certain we’d be fine. Yet, the question mark remained: would there be a change in the base’s position now that the walk had arrived? Would we be met by Fort McCoy security determined to prevent us from crossing the base?

The answer was “No”. Fort McCoy’s command would not block the progress of the walk. We would keep on walking forward, never turning back.

Witness Against War aimed to engage in civil disobedience / civil resistance at the main gate of Fort McCoy. A flashing traffic control sign located along the highway near the entry to Fort McCoy advised incoming traffic that the main gate was closed and directed traffic elsewhere.

Had Fort McCoy decided to wait us out? To allow us to engage in a vigil on the entryway into the base, without allowing us onto the base? Since our intent was to remain in order to gain entry into the base to talk with soldiers about the war, the question began to be raised: How long would we have to wait to gain entry?

Witness Against War arrived at Fort McCoy at 11:45 a.m. We gathered along the shoulder of the highway, across from the main gate. Those of us intending to seek entry into the base-and to risk arrest in doing so-gathered together. We thirteen crossed the highway together when a break in traffic made it safe to do so.

Fort McCoy had placed wooden horses across the driveway entrance to the base. Two officers from the base security were present. As we approached, and began to pass the wooden horses, Fort McCoy’s law enforcement engaged us in conversation. The officer advised us that if we went beyond the horses and continued to walk up the driveway towards the entrance that we would be subject to arrest. He asked if there was any communication which would like to present to him for him to relay to the base commander. We replied that we sought to distribute an open letter regarding the Iraq war to those currently serving on the base and to engage in dialogue with those on the base.

The letter we sought to deliver began:

“”We today come to Fort McCoy to seek an end to the war in and occupation of Iraq by the United States. We come to Fort McCoy because of its key role in training National Guard units deploying to Iraq-a training that should end immediately with the commitment of the U.S. to keep National Guard units home and withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq….”

The letter concluded:

“…the strain upon service men and women and their families continues unabated with repeat deployments to Iraq. The Washington National Guard’s 81st Heavy Brigade Combat Team will deploy to Iraq for the second time this fall. The 32nd Red Arrow Brigade Combat Team of the Wisconsin National Guard will deploy to Iraq in 2009. This will be the largest deployment to combat of the Wisconsin National Guard since World War II when it logged the most days in theater of any U.S. Army unit. We call upon the United States to keep the National Guard at home in the U.S. and to end these repeat deployments abroad.

“We come to Fort McCoy to, in some small way, act in solidarity with members of the military who choose to nonviolently resist this war by refusing to be deployed to Iraq. We encourage members of the active duty military, Reserve and National Guard to consider refusing deployment orders and to be in contact with the GI Rights Hotline regarding their rights within the military at 1-800-394-9544.”

We stated that we intended to move forward to deliver the letter to those on the base and that we understood the potential consequences of doing so. He said he understood what we intended to do and moved aside as we processed up the driveway.

Then a “swarm” of officers from Fort McCoy emerged from the garage at the base entry point. We were walking slowly and deliberately towards them. They were walking slowly and deliberately towards us. It was clear that we would meet somewhere in the middle but that neither felt intimidated by the other nor that either side felt as if it was necessary to try to intimidate the other side.

We thirteen were arrested, processed and released in short order on the offense of trespass to land. We’ll be notified at some later time the date on which we are to appear in court. Those arrested include: Kathy Kelly, 54, Co-Coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence ; JEFF LEYS, 44, of Watertown, Wisconsin; Joy First, 54, of Madison, WI; John Bachman, 56, Eau Claire, WI; Brian Terrell, 52, of Des Moines, IA; Renee Espeland, 47 of Des Moines, IA; Kryss Chupp, 49, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Chicago; Ceylon Mooney, 33, Memphis, TN; Eileen Hanson, 34, Winona, MN; Joshua Brollier, 25, Clarkesville, TN; Lauren Cannon, 38, seminarian at Chicago Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL; Alice Gerard, 51, of Grand Island, NY; and Gene Stoltzfus, 68, of Ontario, Canada.

All but one were released the same day. Kathy Kelly was detained on an outstanding warrant that dates back over ten years to an act of nonviolent civil resistance at Project ELF. ELF was the Navy’s old transmitter system, closed in 2004, that played a key role in the nuclear first strategy of the United States (ELF was the bell ringer to call U.S. nuclear missile subs to the ocean’s surface to receive precise launch orders for a nuclear first strike against another country). It’s expected that the will be transferred to Ashland County to appear before the judge on the warrant. Arrest warrants have also been issued for several others previously arrested and convicted for acts of resistance to Project ELF who refused to pay fines.

Witness Against War continues westward to La Crosse later this week and then begins its northwestward trek along the Mississippi River, aiming to arrive in Saint Paul on August 30, in time for the Republican National Convention. Emphasizing that the issue is not about Democrat or Republican; that it’s not about Left or Right; but rather that it is about what is Right and Wrong-Witness Against War began its trek in Chicago, site of the 1968 Democratic Convention and will end in Saint Paul, site of this year’s Republican Convention. It truly is a matter of challenging the powers-that-be within both political parties and holding both accountable for ending the Iraq and Afghanistan war.

JEFF LEYS is Co-Coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, and can be contacted via email: jeffleys@vcnv.org


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JEFF LEYS is Co-Coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. He can be reach via email, jeffleys@vcnv.org

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