Crossing the Line

Two Colorado activists face prison for protesting America's own "terrorist training camp."

Jonna Cohen and Michael Sobol knew they were taking a risk when they joined thousands of other protesters at the gates of an Army base in Georgia last November. With the nation spluttering in patriotic fervor and the bombing of Afghanistan under way, it wasn't the ideal time for a bunch of peaceniks to be harping on the U.S. military's alleged involvement in human-rights abuses in Latin America.

The Colorado couple knew they were taking an even greater risk when they decided to join a hundred demonstrators who staged a "die-in" on the base itself. At the very least, they could expect to be arrested and receive a formal letter banning them from the base for five years.

But what surprised Cohen and Sobol -- and several other participants in the protest, sponsored by School of the Americas Watch -- was the vigor with which the government prosecuted them for the offense. Last month, twenty-year-old Cohen and eighteen-year-old Sobol were each sentenced to three months in federal prison for misdemeanor trespassing and fined $500. They were among three dozen defendants from across the country who received penalties ranging from probation to six months in prison for crossing onto the sacred ground of Fort Benning.

Forgive us our trespasses: This fall, Jonna Cohen and Michael Sobol will be going to jail instead of college.
John Johnston
Forgive us our trespasses: This fall, Jonna Cohen and Michael Sobol will be going to jail instead of college.

The sentences are one indicator of the government's crackdown against acts of civil disobedience since the terrorist attacks of September 11. The annual School of the Americas protest, now in its twelfth year, has always resulted in some arrests and a handful of prosecutions, but first-time offenders have rarely faced jail time -- until now.

Cohen and Sobol say that the organizers had warned them of the potential for a prison sentence and that they're prepared to accept the consequences. "They told us that first-timers hadn't been prosecuted since '95 but that it was still a possibility," Cohen says. "And then [U.S. Magistrate Mallon] Faircloth upped us one; he sentenced twice as many as he has in any past year."

Despite some uncertainties about where and how they'll serve their sentences, Cohen and Sobol seem genuinely intrigued by the "new challenges and experiences" a ninety-day stint at a minimum-security prison may offer them. That's to be expected, of course; they talk about the movement and high-risk actions and putting your body on the line like a pair of tie-dyed SDS operatives, circa 1968. The two met at the Jefferson County Open School a few years ago and found that they shared an interest in social activism.

"I grew up with hippie parents," Cohen says. "My dad was into burning his draft card, that sort of thing. He runs an import business in Minnesota now, but he's getting back into activism since he came for our trial."

"My dad was a pseudo-hippie," Sobol says. "He said he was never committed enough to go to jail. But I have a sister who's really outspoken, and I had her as a role model growing up. Then I found out I could get school credit for going to the demonstration last November."

While attending Macalester College two years ago, Cohen saw a flier advertising a rally against the U.S. Army's School of the Americas. Based at Fort Benning, the SOA has long been a target of human-rights groups because of the specialized training it offers Latin American military personnel; past graduates include Panamanian dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos, Ecuador's Guillermo Rodriguez and a host of other leaders linked to political assassinations and the torture and massacre of civilians.

Bowing to public pressure, two years ago Congress ordered a restructuring of the school, which has since been renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation -- or WHINSEC, in military jargon. Courses in interrogation techniques are no longer offered; instead, students are required to take from eight to forty hours in "human-rights instruction" on such matters as due process, the Geneva Convention and "The Role of the Military in a Democratic Society."

But SOA's die-hard critics, such as Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of the School of the Americas Watch, have denounced the changes as merely cosmetic; they continue to call for the school's closure. Cohen says she's heard accounts from observers about rights violations by Colombian military leaders who are linked to the school. "It's not well-documented in the American press, but there's tons of stories," she notes.

Sobol, too, is skeptical of WHINSEC's new mission. "It's hard for me to swallow that an institution with a history like that is going to change its face over three weeks," he says.

School of the Americas Watch holds a peaceful demonstration outside Fort Benning every November to commemorate the 1989 slaying of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador. Cohen joined a group of Macalester students at the gathering in 2000, when she was one of several thousand demonstrators who crossed the line and entered the base. But fewer than half of the offenders were arrested, and Cohen wasn't one of them. She didn't even get a letter barring her from the base. She left unfulfilled, she remembers.

"It just didn't feel like it was enough," she says. "I wasn't able to do a high-risk action when I was with my school, because we couldn't be detained -- we were just there for the weekend. This year we had the opportunity."

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