Crossing the Line

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

So Cohen returned last fall, bringing Sobol with her. Despite fears that the post-September 11 climate would discourage demonstrators, an estimated 10,000 protesters showed up. Quoting Father Bourgeois, who's described WHINSEC as "a training camp for terrorists" -- exactly the kind of viper's den that the Bush administration has vowed to eliminate -- Cohen says she never hesitated about going back.

But when the protesters reached a special security fence erected at the base's entrance, only a few dozen members of the group elected to walk around the fence -- including Sobol and Cohen. "It wasn't really until the night before that we decided, 'Let's do something high-risk and get arrested,'" Sobol says. "We didn't know what was going to happen."

Dressed in shrouds, wearing white makeup and toting a child-sized coffin, Sobol and Cohen staged a "die-in" before the gate, swooning to the ground and lying there for half an hour or so. When nothing happened, they crossed the fence line and started another die-in. This time they were arrested, photographed and fingerprinted, then released.

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.

It wasn't until May that the couple learned that the government had decided to pursue charges against them and 35 others. They flew back to Georgia for a long, speech-laden trial and a sentencing marathon that lasted until midnight. The only moment of suspense was provided by Magistrate Faircloth, who offered the first-time offenders an unusual deal: Instead of prison, they could choose to serve six months as students at WHINSEC, attending classes and learning for themselves how the place worked.

After much soul-searching, all of the protesters rejected that deal. "It was a two-edged sword," Sobol says. "I really think it was a divisive move on the judge's part. There were people who thought we could use it to our advantage, and this huge group who said it would just be a PR thing for the military. If we went, it would be difficult for us; not many of the first-timers spoke Spanish, and a lot of the classes are in Spanish."

"We'd probably break our probation if we went there and spoke our minds," Cohen adds. "You have no First Amendment rights on an Army base, so we couldn't have asked questions, couldn't have been as curious as we wanted to be."

Several protesters entered guilty pleas and received probation; the rest went to trial and received prison sentences. Sobol and Cohen have deferred their fall college classes, and they'll miss the rally at Fort Benning this year, since they'll probably still be doing their time. But they insist the conviction hasn't discouraged them from further political action.

"If anything, it's brought me closer to the movement," Cohen says. "We'll be there next November. I can't say I'll cross the line again, but I'm definitely going to be part of the legal side of it."

"Dissent is more important now than ever," Sobol says. "A lot of people are blindly following the government, and I don't think it's worthy of holding that popular trust."

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