Crossing the Line

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.

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."

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.

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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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast