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2002-09-09

Two Dozen People Go to Prison Tomorrow for Protesting What They Call a US-Operated Terrorist Training Camp

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Tomorrow, a group of twenty-three human rights activists will begin serving prison sentences of three to six months. Their first full day in jail will be September 11. [includes rush transcript]

Their crime: they attempted to shut down what they considered to be a terrorist training camp operated by the US military known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

For decades, the school in Fort Benning, Georgia, has trained hundreds of Latin American soldiers and military leaders. It was originally known as the School of the Americas, from which the camp gained its nickname, the School of the Assassins.

Graduates include members of the Salvadoran death squad who slaughtered six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper and her daughter on November 16, 1989. Nineteen of the twenty-six Salvadoran officers involved in the slayings had been trained at Fort Benning.

In 1996, the Pentagon was forced to release training manuals from the school that advocated the use of torture, extortion and execution.

To commemorate the massacre in El Salvador and other SOA-related crimes, over 10,000 people gathered last November at Fort Benning to call for the closure of the military school.

Nearly forty people were arrested on trespassing for walking onto the military’s property. They were charged with sentences ranging from six months’ probation to six months in prison plus $5,000 in fines.

We are joined today with Tom Mahedy and Rae Kramer, who were both arrested for trespassing. Mahedy will start a three-month term on Tuesday. Kramer will serve six months.

Guest:

  • Tom Mahedy, New Jersey resident and father of two who is going to prison for three months starting on Tuesday

Contact:

Guest:

  • Rae Kramer, Syracuse resident, mother of two who faced the harshest sentence: six months in prison and $5,000 in fines

Contact:

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Right now we turn to tomorrow, when a group of twenty-three human rights activists will begin serving prison sentences of three to six months. Their first full day in jail will be September 11th. Their crime? They attempted to shut down what they considered to be, what they called a terrorist training camp operated by the US military, known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

For decades, the school in Fort Benning, Georgia, has trained hundreds of Latin American soldiers and military leaders, originally known as the School of the Americas, from which the camp gained its nickname, School of the Assassins. Graduates include members of the Salvadoran death squad who slaughtered six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter on November 16th, 1989. Nineteen of the twenty-six Salvadoran officers involved in the slayings trained at Fort Benning. In 1996, the Pentagon was forced to release training manuals from the school that advocated the use of torture, extortion and execution.

To commemorate the massacre in El Salvador and other SOA-related crimes, over 10,000 people gathered last November at Fort Benning to call for the closure of the school. Nearly forty people were arrested on trespassing for walking into the military’s property. They were charged with sentences ranging from six months’ probation to six months in prison plus $5,000 fines.

Among them was a man named Tom Mahedy. Jimmy Breslin wrote about Tom Mahedy in the last few weeks, Jimmy Breslin of Newsday newspaper. He said, “We are going to need so many like him. Suddenly, you live in a country that has an official Secret Court, and the public is mainly unaware and silent.

"Mahedy has been protesting about this since 1982, his third year in college, when Mothers of the Disappeared in El Salvador came to La Salle University in Philadelphia on a tour. Quote, ‘I was just coming off two years in the ROTC at Auburn University in Alabama,’ he was saying yesterday. ‘They told us that the only Central Americans killed were dangerous communists. But when I kept talking to the mothers, I could see they were right and we were wrong.’”

Jimmy Breslin goes on to write about Tom Mahedy, “He started out to become a priest. Then he had a part-time job at Newark Airport, and as he was leaving work one night he saw a young woman, a flight attendant from Continental Airlines, waiting at the bus stop. He asked her if she wanted a lift home. She sure did. He drove her home to Woodbridge. Her name was Julie Fees. They married and had two kids.

"They shared a passion about the school at Fort Benning. Tom drove a truck of farm tools in a caravan from Jersey to El Salvador. He was an election observer in 1993. He thought all this was nice, and gave satisfaction, and might even be helpful, but the frightening shadow over somebody in a hut in Honduras was cast by the School of the Americas. The soldiers were taught and ordered to kill union people who interrupted slave labor.

"When Mahedy was a junior at La Salle in Philadelphia, he taught prisoners at the Holmesburg Penitentiary, ‘I don’t know how much they learned,’ Tom Mahedy said, ‘but this time I hope I can teach somebody just by sitting in jail.’”

He joins us in the studio right now.

Tom Mahedy, welcome to Democracy Now!

TOM MAHEDY: Hello.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us.

TOM MAHEDY: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: So, tomorrow you leave for prison.

TOM MAHEDY: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why did you do it in November? What exactly did you do?

TOM MAHEDY: Well, it’s been twenty years of trying to walk in solidarity with the people of the Americas. And last November I actually went to the base, and I tried to speak for the thousands of people that I’ve met throughout the years in El Salvador and Nicaragua and Guatemala who have been tortured and killed by the graduates, and tried to speak for them. So what we basically did is to walk on the base, and we carried a cross with a family member who was killed. And we were arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you know the penalty that you faced?

TOM MAHEDY: Well, there’s a possibility of jail. This is the first time that they are prosecuting first-timers. But the time is right to speak out against terrorism, and we’ve been instructed to close all of the bases of terror, and it’s clear that, you know, they have been teaching the use of torture and assassination and extortion for years. And we actually had the manuals released from the Pentagon in 1996. So it’s an outrage that we continue to have the space and to fund it $20 million a year. There’s other ways that we can use that money. And then, we have to create a world where human rights are respected, and by keeping it open, it’s a shock to most people that it’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you nervous after September 11th to go and protest?

TOM MAHEDY: Sure, sure. We have lost many friends on the Jersey shore, where I’m from, and it’s been a time of grieving and of sorrow. But also, I, you know, was taught to open our hearts to the people of the Americas, as well. And there’s been hundreds of thousands who have been killed and tortured there. And so, it was time to speak out for them, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the telephone by Rae Kramer. She’s a fifty-five-year-old mother from Syracuse. She works in a domestic violence clinic. And she got the harshest sentence of all: six months in jail, $5,000 fine.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Rae.

RAE KRAMER: Hi. I’m glad to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you prepared to go to jail?

RAE KRAMER: I think so. I think so. Part of our privilege, in a kind of paradoxical way, is that we have friends who have walked this path before us, and so we’ve had the chance to ask them lots of questions and try to become as informed as possible. So I feel as ready, I think, as one can feel.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the response that people have to you when they learn that you’re going to jail?

RAE KRAMER: The response is pretty dramatic, not simply that we’re going to jail, but the length of the sentence and the size of the fine. In my case, I was charged $5,000, which is the max that can be levied against me. And that was in — I’m paraphrasing the judge now, because I could afford it. There are a whole variety of papers that one has to fill out as part of the, I guess, the post-booking process or post-trial process, and in it they ask for a lot of financial information, and I was honest. And it’s not that I’m rich — far from it — but my husband and I, for many years, have been kind of squirrels with our money, and we have a lot of money saved and put away for our children and for retirement, and it looked like a lot of money. I think, comparatively or proportionately, it’s not so much. Many people were levied the $1,000 fines who make ten and fifteen thousand dollars a year, so proportionately the money was really pretty equitable.

The reaction to six months and $5,000 fine for peaceful civil disobedience for walking someplace where I was told not to be, that seems outrageous. And there’s an odd quirk in federal law, and that is federal misdemeanors, which is what we are charged with — a misdemeanor, not a felony. There is no allowance for what’s called good time, meaning the sentence being reduced if one behaves properly in prison. So, those of us who are charged with — I’m sorry, sentenced with six months will do the full six months. In comparison to a whole variety of local crimes, some of which are quite violent, that get less time, it seems pretty astounding to people. I think that the size of the fine and the size of the time in prison has paradoxically served to energize people a little bit. Their amazement that this kind of thing can happen in kind of a such a casual way, I think, is activating some people, and I can only hope that that proves out.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Mahedy, what do your children say? How old are they?

TOM MAHEDY: They’re five and seven. And they were part of the trial, and they met so many wonderful people there that they said, you know, they’re very, very sad, as I am, about being separated from each other, but at the same time they’ve met wonderful people, and they’ve been very inspired. And my daughter actually wrote a beautiful poem about the whole experience. And so, it’s been very difficult, but the analogy is of giving birth: it’s painful, but then there’s a great new creation that’s coming about. And so, we talk a lot about, you know, what is our view of the world — you know, a view of love, a view of compassion, a view of healing — and so, we try to live that way, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve also been protesting the bombing of Afghanistan?

TOM MAHEDY: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: Where?

TOM MAHEDY: We have a base in South Jersey at Fort Monmouth, and we’ve had a weekly vigil there since September 11th, each week at 12:00 in front of Fort Monmouth.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the response of the soldiers there?

TOM MAHEDY: The soldiers — it’s been mixed. A lot of people, you know, don’t agree with going to war who are actually in the military, as well. They’ve been, you know, part of the economic draft. But, you know — and, of course, others would be opposed.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, “economic draft”?

TOM MAHEDY: Well, often it’s those who — you know, there is less money available for college and for job programs, and so people are forced in. I’ve talked actually to two people in the past two months who don’t want to go in but don’t see any other options for themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: In a few weeks, on September 28th and 29th, there’s going to be a major protest in Washington, DC, against the World Bank and the IMF. Do you see these protests as connected?

TOM MAHEDY: Oh, sure. The SOA, actually in their mission statement, state that part of their goal is to carry out the free trade agenda. And so, you know, they are the brutal military force that keeps people in the — on the fields and being paid very little. They keep people in the sweatshops. And so, I’ve been involved with trying to combat the corporate globalization issue, because I see the connection with it.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re wearing a T-shirt that says, “You can jail the resisters, but you can’t jail the resistance.”

TOM MAHEDY: Right. Well, it’s true. And even you can’t jail love and you can’t jail compassion, and that’s basically what we’re calling about. And we’re calling about reconciliation. And I talked to the judge a long time about what are the alternatives to the school, and I talked about having a bereavement camp there, and I talked about having an organic farm there, and I talked about having a symphony hall there, and I talked about life-giving things that we can have at this, instead of a place that promotes death and destruction.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Tom Mahedy and Rae Kramer are two people who protested the School of the Americas and are facing months in jail. Rae Kramer, six months. And you, again, Tom, you’ll be serving…?

TOM MAHEDY: Three months at Fort Dix.

AMY GOODMAN: It reminds me of being out in Los Angeles on last Friday night, and I met people who are involved with the Just Dissent movement. It is a bill that was passed by both the California Senate and Assembly that limits the punishment on people who engage in civil disobedience. They are waiting to see if the governor, Gray Davis, signs this bill. Thanks very much for being with us.

TOM MAHEDY: Thank you.

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