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‘Witness’ from county risks prison for protest


CLAVERACK–Nancy Smith goes on trial in federal court in Columbus, Georgia, Wednesday, January 5, 2011.

Ms. Smith, 78, who lives on a quiet road off Route 23, has pled not guilty to a federal misdemeanor, trespassing on military property, specifically, Fort Benning, in Columbus. She expects conviction will bring a prison sentence of three to six months and a fine of up to $5,000.

Ms. Smith did not trespass by accident. After a great deal of thought and prayer and consultation with attorneys and organizers associated with a group called SOA Watch, she decided that she would “cross the line,” leaving the permitted area during a scheduled demonstration at the U.S. Army School of the Americas based at Ft. Benning.

SOA Watch is an independent organization that seeks to close the School of the Americas through nonviolent protest, media and legislative work. Ten years ago, the School changed its name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, but among those who protest its training, it’s still SOA.

Since 1990 SOA Watch has organized an annual November demonstration at the school, to protest the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador in November 1989. A U.S. Congressional task force connected School of the Americas graduates to the killings.

Ms. Smith attended the protest with Nippon Zan Myohoji, a small Japanese order of monks and nuns whose commitment is to walk for peace. “That’s what the order does,” says Ms. Smith. “They walk,” and she often walks with them — in the past two years, about 2,000 miles, mostly with this order.

“They drum and chant,” she says, “their heads are shaved. They have beautiful flags and banners that we walk under. They don’t fund-raise, but people are wonderfully generous with us, sharing homes and meals all along the way.”

In November Ms. Smith met the order in Atlanta, where they have a temple. They set out for Columbus, a walk of about 100 miles and six days. The order has joined the SOA Watch demonstration for some 15 years, Ms. Smith says; this was her second year.

On the way the group stopped at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, GA., near Columbus. Stewart is one of some 50 privately owned detention centers that work for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “Undocumentable workers are caught in roadblocks, for example,” says Ms. Smith, “and held at these camps without legal aid. The camps are outside of the U.S. justice system, without the supervision of other federal institutions.”

After holding a vigil at Stewart on Friday, the group arrived at Ft. Benning in time for the Saturday demonstration.

All year, between her first and second SOA Watch demonstrations, Ms. Smith says, “I thought maybe I should do something more than just attend. I’m free to do that — good health, no job, no children at home. I talked with others who had been prisoners of conscience as a result of an action they took at the SOA Watch demonstration.”

On Saturday, November 20, as planned, Ms. Smith and Father Louis Vitale, also 78, a Franciscan priest from Los Angeles, walked into territory clearly forbidden to demonstrators.

“We were immediately surrounded by police cars with blue lights and about 15 civilian police officers from the Department of Defense,” reports Ms. Smith.

She was searched by a female officer for “weapons or instruments that could harm myself or others.” She was then handcuffed, her arms behind her back. She and Father Vitale were driven, in separate police cars, to a police station inside Ft. Benning.

There they were photographed and fingerprinted. A police officer videotaped the whole process, and throughout it, “everyone was courteous, there was no rough handling.” At Ms. Smith’s request, her MRE (meal ready to eat) was vegetarian.

Lawyers from SOA Watch arrived, with the county marshal and a court recorder, and bailed her out using the $500 she had turned over the night before for the purpose. “I’m so mindful that others who get arrested don’t have that oversight and care, particularly the undocumentable workers that we had protested for the day before,” says Ms. Smith.

Reporting to court on Tuesday, Ms. Smith pled not guilty. Father Vitale, who has crossed the line several times, pled guilty, was sentenced to six months in federal prison, and began his sentence immediately.

Now Ms. Smith faces a trial before the same judge, days in the Muskogee County jail, and a federal prison somewhere in the United States. She’s “a little worried, but not scared,” she says, noting that until two years ago she routinely lived in dangerous places as she worked in international development in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, among other poor, volatile countries.

Prior to that she led a quieter life, as a professor of psychology at Columbia-Greene Community College (1978-’98). She holds master’s degrees in psychology and anthropology.

These days, Ms. Smith’s life is again generally quiet. She’s clerk of the Hudson Friends (Quaker) Meeting and also attends Christ Church Episcopal in Hudson. Saturdays she can be found at the vigil for peace at Seventh Street Park in Hudson.

Her equanimity is also fueled by “the enormous support from SOA Watch, four women in particular, and also my granddaughter, who lives in Atlanta. She walked with us to the King Center and later drove me back to Atlanta after I was released on bail.

“For me,” says Ms. Smith, “being a prisoner of conscience is a witness, for those who don’t have the opportunity to tell of horrors happening in their country, often as a part of U.S. foreign policy. Innocent lives have been lost–Bishop Romero in El Salvador, priests, nuns, university students and professors, labor organizers. More than 700 people in one Guatemalan village were slaughtered by a battalion that was trained at Fort Benning, with soldier names that can be traced back to the School of the Americas.

“This action is a small point in time, and in the history of SOA, six months is not long. But this is a contribution I can make at this point my life, and I’m grateful to those who have helped me do it.”

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