On Sunday, Nov. 23, 2003, I took part in a nonviolent civil disobedience action at Fort Benning, Ga., to protest the U.S. Armys School of the Americas (SOA, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security CooperationWHISC).
Shortly after more than two dozen of us entered Fort Benning and were arrested, U.S. Military Police took us to a warehouse on the base for processing. I was directed to a station for an initial search, where a woman soldier began shouting at me to look straight ahead and spread my legs. I turned to ask her why she was shouting at me and was ordered to keep my mouth shut, look straight ahead and spread my legs wider. She then began an aggressive body search. When ordered to raise one leg a second time, I temporarily lost my balance while still being roughly searched and, in my view, womanhandled. I decided that I shouldnt go along with this dehumanizing action any longer.
Begging for help
When I lowered my arms and said quietly, Im sorry, but I cant any longer cooperate with this, I was instantly pushed to the floor. Five soldiers squatted around me, one of them referring to me with an expletive (this f—er) and began to cuff my wrists and ankles and then bind my wrists and ankles together. Then one soldier leaned on me with his or her knee in my back. Unable to get a full breath, I gasped and moaned, I cant breathe. I repeated this many times and then began begging for help. When I said, Please, Ive had four lung collapses before, the pressure on my back eased.
Four soldiers then carried me, hogtied, to the next processing station for interrogation and propped me in a kneeling position. The soldier standing to my left, who had been assigned to escort me, gently told me that soon the ankle and wrist cuffs, which were very tight, would be cut off. He politely let me know that he would have to move my hair, which was hanging in front of my face, so that my picture could be taken. I told him Id appreciate that.
I was then carried to the next station. There, one of the soldiers whod been part of pushing me to the floor knelt in front of me, and with his nose about two inches from mine, told me that because I was combative, I should know that if I didnt do exactly as instructed when they uncuffed one hand, he would pepper spray me. I asked him to describe how Id been combative, but he didnt answer.
After the processing, I was unbound, shackled with wrist and ankle chains, and led to the section where other peaceful activists, also shackled, awaited transport to the Muskogee County jail.
At our board hearing on Monday, Nov. 24, a military prosecutor told the federal judge that the military was considering an additional charge against me for resisting arrest. I explained my side of the story to the judge, grateful that there are at least several witnesses upon whom I could call.
The federal judge determined that most of us were flight risks and increased by 100 percent the cash bond required before we could be released, from last years $500 to $1,000.
Today I have a black eye and the soreness that comes with severe muscle strain. Mostly, Im burdened with a serious question, What are these soldiers training for?
The soldiers conducting that search must have been ordered not to tolerate the slightest dissent. They were practicing intimidation tactics far beyond what would be needed to control an avowedly nonviolent group of protesters who had never, in 13 years of previous actions, caused any disruption during the process of arrest. Bewildered, most of us in the tank inside the Muskogee County Jail acknowledged that during the rough processing we wondered, What country do we live in? We now live in a country where Homeland Security funds pay for exercises that train military and police units to control and intimidate crowds, detainees, and arrestees using threat and force.
This mornings aches and pains, along with the memory of being hogtied, give me a glimpse into the abuses we protest by coming to Fort Benning, Ga. As we explore the further invention of nonviolence in our increasingly volatile time, its important that we jointly overcome efforts to deter our determination to stand together against what Martin Luther King Jr. once called the violence of desperate menand women.
Public Relations staff members for WHISC claim that the school has been reformed and now teaches Latin American soldiers the same standards of respect for human rights and civil law practiced by the U.S. military. How can they possibly teach respect for human rights or set a good example for Latin American soldiers when, for purposes of intimidation, they themselves respond to nonviolent protest with physical abuse? If this is what U.S. Army MPs will do, with witnesses present, to someone connected to a large body of supporters, what would they do in secret to voiceless and unknown victims?
Christian Peacemaker Team members in Iraq recently recorded testimony of a teen-ager in Baghdad who experienced much worse punishment than what Ive described:
At 2:30 a.m., U.S. troops came to our house and ordered our entire family outside. They ransacked the house searching for something, but they didnt tell us what they wanted. They broke the locks to our cabinet [a large storage chest and display case along one wall of the front room] and threw the contents onto the floor, even though our father gave them the cabinet key so they wouldnt have to do this. They took our money and a gold wedding necklace belonging to my mother. My father, cousin, older brother, and I were tied and taken away. We were not told why we were being taken.
We were taken to the solders military base at a palace within this district and kept in a small dark room. We were tied at our wrists with plastic ties behind our backs the entire night. In the morning, we were put out into the sunlight as a type of punishment. The soldiers were verbally abusive towards us. We asked for shade, but the soldiers refused. We were squatting in the sun all day. [Temperatures at the time were 110-120 F.] When I was taken, I was only wearing my underwear because I was sleeping. I was embarrassed. These were my only clothes during the time I was in custody.
The first day, our hands were still tied behind our back with the plastic ties. Because of this, we were unable to drink any water. We explained this to the soldiers, and they refused to re-tie us so we could drink. The soldiers refused. The soldiers re-tied us with the plastic ties in front of us on the next day.
The water they gave us for drinking was also kept out in the sun with us. This way it was too hot to drink. Another day, I asked a soldier for water because I hadnt had anything to drink for the entire day in the sun. He beat me on my back and chest, while another soldier kicked me in the back. Both were verbally abusive towards me during the beating. (recorded by CPT members LeAnne Clausen and David Milne, www.cpt.org)
Kathy Kelly is the founder of Voices in the Wilderness, a human rights group based in Chicago that worked to lift the economic sanctions against Iraq. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, call (773) 784-8065, or log on to www.iraqpeaceteam.org or www.vitw.org
ADDENDUM: Kathy Kellys article does not go into full detail of the personally invasive abusive behaviors the protesters endured. Each protester was surrounded by five soldiers, and during the pat-down, military personnel groped private parts inside the clothing of each protester. This treatment was meant to intimidate and diminish human dignity as well as invade the individuals rights and privacy. Letters seeking an investigation of the tactics used by U.S. Military Police at Fort Benning can be sent to the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services. Write to the chairman of the Committee, Sen. John Warner (Va.) and the ranking Democrat on the committee, and Sen. Carl Levin (Mich.) at: U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, 228 Russell Senate Office Bldg., Washington, DC 20510.