Well, now folks from the SOA 16, the group I was arrested with, are getting their report dates. Melissa got her call yesterday. She is going to Pekin on March 21st.
I suspect I will get the call soon.
Beth my friend wrote up a story on the weekend of the trial from a supporter's point of view. I am so humbled at the love, care and tenderness that she and Cynthia gave me that weekend and continue to give me.
Here is the story...
A loss of innocence…
These were some of the first words Cynthia shared with me about the experience of being down at the protest and the trials. We constantly lose innocence, over and over again, as we learn about more injustices. I certainly learned how true her statement was through the course of the weekend’s events. I knew that it would be difficult to see nonviolent peacemakers sentenced to prison, but I never guessed how much it would touch my heart to sit in that courtroom. I went focused on supporting Tina in whatever way she needed and came away knowing that it was much larger than the hugs and prayers.
Arriving on Friday morning in Columbus, Georgia after hours of travel beginning at 4 AM, I found myself in the company of many wonderful peacemakers. We quickly formed a community of understanding and sharing in the mutual experience of having a loved one in the group of defendants. As more people arrived to join us, we welcomed them with open arms. The defendants spent much of the time preparing for trial and voicing personal concerns while we learned the basics of supporting them and ourselves. The many details of daily life are what we will be left with when they leave, while trying to juggle communication between family members and friends.
Before I left Milwaukee, I had called Tina to be sure things were going okay and that they had arrived safely. The first news I got was how the toilet in the hotel room had overflowed almost immediately upon their arrival and that the room was very tiny, with hardly any space for my sleeping bag on the floor. I found this to be quite true as we settled in on Friday night, after a long day of meeting new faces, many group discussions, planning Saturday’s peace vigil, and finally dinner.
With so many peacemakers gathered, it was fitting that we do something in solidarity with the March on Washington, where many of us would have been if the trial were not occurring. On Saturday morning, we all went down to the gates of Fort Benning where the protest is held every November and held signs calling for peace, justice, troops to come home, and the closure of the SOA. We sang and laughed as many, many cars streamed in and out of the gates on this chilly morning. Most cars seemed to fly past us, but Loretta slowed some down by walking back and forth across the street and others slowed out of curiosity or concern for safety. Every wave and peace sign from motorists brought cheers. It felt like a big group of friends that had just gathered together for a weekly peace vigil, other than the police coming at us from both sides: city police and military police that were waiting just beyond the fence.
After a 5 AM wake up call from someone’s alarm next door (it sounded so much like it was right there in our room and I kept thinking that it was a car stereo blaring!), Saturday was another day full of meetings and discussions, shared questions and concerns, and the beautiful building of community. I miss everyone just thinking about it. We were from all walks of life, faith backgrounds, ages, genders, sexualities, states, and viewpoints, with a common belief in justice and hope for peace. It was a long day of learning more and more about prison life and the details that must be covered before entrance. I personally treasured the times in between meetings to get to know these beautiful people. I had heard that sometimes the supporters who come do not really agree with the action their loved one took and are there because they feel that they have to be, but I found that everyone there really was supportive. The one person who started out the weekend not in support at all was Julienne’s husband. He must have arrived late Friday afternoon. He did not come when Julienne did and at one point was not coming at all. But when he did come, he came in a separate car so that he “would not get sucked in.” Throughout the weekend, Tina and I laughed and laughed as he did just that. Even by Saturday night, he was in. He showed the discovery video that the Army had sent to Julienne because she did not file some paperwork that the others did and he was so excited whenever something new would happen. At a couple of points, the screen went blue and he jumped up and said that he would fast forward it and that “there’s more to come, folks!” Once he even said “the best is yet to come.” The icing on the cake was when he got up during the Festival of Hope on Sunday night and added his own political quotes-- I believe something about Bush or Rumsfeld. Being from the UK himself, it was quite interesting to hear his views. We got many laughs out of his antics and how he fit in beautifully by Sunday.
All day and night on Saturday, Tina was struggling with her plea, weighing all of the possibilities and consequences. On Friday night, we thought that she had it decided and was ready to talk to a lawyer the next morning. Well that only led to more questions. Eventually, sometime Saturday night, she had it figured out. It was all the pieces of: if I say this, will it make the judge mad so that he does not listen to my request for probation, if I plead guilty, am I saying that I believe that I did something wrong even though I do not, can I plead guilty to speaking up for my brothers and sisters…and on and on.
A later start on Sunday was a welcome relief. We had time to pray together and breathe before a day that felt full of finality. There were a couple of workshops in the morning and after lunch, one more question and answer session before an interfaith service. I could not sit through one more discussion of prison so I talked to some folks, helped to set up a bit and then caught the end of the evaluation part. All of the talk about these amazing nonviolent peacemakers and what they will face was weighing on my heart. It was not even that I thought that prison sounded scary or terrible, just that there is something inherently wrong that we were gathered having these discussions, that we had to say goodbye for whatever time the judge decided.
Joining together many different faith traditions was wonderful and refreshing. Cynthia shared a meditation, we broke bread, heard a Native American prayer, Virginia sang a hymn, Rebecca shared a Jewish prayer, we blessed each other, and then gave the sign of peace. If only our weekly services could be so inclusive!
A walk in the windy sunshine and mild temperatures, compared to Milwaukee, made the afternoon welcome. I just had to stop and listen to the wonderful women I found myself with: Gail Phares, founder of Witness for Peace, Sue, one of the women who organized the 1,000 Grandmothers Campaign, and Virginia, whose son Grayman crossed the line—as Tina said, an earth mother. It was one of those times when I just stopped and thought: what am I in this group? So much wisdom and love is here. What will I be like at their ages?
It was great to spend time with Virginia. She is the one who first got me thinking about going down for the trials. We sat across from each other at the dinner on Sunday night after everyone got off the bus and she asked if I would come back. At that point, I had no idea to because I knew that it was less than a week after the start of the new semester. It haunted me those months and eventually, two weeks before, led me to buy a plane ticket. We went for coffee together after talking on our long walk. She is a person who makes you feel like the most important in the world all the time—you can say anything and know that it will be met with kindness and understanding. I got to hear how she was raised to always speak for herself and hold up her beliefs. Her father used to have discussions with his kids where he would even hold a point that he did not believe in just to be sure that his children could stand up for their beliefs. It made me wonder again how I got to where I am, not having had any of these key childhood experiences of justice, at least consciously.
I returned to find Tina, Cynthia, and Liz in a heavy discussion about Pekin, where Tina will likely be placed. Cynthia and Liz both spent their sentences there and so could share much of their experiences. Being accustomed to quiet and time alone, I tried to enjoy the empty hotel room, but my mind wandered too much to read or write. I called Raquel, but she needed to call me back later. It was all too much for my heart to process and all I could do was sit for a few minutes at a time. I kept wondering what the morning would bring, how I would finish my schoolwork, and what this all means in the bigger scope of my future.
Soon it was time to gather for dinner and the Festival of Hope. Cynthia’s friend has a daughter who goes to school in Columbus, so she joined us. Melanie is from my hometown of Des Peres, went to the same church and everything, so it was funny to meet her there. I started to fill a plate and Raquel called. I had tried to call her on Thursday, as I was on my way to Mary’s house at the start of this journey, but was not even able to leave a message. I was thinking about her a lot, since Tina did this in honor of her brother, José Eduardo Lopez. They were both mentioned in her statement so I wanted to be sure that she knew when the trial was and let her know that I was there supporting Tina, since it was such a last-minute decision that we had not spoken about it. She assured me that they were and would be praying. Then we talked a bit about how things are going with discernment and she warmed my heart with her support and care. It is these key wonderful people who keep me going on this road when everything seems to be full of disappointment for now. Meeting the sisters there who are such workers for peace and justice made me very aware of my own feelings and journey; I wondered again where I would be when I was their age.
During dinner, the order that the defendants would appear in, if the judge allowed things to go as planned, was posted. Grayman was to sing his statement and the lawyers had wanted to put him at the end so that if the judge was not happy with him, the others’ sentences would not be affected. Tina did not think that he should be hidden in the back, but instead set the tone for the day. Little did she know that bringing this up would place her second, after Grayman! Well, I suppose that may not be the only reason, but it did not matter why when she saw her name on the list! At some point, we also got our tickets—they would hopefully ensure that everyone’s supporters got into the courtroom for their loved one’s trial. If Cynth lost hers, I was ordered by Tina to tear mine in half. We HAD to be there!
The Festival of Hope certainly was just that. It was full of laughter and some tears, as nuns impersonated the “Pentagon Pimp” (Judge Faircloth) and grandmother con-to-be’s, Tina shared her poem, “Crossing the Line,” we had some sing-a-longs, an example of juggling to balance life, Rumsfeld quotes, and many other opportunities to sing. A true celebration followed by a song of strength, laying our hands on the defendants. Another round of strong, loving hugs sent us out for the night, to join together again in the clarity of morning.
Though we were exhausted from the day, the adrenaline of the coming day was already flowing through us. Tina was definitely feeling it and the hours passed as we tried to rest. Sharing the pictures of the evening brought back laughter but the weight of the morning was there in the air. Eventually, we got sleepy and started to settle in for the night. I thought that Cynth and Tina were ready to sleep, so I went to shower. I soon heard voices and wondered if it was them or just someone in a different room, since the walls are thin and the rooms so close and small. I came out to find them telling jokes about prison and Cynth’s nicknames. We soon lapsed back into the seriousness of the day (as it was midnight and we had to rise at 6 AM) and talked for quite a while. It all ended at about 1:30 AM, after a healthy, hearty laugh about what would happen if everyone after Grayman also got up and sang their statement. Tina would go first, then Margaret, and so on until Alice at the very end. The thought was enough to break the tension for awhile and made us wonder what the neighbors were thinking! The headlines afterward would be priceless, the Singing SOA Sixteen or something similar. Really, what would they do? It’s free speech, right?!
When the alarm went off, there was a collective groan; well maybe more than a groan. It took a few minutes for us to move, to say the least. 7:30 was the start time in the lobby, so we had to get going. I had to pack up so as to be ready to leave no matter how long the trials took, but it was like moving in a fog. 9:00 was so close now. A few false starts and one big hug sandwich with Tina in the middle later, Tina and I got some breakfast where me met the other folks. It helped to see smiling faces. We eventually made it out the door with only our keys to the room and ID’s to get into the courtroom. Tina had all of her paperwork and money. We joined the crowd in the lobby.
Taking white crosses like we bring in November, we organized the defendants at the front and started out on a procession to the courthouse. In true SOA Watch style, Virginia sang the names of those killed and disappeared in Latin America. Wanting to run from the cold air, we did our best to stay solemn and slow. A few waves and car horns spurred us on as we turned the corner down the home stretch of 12th Street.
The press conference started as soon as we all made it onto and around the steps of the courthouse. Maybe it was just the cold getting to me, but it was all so surreal. The five defendants spoke and we quickly turned to being filing through security and up to the courtroom. After the defendants were all in line, a Federal Marshal decided that the post office was becoming inaccessible and that we had to wait outside until he let us back in. S. Kathleen tried to point out that we had our system of tickets all worked out, but he wanted to try his way first. This was my first experience with a real trial or with the control of federal agents at all, having only done a mock trial in eighth grade at the Old Courthouse at home in St. Louis. It again did not feel real at all. Waiting in line and through security just to be with a loved one is so wrong.
Within a few minutes, he said that ten people could enter. Cynthia and I were right up there, ready to go. Shaking from the cold, I made up to the third floor and outside the courtroom doors. Those few minutes in the hallway with Federal Marshals and soldiers passing by was enough to make me really nervous. We eventually got into the courtroom I have heard about so many times and got as close to the front as we could, disobeying an order to start by filling in the back row first. I wondered as we did that what it meant about the whole experience. Starting out by disobeying seemed significant to me.
Sitting there waiting, I got warm, but continued to shake. Cynthia and Judith traded spots so that Judith was next to the window and able to take notes if Cynth sat up in her spot. We were told that if they saw her pen, they would take it away. Once again, I wondered what this meant for the day. Here we were in an establishment that our tax dollars run, hiding harmless activities like writing down the words and sentences (as in judge’s exercise of power) of friends. Once the defendants came in up in the front, it all seemed more real in a very strange way.
We all stood just before the judge was to come in and so were already standing when ordered to do so. This was to avoid having to stand “for him.” All of the usual legal proceedings ensued, wordy jargon, etc. Then Grayman was called to the front. He was pleading no contest and was the first to appear of the 16. They went through whatever legal words had to be said and then he was able to present a statement. He did, in fact, sing the whole thing. It went something like, “if you’re looking for weapons, you’ll find them behind the fence.” That was the chorus, if you will, with similar statements and testimony in between. Tina was right—a beautiful way to start out the proceedings.
When the judge proceeded to give Grayman only 30 days in prison, I believe that the supporters let out a collective sigh of relief. Relief that the singing had not made the judge completely angry and so harsh on everyone for the rest of the day. Virginia was crying just behind me, though I could not tell if it was out of happiness, sadness, pride, or everything all at once.
Tina was next. My blood pressure rose even higher, making me shake harder than I thought possible. I could do nothing to control it, as I could not get my mind off of the injustice of it all.
I tried to pay attention to every word, but most of it faded away as I waited and waited for those words of “your sentence.” As I could not see much with many taller people in front of me, I looked often at the church steeple so close outside. Something seemed strange about it: injustice in that room and so close, the symbol of perfect justice. I had to wait quite a long time, shaking all the while, as Tina eventually gave her statement…during that, all I could do was say to her in my head: Breathe. I knew that she was afraid that she would cry in the middle of it and I was afraid that she would get going too fast and make the most moving part seem trivial. I bowed my head, closed my eyes, and sent all of my strength to the front of that courtroom.
Hearing that judge say that he would defer sentencing until he had heard the rest of the group tore my heart out. I could not believe it. One more way to exercise power. It did not even seem legal to me. Somehow, those other statements could affect everyone’s sentence and that is not right!
Margaret and Phil were called forward and gave their statements, returning to their seats to wait in the thick air of tension. Josh was next and the last of the group. He had decided to plead not guilty and to represent himself. The judge tried to convince him that he needed a lawyer, speaking of the problems that could occur. He must have been afraid of Josh appealing, causing a mistrial, and then retrial. Eventually, Josh went on and represented himself and gave his statement.
Then the whole group of four was called up to the front once again. The judge announced that he would now sentence the defendants. Bill Quigley, Tina’s attorney, asked if they would be able to make a statement about special circumstances at this time. He agreed. Next, I was surprised because Tina had told us that Bill was going to explain her situation and ask for probation. Instead, Tina started talking. She told the judge that she has three children and that though she has a community of supporters who will take care of them if she has to leave, it would obviously be better to be with her children for those months than to be in prison. Without blinking an eye, or so it seemed, since I could not see, he went right into sentencing her. As if she had not said a word, he sentenced her to sixty days in prison.
My immediate reflex was to cry, even though we were all glad that it was not the typical three months. But Grayman’s thirty days had given us hope for probation for those who needed it for family or health reasons. I buried my head in Cynthia’s shoulder and tried to stay quiet, still shaking. Virginia’s hand had been on my shoulder, sharing her peaceful spirit, through the whole sentencing, with someone else’s hand on the other side. The community we developed through the weekend was now a family.
All I heard of the other sentences was the amount of time in prison. I was more aware of their families and supporters around me, groaning inside at each sentence stated. I could feel their pain and it became part of my own; we wept for each other.
I am not sure if all of the sentences were finished or not, but at least Tina’s was when she remembered one more thing that she had wanted to do. Before she left, her three kids had hidden surprises throughout her suitcase. One of them was a drawing Charu, the youngest, had done of an Indian girl. Tina’s husband is from India and they adopted Charu from India after the older two were born. She had planned on giving this drawing to the judge before the sentencing but forgot. So she handed it to him and told him that her daughter had drawn it. The judge said immediately that if it had any monetary value, he could not accept it since then it would be a bribe. Tina assured him that it did not and he accepted it. Her point was that either way he sentenced her, probation or prison, it would make a point: giving her prison and then having something tangible from the kids would make him think about what he had done, sending a mother away and if he had given probation, he would realize that she got to be with her kids. At least it made him stop for that one moment.
Finally all of the sentences were set and the defendants left the room. Then we were dismissed and had to run down the stairs very quickly so that the next group of supporters could all get into the courtroom. If everyone was not in when the judge came in, they would not be allowed. Cynthia and I somehow walked back to the hotel to get everything: all we had with us were room keys and ID’s. First were the phones: she called Rita, I called Rose. That finished, we took the car back to the courthouse and wondered where everyone was. We checked the coffee shop we saw and no one was there. There were a few people from our group on one corner and they helped us realize that there was another coffee shop behind us! We had expected the processing after sentencing to take much longer, but everyone was already gathered, sharing stories and coffee. Another celebration, as some awaited their turn in court. I met more amazing people and heard stories of their travels. Faith Fippinger, who Cynth had introduced me to in November, and who had told us about her recent travels in Iran, was there and had more stories to share. A man with her was from Veterans for Peace. Faith’s stories and truly free spirit about where life will take her next made me wonder more about my own life, where I will have been at her age.
When lunch arrived outside, we all gathered on the corner outside of the courthouse. The sun was bright, the air chilly, and everything felt raw, open, vulnerable. Something had changed in me in that courtroom; somehow, the world looked different. A loss of innocence? I think so. I knew it all before, but to see is to believe so often and it took being a witness to the injustice for it to fully affect me.
We ate our lunches and shared more stories, while the next trials hung heavy around us. Tina wanted to go back in for the trials of her friends, but my heart was hurting too much—I really did not think that I could sit in that room any longer. I had no idea what it was, but something hurt too much and I did not want to back there. But I had come to support Tina and that is what I needed to do. Tina, Cynth, and I got through security, to the room and into the seats, but were told that there were family members who had not gotten into the courtroom, so we left and went back to the hotel to rest. This was better for me anyway, as I had a long trip back to Milwaukee later in the day.
There was not much chance of sleep for me, but the quiet was good. All I could do was sit and think about the day. Cynthia read and Tina emailed for a bit before we all tried to sleep, Tina and I with hands entwined. The most helpful or comforting thing all weekend for her was to be connected to one of us—whether holding hands, hugging, or just a hand on her shoulder. Most times, this was all I could do. I had no perfect words, no wisdom from experience, only me and all I had to give was love. And in some ways, I think that was all she needed. Tina knew what she was doing, why she was doing it, and what the consequences could be. All she needed was to know that she is not alone, that we are with her and that all of the people of Latin America she is speaking for are with her.
I still am not sure about what it was that made my heart ache that day. The pain of the people affected by this terrible place called a school, the pain of families who must say goodbye for months and accept prison time, the pain of a world yearning for peace, the pain of creation crying out for love? All of it came to my mind and I do believe that this weekend was truly a “loss of innocence,” a fresh realization of the reality of the issues with which I am daily involved.
And so we spent that afternoon resting together; a prayer, really. Holding the morning’s events in our hearts and just being there for each other. What is prayer, truly, besides being present to another?