"President Bush says he wants to stop and destroy terrorist activity," said Sister Rita Clare Gerardot of the Sisters of Providence at St. Mary-of the-Woods. "Yet U.S. tax dollars support a terrorist camp at Fort Benning, Ga.
"The School of the Americas at Fort Benning trains soldiers from Latin American countries in order to protect U.S. economic interests and big corporations," Sister Gerardot explained. "These soldiers return to their countries and commit atrocities against their own people, especially the poor and those trying to effect change.
"The SOA, which changed its name to Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, has training manuals that recommend interrogation techniques like torture, execution, blackmail and arresting the relatives of those being questioned," continued Sister Gerardot. "Thousands of innocent people have been killed including Archbishop Oscar Romero and 900 civilians in the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador."
Sister Gerardot along with Sister Adele Beacham, also a Sister of Providence at St. Mary-of-the-Woods, were among 96 protesters arrested Nov. 17, 2002. They were part of nearly 11,000 non-violent protesters who joined the annual national protest at Fort Benning which is organized by SOA Watch.
The SOA Watch is an independent organization that seeks to close the U.S. Army School of the Americas, under whatever name it is called, through vigil and fasts, demonstration and non-violent protest, as well as media and legislative work.
The two Sisters will stand trial Monday on charges of trespass for crossing a designated barrier and walking onto the military base in November.
"With crosses in hand, we walked along the fence and onto the base singing 'Let There Be Peace On Earth'", said Sister Beacham.
The 76-year-old Sisters were immediately arrested, handcuffed, put on a bus and taken to a large warehouse. Eventually they were photographed, fingerprinted and shackled. According to The Criterion, a U.S. Marshall who helped shackle the 5-foot-tall Sister Beacham admitted that, "This is an embarrassment."
The Sisters were incarcerated for 14 hours. The building in which they were housed was built in 1850 and called the Columbus Stockade. According to the Sisters it was in a deplorable condition. They said it was filthy, extremely cold, had open showers and toilets and a sink that didn't work. Some women on medication were without their meds for at least 12 hours even though reminders were given frequently to the guards.
Sisters Gerardot and Beacham were bailed out the next day with a trial date set for Monday. Federal trespass charges are punishable by up to six months in prison.
Last year, Providence Sister Kathleen Desautels was arrested for a similar action and was sentenced to six months in prison on federal trespassing charges by the same judge hearing Sister Gerardot's and Sister Beacham's case. Sister Desautels is currently serving her sentence at the federal prison in Greenville, Ill. She is to be released in March.
Sister Ann Margaret O'Hara, general superior of the Sisters of Providence said, "Our hearts and our prayers go with our sisters as they continue their action for justice and peace. We are also praying for an unbiased mind and just actions on the part of the judge for all those involved in the trial," she continued. "It is only through courageous acts such as theirs that others can be made aware of what the military arm of our government is doing in our names."
Sister Gerardot said they are apprehensive of what the next few months will bring and are uncertain of how they will handle incarceration if that becomes a reality. But they agreed they are jubilant their plan was successful in giving witness to their protest of the SOA/WHISC. They encourage other patriotic American citizens to protest its existence, also.
"This movement to raise the consciousness of the American people and to bring about the closing of this 'terrorist training camp' began in 1990," Sister Gerardot said. "We encourage our legislators to wake up, take notice and then take action by voting to close this 'School of Assassins'. Congress has the power to close this school which promotes terrorism in other countries and disregards the human rights of our neighbors in Latin America."