On Saturday after the rally some members of the School of the Americas Watch community took action within the city of Columbus. They chose to take their message to Columbus instead of the military base. They chose a different space but the reasons for the action were the same: to close the SOA and bring justice to its victims. The police had a strong reaction to what they felt was the abuse of the permit. As people were attempting to leave the vigil site the police responded by arresting more than seventeen individuals who were doing nothing more than leaving the space – all together 26 folks were arrested.
I have attended the vigil for six years and never have I seen anything like what happened on Saturday. The police were directing people to leave and then accusing them of refusing to disperse and placing cuffs on them. They picked up journalists, high schoolers, and even a member of their own Columbus community who simply stepped out of a barber shop near the road.
We began immediately to mobilize, to gather money for bond. We received our second shock of the weekend: the police had piled charges on the folks they arrested. Even though they were all facing misdemeanors their bonds were set as high as $5500. This would mean that roughly we would have needed over $100,000 to get our own people out of jail.
Between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning we worked to get in touch with family and friends of those who had been arrested and to raise money for bond. By Sunday afternoon, after the vigil as we headed to the court for the arraignment hearings, we had managed to raise close to $20,000. Not all of what we needed but an amazing outpouring from those who were there.
We reached court and received our third big shock of the weekend: the judge! He said that if anyone whispered or passed notes they would spend the night in jail. We witnessed an arraignment hearing that was treated as a trial and when the judge was asked about this particular disparity he told us it was his court and he could do whatever he wanted.
After several hours of “trials” the judge retired to his chambers to watch police video footage of the arrests. The defense attorneys went to the back to watch the videos as well. The defendants were never allowed to see the evidence against them and several of them never even heard the police testimony against them. The judge then came out and found every single person guilty (except one). He applied hefty fines, sent some of the charges to the State court and adjusted bonds.
After his threat to give all of them jail time the outcome of fines and a continuance of charges was a relief. However it was very difficult to feel that any justice had been served. Arrestees were denied a right to testify on their own behalf, the police were not made to provide the burden of proof and the judge ran the courtroom like a king rather than a public official.
It was difficult and discouraging. And yet, and yet…
Around ten thousand people gathered to remember those who were victims of the school. Four members of the SOAW community crossed the line onto the base. Seven people were willing to risk an arrest in the Columbus community and the other 19 who were arrested accidentally still stood by the call for justice of vicitms of the school. We raised all the money we needed to bond people out, supported them in court and will continue to support them as they get ready for state court.
Watching people gather in support, pitch in time, money and witness was amazing. It is community and community is the antithesis of arrest and the court process we experienced. Community is the antithesis of the mindset and logic of the School of the Americas. It is a sacred sense of relationship that opens doors for change.
As Bill Quigley, a lawyer for the movement, qouted St. Agustine, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage. Anger at the way things are and courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”
We must be angry at the injustice we see but then also have the courage to change it!