Atlanta SOA Protester Gets 100 Days in Federal Prison (UPDATE 1)

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mike(APN) ATLANTA — An Atlanta activist received a sentence of 100 days in a federal prison on January 29, 2007, after being arrested and charged with a Class B misdemeanor November 19, 2006, at a protest at the School of the Americas (SOA). The notorious SOA–recently renamed WHINSEC, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation–is located on the Fort Benning Military Reservation in Columbus, Georgia.

Mike Vosburg-Casey, a 32-year-old activist with the Open Door Community in Atlanta, was one of 16 protestors from across the US arrested at the annual School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) protest, after crossing the line onto the Fort Benning Military Reservation.

“It’s unreasonable for the Judge to be sentencing us to any jail time at all,” Vosburg-Casey told Atlanta Progressive News. “This is constitutionally protected speech [and] we shouldn’t be sentenced to prison time for this.”

“It’s not like we surprised them in November by having a rally,” he continued. “The things that go on at that institution [SOA] need to stop,” he said.

Vosburg-Casey enjoyed the support of his wife and his father, a lawyer who traveled from California where Vosburg-Casey was raised to represent his son, at the January 29th trial. Most of the 16 arrested had their own lawyers and no one chose to pursue a full trial.

The SOA 16

Those arrested ranged in age from 17 to 71 and sentences ranged from 30 days to six months. Alice Gerard, 50, from New York state, received six months in federal prison because this was a third offense, Juliana Illari, an Atlanta activist who works with SOAW and other organizations, told Atlanta Progressive News.

One minor, Whitney Ray, 17, from Indianapolis, Indiana, received a one-year probation sentence and community service.

Graymon Ward, 20, from North Carolina, pleaded no contest to the charges January 29th and received 30 days. He will serve his time in a county jail in North Carolina, Vosburg-Casey says.

Margaret Bryant-Gainer, 38, from West Virginia, did not post bail in November, served 71 days in the Muscogee County Jail, and was released January 29th after receiving a sentence of time served.

For Vosburg-Casey, who moved to Georgia in 1999, this was not the first time he had crossed the line. He, along with three of the other SOA 16, as they are known, received letters the US government called ban and bar letters, essentially a warning letter not to cross the line again after they crossed the line in past years.

Three of the four who received the government letter received 100 days. The fourth received 90 days. Others who crossed for the first time in 2006 received 60 days.

At the 2005 protest, 37 protestors were placed under arrest and 29 served one to six months in federal prison. The 2004 protest saw 11 protestors placed under arrest and all served between three and six months in federal prison.

The names of the other 2006 protestors are:

Tina Busch-Nema, 48, from Missouri; Don Coleman, 69, from Chicago, Illinois; Valerie Fillenwarth, 64, from Indianapolis, Indiana; Philip Gates, 70, from Arizona; Joshua Harris, 30, from San Diego, California; Melissa Helman, 23, from Wisconsin; Martina Leforce, 22, from Kentucky; Julienne Oldfield, 69, from Syracuse, New York; Sheila Salmon, 71, from Florida; Nathan Slater, 23, from Kentucky; and Cathy Webster, 61, from California.

Vosburg-Casey told APN many of his co-defendants, minus Ray, Ward, and Bryant-Gainer, have received notices telling them what federal prison to report to and when.

Although he has not yet received his notice, Vosburg-Casey estimates he will have to report to prison on March 21st because other co-defendants are reporting at that time.

“It’s common for all co-defendants to all go on the same day,” he said.

The November Protest

Illari traveled to Columbus in November to the protest with friends from Georgia for Democracy and joined between 20,000 and 22,000 other protestors from across the nation for four days of marches, readings, and vigils.

“Numbers are not as important as how long [protestors] come [four days] and how far they travel,” Illari noted.

Vosburg-Casey, who had crossed before and discussed with friends and family the decision to cross again in 2006, arrived early to prepare himself for the crossing and subsequent arrest, he said.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” he said.

At the January 29th trial, as part of his brief statement to the Court, Vosburg-Casey remarked, “Our movement to close the School of Americas, and specifically my action, is founded on the ideal of love, sought through the means of non-violent direct action.”

Those who wish to cross make the decision well in advance and take steps to prepare themselves.

“As a planning measure, there are some meetings and strategy sessions people participate in during the week of action,” Vosburg-Casey said.  “I was involved in some of those.”

Before September 11, 2001, if protestors wanted to cross, they would literally walk across a line painted on the ground that symbolizes the point which protestors are not allowed to cross.

After September 11, 2001, the SOA erected razor wire fences [Illari said there are two, Vosburg-Casey said three] to surround the facility and keep protestors back. If one wants to cross the line now they have to go through a gap in the wire fence, Vosburg-Casey says.

The law enforcement presence is heavy and very noticeable.  “It’s an intimidation thing. The surveillance factor is pretty high,” Illari said.

Vosburg-Casey agreed, adding there is an obvious presence of law enforcement not connected with the SOA or Fort Benning.  “[There are] lots of intimidation tactics,” he said.

Judge G. Mallon Faircloth, a Federal Magistrate Judge, is known for handing out stiff sentences for those who cross the line at these protests, according to SOAW.org.

An 82-year-old man received three months in federal prison for a first time offense after his arrest at the SOAW protest in 2005, Illari said.

Certain things have changed over time during these protests, Vosburg-Casey said.  “The people who do the arresting now are aware that they need to not treat people roughly [because] we’re part of what’s obviously a non-violent act.”

“[I believe] they’re concerned about what might could happen if there were lots of people in jail with many supporters still in town,” he added.

To reach the area where the Sunday vigil is held, “it’s still necessary to go through a visual checkpoint,” Vosburg-Casey noted.

Festival of Hope

The Festival of Hope, held January 28 through 30, 2007, saw friends, family, and supporters gather again in Columbus to support the SOA 16 before the January 29th trial.

This event is held each year before the trial of each of those arrested, in order to not only brief the protestors, but also prepare their families for what might follow, Illari said.  “The community that supports these people and their decisions is phenomenal,” she said.

February Lobby Days

Big changes may be ahead for the SOA. Legislation planned to be re-introduced by US Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) would shut down the SOA for six months while teams are sent in to investigate what exactly happens at the school.

With a Democratic US Congressional victory having just occurred in November 2006, SOAW expects this legislation to pass.

Illari will be in Washington, D.C., February 16th through the 20th as part of SOAW’s February Lobby Days, a time for strategy meetings and conducting lobbying efforts. The goal this year is to meet with many lawmakers in order to find more co-sponsors for the McGovern bill.

Georgia’s US Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and former US Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) are both big supporters of closing the SOA. They were among 135 total co-sponsors of McGovern’s bill, HR 1217, in the last Congressional Session. SOAW delegates will attempt to get US Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), who has replaced McKinney in Congress this Session, to sign on as a co-sponsor.

Upon her return from DC, Illari will report to APN what happened during this time.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated SOA protesters would have had to hop over, or go under, wire fence, to get to the SOA facilities, since September 11, 2001. Vosburg-Casey has notified us there was actually a gap in the fence, and the story has been changed to reflect this information. Also, a previous version of this story stated the SOA/WHINSEC was “next to” the Fort Benning base; however, a reader notified us it is actually on the base itself. The story has been updated to reflect that change as well.

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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This article may be reprinted in full at no cost where Atlanta Progressive News is credited.

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