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Doin' Time: A Work in Progress

Increasing numbers of Americans engage in acts of civil disobedience. These resisters are arrested, tried, and often sentenced to serve long terms in prison and jail. A discouraged radical constituency in the United States needs to be convinced that "doin' time" is not only honorable but do-able.
Rosalie Riegle

Issue #71, December 2004

"Prison can be a sane place to be when times are insane."
Tom Lewis, Baltimore Four, Catonsville Nine, and Plowshares Action

We live in perilous times. The United States has become itself a rogue nation, interfering more blatantly than ever in the internal affairs of other countries, whether to topple a president — Aristide or Hussein or Allende — we don't like, or to secure cheap labor for our giant corporations, or to control the spigot of oil for our "national interest." Given our present policies and present administration, this war appears to have no end. Good citizens all over the country are saying 'no' in many ways. Some blog endlessly on the Internet; some write to their congressional representatives; some work in electoral politics; some take to the streets with signs and banners.

I leave tonight for Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, home of the newly renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, (WHISC), a combat training school for Latin American soldiers. Formerly called the School of the Americas (SOA), its name was changed in 2001, perhaps to keep activists from calling it by its bloody nickname, "School of Assassins."

In 1990, the SOA Watch was formed with an avowed aim to close the school, which has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. These graduates have consistently used their skills to wage a war against their own people. Among those targeted by SOA graduates are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, "disappeared," massacred, and forced into refugee status by SOA graduates.

Every year the protest grows. This year thousands of people join founder Father Roy Bourgeois, Martin Sheen, Kathy Kelly, Utah Phillips, and others in a day-long protest, complete with puppetistas, a moving ceremony honoring the many killed by WHISC graduates, and many, many arrests for civil disobedience. The day before our fateful 2004 presidential election, Arundhati Roy spoke in Australia. In that speech, she reminded us that "there can be no real peace without justice. And without resistance there will be no justice."

jailed man Increasing numbers of Americans engage in acts of civil disobedience, challenging our government's military expenditures, challenging its training of foreign mercenaries who protect the property of our wealthy friends in Latin America, challenging the spread of militarism into space. Some go to prison independently, following a conscience that compels them to resist. In increasing solidarity with others, most go as part of a movement, as do the Plowshares activists who court arrest by symbolically "hammering swords into plowshares" and the many people arrested and imprisoned each year for "crossing the line" at WHISC at Ft. Benning.

In punishment for calling their government to ask for its actions, these resisters are arrested, tried, and often sentenced to serve long terms in prison and jail.

The work of these activists is work in progress, and their stories need to be told. A discouraged radical constituency in the United States needs to be convinced that "doin' time" is not only honorable but do-able. Prison experiences are best told in the words of the resisters themselves. My current book project is called Doin' Time: The Prison Experiences of Non-Violent Activists for Peace. Undoubtedly some who are imprisoned for their resistance at Ft. Benning will be chronicled in Doin' Time.

In Doin' Time, readers hear the stories of:

  • conscientious objectors (C.O.s) who went to prison for refusing to serve in World War II
  • Vietnam resisters who chose prison instead of legal status as C.O.s
    veterans of the many non-violent resistance actions committed throughout the country to end our involvement in Vietnam: the Baltimore Four, the Catonsville Nine, the Four of Us in Chicago, the Milwaukee Fourteen, and others
  • Plowshares resisters, several of them presently incarcerated for symbolically disarming missile silos and other military installations
  • Ground Zero resisters of the Trident Submarine, and of the infamous White Trains that carried nuclear materials across the country to Bremerton, Washington
  • unheard and unsung heroes of countless local actions in Michigan and elsewhere

Although we rarely think of it this way, most of the significant victories for human rights in the last one hundred years have been achieved through the efforts of non-violent activists. From India to Poland to Chile to the United States, people have taken pacifist Barbara Deming's advice and moved from "words of dissent to acts of disobedience."

I write this oral history, my third, to convince readers that risking arrest and imprisonment is within their reach. Those who resist are not super-heroes but just regular folks: folks living in community and stay-at-home spouses, nuns and priests and lawyers and academics and produce managers, Catholic Workers, ordained ministers, and the unemployed. They are like us, with the same fears and hopes, the same backgrounds, the same dreams. Their stories alert us to the possibilities of these forms of resistance and also to the injustices and inequities in the prison systems themselves. Their stories also remind us of the enormity of the crimes our government is committing around the world.

Like all oral histories, my work is collaborative. Edited transcripts are sent to the narrators for approval. Yet even when I complete this anthology, Doin' Time will remain a work in progress. That is because the tradition of non-violent resistance will still go on.

Rosalie G. Riegle is Professor Emerita of English at Saginaw Valley State University. Her sentencing statement from an antiwar civil disobedience arrest appears in Bad Subjects #70.

Copyright © 2004 by Rosalie Riegle. Image: early 20th c. labor graphic. All rights reserved.