The Common Good
March-April 1999

Learning From Each Other

by Rose Marie Berger | March-April 1999

Organizers Carol Richardson and Heather Dean, mother and daughter, talk about how the movement to close the U.S. Army School of the Americas became a family affair.

Carol Richardson and Heather Dean work with School of Americas Watch, an organization that through research, public actions, and legislative advocacy has led the movement attempting to close a U.S. military facility that has trained foreign military personnel implicated in a wide range of human rights abuses. "Carol is the best organizer I have ever worked with," says Rev. Roy Bourgeois, the Maryknoll priest who founded SOA Watch. "Heather is our scholar. She keeps us on course with all of our documentation that continues to come out about the School. Every day I thank God for them. This is very hard and heavy work but they help me hold on to my joy and my sense of humor, and to hope."

Richardson and Dean were interviewed by Sojourners assistant editor Rose Marie Berger in October 1998 at the SOA Watch office in Washington D.C.

ROSE MARIE BERGER: How did School of the Americas Watch begin?

CAROL RICHARDSON: Roy Bourgeois went down to Fort Benning, essentially to see what the deal was. In November 1989, he opened up the SOA Watch office literally just a stone's throw from the main gate of the School, and began to watch, began the investigative work, began drawing other people little by little into the movement.

HEATHER DEAN: In 1990, on the first anniversary of the massacre of the Jesuits in El Salvador, I went down from Emory University where I was studying to the first vigil at Fort Benning. I decided to cross the line [onto Fort Benning property] with the first group. Father Roy Bourgeois had done a civil disobedience action the previous day; there were just seven of us that crossed the line the second day.

BERGER: How has SOA Watch grown from a fairly marginalized campaign to a major grassroots movement?

RICHARDSON: Roy Bourgeois had the vision, persistence, and the faithfulness to pursue this work even when there wasn't anyone else with him. At the first organizing meeting, three people showed up. There were more than 7,000 people at the vigil in November.

Our first major break was in 1993 when the U.N. Truth Commission report was released and we started matching up names of the Salvadoran human rights abusers with those who were also SOA graduates. We thought that if we came up with just two or three names we would have proven our case. In reality it turned out that more than two-thirds of the names on the U.N. list were SOA graduates.

The U.N. Truth Commission report led to a Newsweek article that pushed us into the mainstream, if you want to call it that, and gave us much broader exposure. Rep. Marty Meehan of Massachusetts got up on the floor of the House with the Newsweek article and said, "We've got to look at this." Then Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) offered an amendment to the Defense bill to cut funding for the School of the Americas. That launched us into the legislative piece.

DEAN: We also had the revelations about the torture manuals. It gave us lots of national coverage. The more people found out about the issue, the more they were incensed by it.

BERGER: How were those manuals released?

RICHARDSON: Roy and a documentary film producer had been in Latin America doing interviews and gathering testimonies from graduates of the School and from victims of School graduates. One of the graduates and one of the victims talked about the existence of these torture-training manuals. In fact, one of the graduates said when he was training at the School when it was located in Panama, they would take homeless people off the streets in Panama City to use as guinea pigs for torture training.

When Roy returned he told that story on a radio show. Then he went off to prison and I started staffing the office. I got a certified letter from the commandant of the School absolutely outraged about what Roy had said. He said there had never been any torture-training manual. But, simultaneously the White House Intelligence Oversight Board released its report on Guatemala. In it were a couple pages about reviewing School of the Americas training manuals that advocated black mail, neutralization, extortion, and false arrest. The School got caught with its pants down and immediately had to back down. The Pentagon was forced in September 1996 to release to the public the actual manuals.

DEAN: This whole issue really touches the core in people. When people come to Georgia to oppose the School of the Americas, when people cross the line and risk arrest, it is not just to close the School. They are opposing all that makes us less human.

BERGER: How did you personally become interested in the School of the Americas?

RICHARDSON: The first time I ever heard the words "School of Americas" was when Heather called me to tell me that she had been arrested there. My own direct involvement started in 1993 when I came to work as a national grassroots coordinator at Witness for Peace. Shortly after I arrived, people at the grassroots and at Witness for Peace began calling me to say, "We need to be working on the School of the Americas."

In 1994, Witness for Peace and SOA Watch co-sponsored a 40-day fast. It was then my real hands-on involvement began. I left Witness for Peace to staff the SOA office in Georgia for six months while Roy was in prison. Six months was all I was going to do. Roy and I then decided that we needed a second office. In January 1997 we opened up the SOA Watch office in Washington, D.C.

DEAN: After college I worked with Witness for Peace for two years in Chiapas, Mexico, with Guatemalan refugees. Later I lived in a return-refugee community in Guatemala. In 1995 we got a fax that there had been a massacre in one of those villages. A close friend was one of the people killed. He had a 5-year-old son named Mario. It profoundly affected me. When the Archdiocese in Guatemala came out with its Nunca Mas (Never Again) report last year, we carefully sorted through it and found that many of the military listed in that report were in fact SOA graduates. It always keeps coming back to that. SOA Watch hired me for summer 1997 to research what SOA graduates had been involved in throughout Latin America. We had extensive information about some countries, such as El Salvador, but we wanted to update the lists and get more information.

BERGER: Was it after this that Carol was arrested at the School of the Americas and eventually given a six-month prison sentence?

DEAN: Yes. After the research project, I went back to Guatemala, to the return-refugee community. The people there had met my mom, so I told them that she was going to jail for six months. They were just appalled. They actually wrote a very long letter for her. Everyone lined up to sign the letter. And they wrote a letter to Bill Clinton telling him what they thought. Then I came back and staffed the office while Carol was in prison.

RICHARDSON: When it got out that I was going to go to prison for six months—not that we didn't know we were going to prison, we just never thought it would be for six months—I was in Columbus, Georgia, and Heather was in Atlanta. She was heading off for Guatemala. I called her and, I would say, used up all my "momma chips." She was the only person I knew who could handle the job of directing the SOA Watch office in D.C. while I was in jail. I literally begged Heather to rearrange her life to do it. And she did. I'll always be grateful to her for that.

DEAN: We talked on the phone for 45 minutes every day. Carol and I strategized and planned the whole time she was in jail.

BERGER: You were placed in the federal prison camp in Alderson, West Virginia. What did you learn there?

RICHARDSON: Prison is hard. There is just no other way to say it. In many ways the prison experience is like the experiences of many Latin American women, in the sense that their lives are surrounded by violence. Yet in the midst of that they are able to find ways to build community and care for each other. There is a lot of other stuff that goes on too, but the community connection is very present. One thing that surprised me was the depth of feelings I have for the people I left behind in jail.

I also learned about community in a more generalized way. I received more than 2,000 pieces of mail from the folks who supported us. I learned that even in prison I am still a very privileged person. Some days I would get 40 or 50 pieces of mail. Many of the women never got a single piece of mail.

The average sentence for a woman at Alderson is five years. Nearly everyone I knew was in for 10-15 years. It's just a holding place. The prison jobs are just to perpetuate the institution, not to help people change their lives or live differently when they get out.

BERGER: What was it like to pick up your mom when she was released from Alderson?

DEAN: Our housemate Judith and I rented an electric-blue convertible. Actually, this was mostly a Judith idea. I probably wouldn't have been quite so flamboyant. Judith wore her Thelma and Louise scarf and sunglasses. All of mom's friends had gathered at the gate to say good-bye. I don't think she knew we were coming in the convertible. Even the guard was smiling. Carol got to stand in the back waving to all her friends as we drove away. It was great. Then we went to the Elvis—what was it? The Elvis Diner?

RICHARDSON: The Pink Cadillac.

DEAN: That's right...the Pink Cadillac. They had a wax statue of Elvis. Then we had a huge, huge party for her back at the house in D.C. She got me a T-shirt that said "My mom went to prison" on the front, "and all I got was 1,500 phone calls, 2,000 e-mail messages, and 345 faxes" on the back.

BERGER: Great gift! Tell me how this became a "family affair." What happens to your family dynamic in this kind of work?

DEAN: When I was 12 years old, we went on a family outing to New York City for a "No Nukes" rally. I was not happy to be there. But I enjoyed telling everyone at school about it and wearing my "No Nukes" T-shirt. That's my first memory of doing that kind of thing. Throughout my early teens there was a copy of Sojourners on the back of the toilet for family reading enjoyment. It was always in the background, but I hadn't decided to take on those issues myself.

My junior year of high school I went to my first rally about Central America. Some of my friends from high school were interested, but not my family. A big civil disobedience action was planned. I was 17 and I wanted to do this C.D. thing. I told my mom about it. She said no. I briefly thought about doing it anyway, but then...

RICHARDSON: ...did not.

DEAN: Which was probably a good thing. At that rally I filled out a little card for information on coffee-picking brigades with Nicaragua Exchange. The same day there was a big article in The Washington Post Magazine about Frederico Rojas, whose mother had been tortured in Chile. He later lived in the States, but when he returned to Chile he was attacked by the military. They poured gasoline over him and burned him to death. When I read that article I was just a wreck. It deeply affected me. I went downstairs all weepy. I said to my Mom, "I want to go to Nicaragua." And to my surprise, she said okay. I had no idea how hard it would be for parents to say it's okay for their 17-year-old daughter to go to a war zone. I don't think I appreciated that at the time. But she did say okay. And my grandma gave me a lot of the money that I needed to go. So it really is sort of a family thing. My grandma doesn't always understand everything that we do, but she always supports us.

Once I came back from Nicaragua, nothing could ever be the same again. We've had a back and forth process in our family. There are certain things Carol steps forward on first and sometimes I step forward first, like going to Nicaragua.

RICHARDSON: It's been a process of teaching and learning from each other. Heather has given me courage to do some things—and challenged me to do things—that I might not have done on my own. Maybe I get to do the same in return. It was hard for me to let my daughter go to a war zone, especially since I'd never been there myself. But I remember knowing at a deep level that this was a rite of passage for her. I have never been much of a worrier about things, but those three weeks I was worried. I would call Nicaragua Exchange every day. They would tell me what she did that day and continued to reassure me that she was still alive.

BERGER: What's been the hardest impact of this kind of work on your family?

RICHARDSON: It was hard to be in prison after having been so deeply involved with work. Suddenly you don't have any control over what's happening to you. Heather was wonderful in terms of what she called my "hurling orders at her."

DEAN: Micromanaging.

RICHARDSON: I knew in my heart that she was going to do what she was going to do anyway. But she allowed me the space to say it, which was very fun. The hardest thing, though, is that the work is so demanding and consuming of time and energy. It can take everything you've got. Both of my children, Eric and Heather, have been very forgiving.

BERGER: How does your faith inform your work, or your work inform your faith?

RICHARDSON: For me one of the most life-giving parts of this work is the opportunity to work across faiths. Maybe it is arrogant for me to say this, but I feel like I work with the cream of the crop from all these different perspectives. The people I meet at SOA rallies are deeply, deeply spiritual people, not necessarily Christian although many are. When we come together for a common purpose we are church in the most powerful way.

DEAN: I would go back to the first time I did civil disobedience at Fort Benning. At the rally everyone was shouting and giving the military police a hard time. But there was a Buddhist who was completely centered throughout the whole march. While I have not perfected this, you understand, it seems to me having that kind of mindfulness and awakefulness in every aspect of our work is what is required of us. If we fail to be fully human in our angers and in our joys, then we allow ourselves to be defeated. My challenge is to always hold on to the joy and wonder in everything around us.

BERGER: Where do you get inspiration or regain energy when you have crashed?

DEAN: I think of my Guatemalan friend Marcos. He lived in the refugee community where I worked. He would be out working the corn field all day long. He would come home exhausted, then he'd go to the community meeting. After the meeting he would light a candle and work on papers. He was always thinking ahead about the community, about what more he could do. It's pretty powerful to realize that many people are willing to give their entire lives. At the same time it's always been very important for me to have time to reflect on what is going on. I read. I write poetry.

RICHARDSON: There was only one time in prison when I totally broke down. That was when I heard that Bishop Gerardi had been murdered in Guatemala. It brought home to me again the people who daily risk and give their lives for this kind of work. He was the bishop who headed up the committee that released the Never Again report.

I remember hearing Dr. Joseph Lowry of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference preach a sermon. He said, "These are times when God's people are tempted to give out, and to give in, and to give up." Then he said, "We cannot do that. There is too much work and too many that depend on our keeping on keeping on." I have never forgotten that. I draw my strength from the other people who witness to me.

May 1-4 Events

On November 22, 1998, 7,000 people gathered at the gates of Ft. Benning, outside Columbus, Georgia, to call for the closing of the School of the Americas. Military police briefly detained 2,319 people for coming onto the grounds of Ft. Benning in a solemn funeral procession for the victims of SOA graduates.

On May 1-4, 1999, SOA Watch will host a series of events in Washington, D.C., at the White House, Pentagon, and Capitol. For an organizing packet or more information, contact SOA Watch, P.O. Box 4566, Washington, DC 20017; (202) 234-3440; www.soaw.org.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)