Last November, Balot was fresh into her membership in the New Orleans chapter of the Catholic peace group Pax Christi, when she arrived at the group's annual pot-luck supper. The meal of casseroles, bean soup, salads and desserts also doubles as planning session for the group's yearly six-hour caravan to Columbus, Ga., home of Fort Benning and "the line."
The line is the literal boundary onto Fort Benning, which since 1984 housed the School of the Americas (SOA), a program of the United States military that trains soldiers from Latin American countries. Activists link SOA graduates to numerous killings in Central and South America; school officials say that any activities pursued by some of their graduates can't be attributed to their SOA training. Congressional order closed the SOA in December 2001, but in January 2002, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC) opened in its place. Critics say the new institute is only cosmetically different from the SOA. "New Name, Same Shame" has become the new protest mantra.
Since 1994, local Pax Christi members have joined thousands of others -- 2002 estimates range from 6,000 to 10,000 -- for protests on the weekend around Nov. 16. The date marks the anniversary of the 1989 execution-style killings by Salvadoran government troops of six Jesuit priests and two female lay workers, a mother and her daughter, at the University of Central America in El Salvador. The protests are coordinated by the media-savvy SOA Watch, headquartered in Washington, D.C.
In her Uptown home, in the midst of hosting the November pot-luck supper, Pax Christi member Jeanie Egan posed the question: "Is anybody going to cross the line?" At first, Balot was silent. She looked to see what the others were going to do. Later, during the supper, she approached Egan. "I'm ready," she said. "I'm going to cross the line."
"From my standpoint, I didn't want to discourage Toni, but on the other hand, I warned her, 'You've never been to the protest before,'" recalls Egan, an eight-year protest veteran. "Maybe you should just go to this one and see what's like and what the scene is. You should really get prepared and organize a support group well ahead of time, not the night before. Because it's hard, and it's very scary."
Egan pauses for a moment. "There was no stopping her," she says.
Indeed, Balot, who turns 70 this Saturday, may speak in a sweet, motherly voice, but she's no stranger to conflict and struggle. A former Benedictine nun, she co-founded the Colegio San Vincente de Paul in rural, impoverished Medellin, Colombia, and served as principal of the school from 1961 to 1971. As part of her work, she would frequently have to badger the Colombian government for increased funding and more teachers. She says she's also gone head-to-head with local Catholic leaders over what she perceives as a failure to include more African Americans and Latinos in church leadership.
Balot suffers from arthritis and is currently on a medical sabbatical from her job (she declines to name her employer out of concern for losing her Social Security benefits). A graduate of Eleanor McMain High School, she served as a nun for 23 years before leaving the Benedictines to pursue a degree in social work from Tulane University. She was in her early 50s when she became a mother, adopting two at-risk African-American boys, Louis and Chris. Louis, 27, is now married and on Jan. 13 had his second child. Chris, 22, is now "finding himself," Balot says, admitting she doesn't know his whereabouts. She also helped raise Kip, a Vietnam native who realized at 14, as a refugee in Guam en route to the United States, that his parents' boat had returned to Vietnam.
Given her past experiences, Balot says that her decision to trespass onto a military site shouldn't shock anyone. "Some people were surprised I did it, but anybody who knows me was not surprised at all," she says. "People who know me are never surprised by anything I do."
In the first years of the SOA protests, trespassers were immediately detained and processed under large tents set up on the base. Within a few hours, they were released with a citation that included a life-time ban from the base. But at post-9/11 Fort Benning, the line now comes under a padlocked gate and a 15-foot fence, equipped with barbed wire and signs reading "U.S. Property, No Trespassing," against red, white and blue shields.
The fence and signs did not exist before the heightened security concerns following the terrorist attacks and 2001's PATRIOT Act that called for increased vigilance on military bases. In 2001 and 2002, protestors faced sobering penalties: jail sentences up to six months and $5,000 in fines. (Both Judge J. Mallon Faircloth, the federal magistrate presiding over the cases and setting the sentences, as well as the prosecuting federal attorneys, declined comment for this story.)
Balot was aware of the harsher sentences. "It's something I really wanted to do," she says. "And this was the first time I've had the chance to, when I didn't have responsibilities where I could leave home for that long. I was taking care of my mother, who has since passed away. Before that, I was raising kids."
Last November -- as on previous years --the protest ended with a Sunday funeral procession. Names of those believed killed in Latin America were written on black coffins and white crosses, before being read aloud. After each name, the crowd declared "presente" -- Spanish for "present."
Before Sunday's demonstration, protestors from across the country spent the weekend in seminars and workshops on the legal consequences of their actions. Much of the counsel came from Bill Quigley, director of Loyola University's Law Clinic. Earlier this year, Quigley was preparing for a Jan. 27 trial date to represent Balot and the rest of the "SOA 85" -- the 85 protesters arrested in 2002 -- in Georgia. He predicted the fate of Balot and the other demonstrators. "I expect that Toni will go to jail," Quigley said. "I expect that she'll be found guilty and will be sent to jail for at least three months."
Balot was well-versed in Quigley's legal projections on the cold, bright protest morning of Sunday, Nov. 17, 2002, at Fort Benning. When the crowd of protestors surged toward the gate, a few walked along the chain-link fence. Balot and 84 others went about 100 yards to a hole in the fence that had been cut open with wire-cutters, and there they entered the base.
"The MPs were waiting for us," Balot recalls. "They loaded us up in busses, and drove us across the base to a building -- a big, hangar-type building. It had cement-block walls and a cement floor. 'Don't turn your head!' they shouted as we were lined up.
"Then we stood there, waiting. They stripped us down to one layer of clothes, getting our 'Close the SOA' T-shirts off before our mug shots. The processing, fingerprints, mug shots, took hours. When they got a busload of us ready, they contacted the county jail."
Balot and Quigley say that last year was the first time that the detainees were all sent to the Muscogee County Jail. Inside, Balot says, the 40 women in the group were held in one room that had been prepared for the expected protestors. Of the entire experience, Balot says, she most remembers the camaraderie.
"We were brought in groups of 10," she says. "We were given a blanket, a sheet and dressed in orange jumpsuits. We were freezing. We would tell each other stories and get warmed up and ready for bed, when another group of 10 would come through and we'd get up and meet the latest group and hear their story."
Balot also remembers hearing drums, as the vigil overnight outside included samba drum circles and a giant puppet. Egan paid $500 -- the 10 percent required of Balot's $5,000 bail -- and Balot was the first one released from the group after being held overnight.
"I went outside the jail, and I'll never forget the feeling of walking out of that prison gate," Balot says. "Here I am, I thought, in this strange place, no money, a bag of clothes in my hand, and I couldn't figure out where I was. I heard my name, but couldn't figure out where it was coming from. Then I heard all this cheering, and I knew they were all there for me."
The demands of SOA Watch are simple: the school should close, with no program to replace it instituted until the completion of a bipartisan congressional investigation. Last fall, Amnesty International endorsed the SOA Watch position for the first time, and then went two steps further in demanding a public apology by the U.S. government and reparations for the families of the victims. Army officials contend that the School of the Americas is closed, and although the Army concedes no connection between the school's training and any murders committed by its graduates, it says the WHISC is an entirely new program with a focus on human rights and democracy.
The constant through the years of controversy is Father Roy Bourgeois. A native of Lutcher, a small riverside town in St. James Parish, Bourgeois, 62, graduated from Lutcher High School, where he was a multi-sport athlete who excelled in football. He attended the University of Southwestern Louisiana and earned a degree in geology, "hoping to get rich in the oil fields of South America." Instead, Bourgeois says, he embarked on a path that eventually took him to Vietnam as a volunteer in the U.S. Navy. There, he found the calling that took him to his current home: a tiny apartment at the foot of Fort Benning.
Apartment No. 1 off Fort Benning Road is similar to the other units in this horseshoe-shaped complex, except for a front step that is accented with a statue of St. Francis of Assisi and a red stone painted with a white dove. The other major difference is its occupant: all of Bourgeois' neighbors are military personnel.
Inside, sipping coffee from a Tabasco mug, Bourgeois can see the huge American flag that marks the base's entrance. Behind Bourgeois, a small bookcase is filled with works on Buddha, Ghandi and Gustavo Gutierrez, along with titles such as The Chomsky Reader. Pictures from past SOA protests include a shot of actor Martin Sheen holding a white cross.
"In the months leading up to Vietnam, we knew we were going to war," Bourgeois says. "Being the patriotic young man that I was, I volunteered. I said, 'Let's go get 'em.' ... I believed our cause was a noble one. The violence, the suffering, the death, it all really began to change me."
Bourgeois found inspiration in Father Lucienne Olivier, a Canadian priest taking care of hundreds of orphans in a nearby village. "I saw him as a healer, a peacemaker," he says. "I saw that, and I said, 'That's what I want to do with my life.' I want to heal."
This decision led to Bourgeois being ordained as a priest in the Maryknoll Order. He was assigned to mission work in Bolivia, where he says, "I learned about U.S. foreign policy first-hand." In a slum village in Bolivia for five years, he survived typhoid and other threats, including, he says, the corrupt rule of Gen. Hugo Banzar, a graduate of the School of Americas who was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame in 1988. Bourgeois was eventually deported from Bolivia by the government for "meddling in internal affairs as a foreigner," in the wake of a crackdown on opposition to the government.
Back home, the March 24, 1980 assassination of Bishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador and the rapes and murders of three American nuns in that country prompted Bourgeois to start researching American involvement in Central America. In 1983, he says, 527 soldiers from El Salvador came to Fort Benning for training. "That's when I came to Fort Benning to protest," he says.
In August 1983, Bourgeois, along with two others, dressed in high-ranking officer uniforms, drove onto the base with a pass provided by a civilian employee. Equipped with tree-climbing shoes and a stereo, Bourgeois walked five miles into the expansive base to the barracks housing the soldiers from El Salvador. The trio climbed high in the pine trees and blared, in Spanish, a tape from Bishop Romero's Mass denouncing the military in El Salvador's crimes. The troops rushed out with flashing lights and barking dogs, threatening to shoot the trio down. Bourgeois would eventually stand trial in U.S. District Court in Columbus three times, serving a total of four years.
"Civil disobedience isn't for everybody," Bourgeois says. "Prison is very hard. It is not a nice place. But we learned something important in those early days. I learned it could be a sacred place."
Bourgeois has watched the SOA protest movement grow to national prominence, and he counts a few victories along the way. In 1996, the Pentagon declassified an SOA manual that documented the instruction of torture and execution methods at the school. A national uproar ensued, with editorials in papers such as the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution all calling for the school's closure. In 1999, a House of Representatives vote to close the school lost by 30 votes. In 2001, the Congress voted to close SOA and open WHISC. Government funding provides WHISC with an annual operation budget of $5.9 million.
"Nobody's being fooled," says Bourgeois. "This school provides the muscle for U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. To protect the economic interests of these large corporations, to keep the sweat shops open. You can't do that without the men and the guns."
Bourgeois admits the dynamics of the SOA debate changed following Sept. 11, 2001. Shortly after 9/11, then-Fort Benning commander Maj. Gen. John M. LeMoyne called Bourgeois to request that the group no longer protest due to security issues. Bourgeois refused. Then, in the days immediately following the terrorist attacks, former Columbus Mayor Bobby Peters asked Bourgeois to not protest "out of respect for the victims" of 9/11. Bourgeois replied that it would be un-American not to protest.
The matter was contested in U.S. District Court before Judge Faircloth. The city had refused to grant permits required to protest outside Fort Benning, which would have forced the protest's relocation to Golden Park, a former baseball stadium in downtown Columbus. Faircloth ruled in favor of the group's right to protest at the base, citing the Constitutional right to peaceably assemble. The case was "the first high-profile showdown" over civil liberties following the passage of the PATRIOT Act in 2001, said Atlanta's alternative weekly newspaper, Creative Loafing.
"The whole issue of terrorism and the national debate surrounding it has only brought more people into the issue," says Bourgeois. "We say that if you're worried about terrorist training camps in far-off Afghanistan, why not start worrying about one in our backyard here at Fort Benning?"
The first and only head of WHISC, Col. Richard Downie, assumed leadership of the institute on the day it opened, Jan. 17, 2001. Downie brought to his post a background that includes a Ph.D. in Latin American Studies from the University of Southern California, with a stint as a U.S. Department of Defense attaché in Mexico City. He says that the School of the Americas and the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation are two separate entities. "[SOA's] mission was complete," Downie says, adding that the school's closure was the result of political pressure, though "no official reason was given."
"The School of the Americas was focused on the challenges of the last century," Downie explains. "Our mandate is to focus on the 21st century, the things we must focus on now. We aren't faced with conventional wars anymore. We now focus on inter-agency operations that combine police and military forces as well as civilians in areas of anti-terrorism, natural disasters, counter-drug efforts, peace-keeping and natural disasters."
Downie says there is "some overlap" in courses taught at SOA and now WHISC, but that one common trait between the two is that everything taught is rooted in American values. "No matter what we teach, or what the SOA taught, they are taught using U.S. doctrine. Our system within the military provides the information for the courses. We don't make up a doctrine, we teach it."
The mission of WHISC is "teaching democracy, the respect of law," Downie says. The Congressional order opening the institute, House Resolution 5408, requires eight hours of human rights courses in a total offering of 24 courses that range from field operations, engineering, leadership training and professional development. Credits for undergraduate and graduate work are available, along with language labs and classes open to American civilians and students.
The WHISC currently has 1,400 students, with the largest number, 297, coming from Colombia, the Latin American country currently receiving the largest amount of foreign aid from the United States and a key ally in the war on drugs. After Colombia, the largest representation comes from Chile, El Salvador and Ecuador.
Downie denies charges by the SOA Watch of the school's role in murders committed by SOA graduates. Protesters often cite the school's most infamous graduates, including Panama's convicted drug-dealing dictator Manuel Noriega (class of 1965 and 1967) and El Salvador death-squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson (class of 1972). "The SOA had 12 investigations, and none of them found anything," Downie says. "A graduate could have been here 20, 30 years ago, and could have, after coming here and attending a three- or four-week course, gone home and committed a heinous act, a human rights violation. The way [SOA protestors] present it, you don't realize that it is the kind of behavior that was routine in their country. They were socialized into believing it was OK. The SOA, from what I understand, was trying to teach against that thinking, that you don't gain support by abusing people."
Much of the SOA's past is shrouded in secrecy, but WHISC opened with a policy of access, Downie says. In early November, Columbus State University sponsored a debate between Downie and Bourgeois. For the past two years, WHISC has held an open house during the annual protest weekend, this past year drawing roughly 350 visitors.
"It was interesting to have some dialogue out in public," Downie says of his debate with Bourgeois. "When people do come see us, they say, 'That's the torture school,' or 'That's the school for dictators.' But when they see we're teaching human rights, the rule of law, they're surprised. If SOA Watch people were objective enough to see this, they would be proud of what we're doing."
Providing defense on a pro bono basis for the entire SOA 85, as he did in 2002 for that year's 43 defendants, Bill Quigley is busy in the weeks leading up to Jan. 27. With his clients spread out across the country, he created an email listserv and posted information on his Loyola University Web site (www.loyno.edu/~gwlong) to answer client questions. He says Loyola "is very supportive of me," citing the Jesuits' staunch support of the cause.
"This is lawyering at the improv," Quigley joked in his office at the Loyola Law Clinic, stopping for an interview in early January. Behind his desk is a backdrop of protest posters; Quigley is frequently seen on several social justice fronts, including the proposed $1 increase on minimum wage and protests against a possible war in Iraq, a country he visited in December.
During the SOA 85's arraignment in November, Quigley contested each defendant's bail, saying there was no legal cause. "Essentially what the law says is that you should be released on your own recognizance unless you're a threat to society or a flight risk," Quigley says. "If you don't release a 75-year-old nun for essentially the least crime on the federal law books, then who do you release? It was a conscious thing by the judge. He raised the price of admission to make people think about it more."
In January, Quigley filed motions to secure a jury trial and to recuse Judge Faircloth on a number of grounds including "the judge's own political views regarding the School of Americas/WHISC." Both motions were denied.
But Quigley is aware of the larger role he serves in the cause. "I create some legal space in the proceedings so they can make whatever statements they want to make; some try to make the government prove every aspect of the case. Most explain why they consider themselves not guilty after admitting they trespassed onto the base, evoking defenses of international law or the Nuremberg Defense, where you say, 'Yes, I did break the law, but it was for a higher good.' Judge Faircloth ruled against that last year, and will probably do the same this year."
Temperatures were hovering just below freezing on the morning of Monday, Jan. 27, as a crowd gathered in front of U.S. District Court in downtown Columbus. The dichotomy of SOA Watch became readily apparent, with unkempt college-age kids puffing cigarettes alongside conservatively dressed senior citizens. One man wore a white sheet as a cape, with the face of Jesus Christ painted across the back and the inscription "Love Your Enemies." Signs proclaimed "New Name, Same Shame," "Close it Now!" and "WOW -- Women Against War."
Shortly after 8 a.m., a white truck idled past. A heavy-set man sporting a thick white beard and camouflage hat leaned from his window facing the sidewalk scene and screamed in a thick Georgia accent, "Hang 'em all! Hang 'em all!"
With 185,000 citizens, Columbus is Georgia's third-largest city; it boasts three Fortune 500 companies, but the primary employer is Fort Benning. The town was founded on the textile industry; mills powered with hydro-energy from waterfalls marked Georgia's "Fall Line," a geographic border across the state marking a transition from the hilly piedmont to coastal plains. A U.S. Marshal explained to parents in town from upstate New York for their daughter's trial that Columbus "is a big small town."
The U.S. Marshals, most of them here from the larger Atlanta office to support the two-man Columbus team, guarded the front doors. Half of the SOA 85 will be tried in groupings of six over three days, with the remainder tried over three days starting Feb. 10. The numbers of parents and supporters far exceeded the third-floor courtroom's capacity, and U.S. Marshals worked with SOA Watch representative Briana Binker-Dale to make sure that family members were given admission.
The sleek, modern courtroom is marked with a quote from Georgia native and former President Jimmy Carter -- "There is but One Law for All -- The Law of Humanity and Justice" -- written in large, gold letters across one wall.
When Balot's group of six was brought up late in the afternoon, the courtroom was filled to capacity. Balot entered a plea of not guilty and took the stand. She had received copies of past statements from SOA Watch, and made several drafts of what she wanted to say before sentencing.
She was on the stand for no more than 10 minutes, reading from a sheet of paper, her voice steady. "Your Honor, I feel very humbled and honored today to be called by you to face the consequences for having trespassed onto the grounds of Fort Benning," she began. "I committed this crime to support my Latin American brothers and sisters."
Balot added her belief that "the SOA must be closed," and then reached her conclusion: "Having said this, Your Honor, I stand before you, ready to pay the consequences for my crime as a prisoner of conscience, with the cell as my monastery and jail as the site of my apostolate. Naive? Perhaps. Christ-like? I dare to hope so."
Balot stepped down from the stand. She faced Judge Faircloth, an imposing figure and former University of Tennessee football player. He paused before speaking and the courtroom fell momentarily silent. "Your statement wasn't wasted on me as a challenge," he told her. "You've made an eloquent statement for your reason for violating the law, but you've violated the law nonetheless." He found Balot guilty, and sentenced her to "90 days incarcerated in federal prison," and no fine.
The next day, Balot met with a probation officer in Columbus, filling out paperwork in anticipation of an assignment from the Bureau of Prisons, which is expected to arrive before the end of March. The law stipulates placement close to home; Balot and Quigley guess either Fort Worth, Texas, or Marianna, Fla. After meeting with the probation officer, Balot returned outside the courthouse to lend her support to the other protesters.
Standing on a cold sidewalk, Balot reflected on her trial and anticipated her sentence. She'll miss her grandchildren, but has no regrets. "Yesterday," she said, "was the greatest day of my life."