Peace Work | Left Field | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published August 28, 2002 at 1:00 a.m.

These aren’t easy times for peace-loving people. We’re approaching the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on our soil. The U.S. military is rebounding from the massive assaults it made on Al Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan. And President Bush is readying the nation for what appears to be round two of the Bush clan’s grudge match with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. War, it seems, is everywhere.

But Palmer Legare, a 22-year-old Cabot resident, isn’t letting the drumbeats of war drown out the voice of his conscience. The Springfield College senior is scheduled to report to federal prison next month to serve a three-month sentence for his nonviolent protest last year at the U.S. military’s School of the Americas (SOA).

Located at Fort Benning, Georgia, the SOA has been a highly controversial training center for Latin American military members, with alums that include General Manuel Noriega, General Pinochet’s inner circle, the killers of Oscar Romero and dozens of other ruthless dictators.

The U.S. Department of Defense refers to the SOA as a military educational center aimed at bringing “stability to Latin America.” Since 1946, when it began in Panama, the center has trained more than 50,000 soldiers in the techniques of repression. In fact, when the Defense Department was recently forced to release information from the top-secret training manuals used at the school, lesson plans were shown to include executions, torture, blackmail and the use of truth serum. In a 1996 article uncovering the ugly truths behind the closed military doors at the SOA, The New York Times soberly concluded that “Americans can now read for themselves some of the noxious lessons the United States Army taught thousands of Latin Americans.”

Last November, Legare and 10,000 other peaceful citizens descended upon Fort Benning for the annual protests against the school and its tactics. The demonstration involved crossing a line onto the property of the military complex — an act of nonviolent civil disobedience for which Legare and 36 other individuals were arrested.

“I didn’t think I’d be prosecuted,” Legare told Seven Days from the campus of Springfield College. “It was my first time, and usually they just prosecute repeat offenders.”

Since his November 2001 arrest, it’s been a long waiting game for Legare and his colleagues; the trial didn’t take place until July. After the guilty verdict and sentencing, he was sent home to await orders about when and where he’d be serving time. Late last week, the papers finally arrived from the federal criminal justice system: Legare is to report to the federal penitentiary in Deven, Massachusetts, by noon on September 10th.

“It’s a very scary time right now in this country,” said Legare. “I’m going to jail for three months for a peaceful protest against militarism, and the executives at Enron are still free and enjoying their mansions and BMWs.”

This is Legare’s second arrest for civil disobedience. His first came in the summer of 2001 in Québec City at the anti-globalization protests. He was not prosecuted. To Legare, anti-globalization and the SOA are intricately connected. “The School of the Americas is the police force for the World Trade Organization, the North American Free Trade Agreement and other economic treaties that hold the poor down,” he says.

Legare tries not to let the apathy of his peers stymie his enthusiasm for activism and social change. “People aren’t born apathetic,” he suggests. “Their parents have something to do with it. And a lot of it has to do with the MTV culture, where people are more interested in shopping than caring about the ramifications of the shopping.”

Listening to this young man speak about his upcoming stint in prison brings to mind one of the most notorious exchanges on civil disobedience — that between Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau was thrown in jail in the mid-1800s for refusing to pay a poll tax in protest against the Mexican-American War. When visited by his friend Emerson, who asked what he was doing behind bars, Thoreau asked a couple questions of his own.

“Are you against the war?” Thoreau asked Emerson.

“Yes,” replied Emerson.

“Then the question is, what are you doing out there?”

Similarly, Legare isn’t seeking praise for his actions — just activist support.

“It’s not hard to get arrested,” he says, “especially in the U.S., where we have the highest incarceration rate on Earth. It’s a lot more difficult to start a dialogue on these issues, build a movement, and put a stop to the injustices being done in our name.”

With regard to the SOA, Legare points to legislation currently in the House of Representatives that would close the school. Currently there are 111 co-sponsors of the House legislation, including Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. In the Senate, however, activists have been unable to find a sponsor of the bill.

The late Rep. Joe Moakley (D-MA) originally spearheaded the legislative efforts against the SOA. Moakley led a congressional investigation of the 1989 killings of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador, which concluded that those responsible for the massacres were trained at the SOA.

As for Legare, he’s not letting three months of incarceration stop his activism or his education. He’s planning to spend his time learning from his fellow inmates, spreading the word about his efforts and — thanks to some cooperative professors — continuing his senior-year courses.

It’s wartime in America, but Palmer Legare isn’t rolling over and playing dead. In fact, he’s doing exactly what Thoreau called on all peaceful dissenters to do when confronted by disagreeable government actions: “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”