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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

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Alice E. Gerard calls prison a small price for her opposition to Latin American atrocities.
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Grand Island peace activist returning to prison

Updated: 03/20/07 6:36 AM

 As a kid, Alice E. Gerard was not afraid to raise her voice when she saw something she felt was wrong.

“When I was 9, I read the New York Times every day, and protecting the environment was my issue. If I saw other kids throwing garbage on the ground, I would yell at them to stop littering, pick it up and throw it away,” the Grand Island woman recalled in a recent interview.

“I guess I’m still that kind of person to this day.”

Now a freelance writer and peace activist, Gerard, 50, is getting ready to serve her third federal prison term for civil disobedience at a controversial government-run military training school at Fort Benning, Ga.

Wednesday, Gerard is scheduled to report to a correctional facility for women in Danbury, Conn. She will serve six months for illegally entering military property during a protest last Nov. 19.

Gerard and 15 other people received federal prison terms for their actions at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, a training school at Fort Benning for police officers, soldiers and government personnel from Latin American countries.

Protesters say personnel trained at the school were later involved in secret killings, kidnappings and human rights atrocities in Latin America. The U.S. government says that it never intentionally trained people to do anything of that sort.

Gerard said she has no regrets about her actions. She said she entered the military base through a hole in a fence and planted a white cross there to memorialize the death of a 105-year-old man she says was killed by a death squad in El Salvador.

Gerard has already served two prison terms — 90 days in 2003 and six months in 2005 — for previous illegal entries at the training school.

An unmarried woman who resides with her parents because she cannot afford to live on her own, Gerard has devoted much of her life to such activities.

“I’m just fine about going to prison. A little nervous, but just fine,” Gerard said. “It’s a very small price for me to pay to bring attention to atrocities and massacres that are going on all the time in Latin America.”

In recent years, the Defense Department has said that it has addressed such issues at the school, adding courses on democracy and human rights, and establishing a board of visitors to monitor activities there.

Thousands of people — including celebrities such as actor Martin Sheen — demonstrate at the institute each November. The annual protests are held to honor six Jesuit priests who were slain by a Salvadoran death squad in November 1989. A housekeeper and her teenage daughter also were killed. The protest group School of the Americas Watch said the death squad included people trained at the Georgia school.

Gerard said she became interested in the training school after traveling to Guatemala in 1987 and becoming close friends with Sister Dianna Ortiz.

“Sister Dianna was kidnapped and brutally tortured by the Guatemalan military, and at least one of the individuals involved had attended the school,” Gerard said.

Gerard has also been arrested at war protests. In January 2003, she and two other activists were arrested for barricading themselves inside an Air Force recruiting office in Buffalo to protest the impending invasion of Iraq. An Erie County judge later dismissed the charges.

In March 2006, she was one of 51 people charged with carrying a coffin into the Pentagon and trying to give it to then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. A judge dropped those charges, too.

Arrests and prison terms will not stop her from trying to focus public attention on the cause of peace, Gerard said.

“What is happening in the Middle East is horrifying and deserves attention. I wish we could find a more productive and less bloody way to end our disputes,” she said. “We pay too much attention to issues like politicians’ sex lives and Anna Nicole Smith.”

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