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Weekly Alibi Prisoner of Conscience

Judy Bierbaum Is Serving Federal Time for Her Beliefs

By George Gray

AUGUST 14, 2000:  Sooner or later in life, we all accept compromises. We give something up, let's say a bit of our freedom, in order to achieve something else. Whether it be going to school for professional reasons, remaining monogamous in a relationship or what have you. Then, there are those choices that many would consider extreme: enlisting in the military for patriotic reasons, becoming a police officer or joining the priesthood. Albuquerque resident Judy Bierbaum faced that choice and made it. She is willingly handing over her freedom to the federal government as a result of a protest against U.S. involvement in Latin American military affairs.

Bierbaum was arrested for trespassing on U.S. Army property. She was part of a protest against the School of the Americas located at Fort Benning, Georgia. The school is a training facility run by the U.S. Army for military officers from 16 Latin American countries.

Critics of the school refer to it as the "school for dictators." Three graduates of the school have overthrown elected civilian governments in their own countries. One graduate, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, was himself removed by U.S. military forces. Other graduates have been cited in United Nations' reports on human rights abuses and atrocities.

The school has a basic curriculum lasting 47 weeks that covers U.S. Army doctrine. Since 1946, more than 57,000 foreign military officers have taken courses from basic military patrolling to the Command and General Staff Course. The School of the Americas is officially charged by U.S. law with promoting military professionalism, fostering cooperation among the multinational military forces in Latin America, and expanding Latin American armed forces' knowledge of U.S. customs and traditions. Also part of the course load is human rights training. Which Bierbaum finds ironic, since she contends that graduates of the school have been violating the human rights of their people in Latin America.

Also ironic is that Bierbaum was born into a U.S. military family. While she was growing up, she remembers numerous arguments with her family over American involvement in the Vietnam War. She graduated from Sandia High School in Albuquerque and attended the University of New Mexico where she received her undergraduate degree in psychology and her graduate degree in counseling. She has worked for the last 13 years as a clinical therapist at the All Faith's Receiving Home where she works with victims of child sexual abuse.

While Bierbaum was visiting Central America, she became aware of what she perceived as America's involvement in the oppression of natives and how American culture works to keep its people unenlightened about the world. She has returned to Latin America several times to bear witness to conditions there.

"How could I be paying attention to other things," said Bierbaum, "when my biggest concern is how many calories I eat in a day? I have much sadness that that was my biggest concern in the early '80s."

Bierbaum became a member of an oversight group called the School of the Americas Watch, which has sponsored several nonviolent protests against the training facility. She was arrested in November, 1999 for trespassing and violating a previous court order banning her from entering Ft. Benning for five years. The previous court order was the result of a School of the Americas Watch protest in 1997.

Last week, on July 31, she began serving a 90-day sentence at the women's minimum-security facility of the Phoenix Federal Corrections Institute. She was also fined $2,500. She would like to pay the fine in such a way that the money would not go for war purposes.

A few days prior to her incarceration, Bierbaum granted the Alibi an interview.


You will be giving up many things for your beliefs.

I don't know where this is going to take me in my own faith-journey. Because, after all, this is definitely about a faith-journey. I will also be aware of a gift of what it would be like to have my eyes open to a whole new level of oppression in prison. I'm certainly aware of what this will do to the movement to close the school.


Is it worth going to jail for your beliefs?

The very first time that I crossed the line as an act of civil disobedience was when my convictions and my actions matched up.


You've talked about members of our society keeping their heads in the sand.

I know that our culture works to keep us asleep. It's very hard to keep awake in our culture. Look at the media and the advertising in the media. It keeps us distracted. It's very challenging to get any real information. Mainstream media is not going to give you, straight up, what's going on in other parts of the world and what our involvement is. It's about our interests, maintaining our lifestyle. I'd like to believe that if people would start paying attention to this stuff and put two plus two together and they find out that running shoes come as a result of sweatshop labor, they might shop differently. But I might be naive.


You've mentioned America's treatment of other countries. But can you compare our behavior with other countries? For example, after World War II, everybody in Eastern and Central Europe had to learn Russian as a second language.

I can't speak to that comparison. I am well aware of what goes on in other countries. The United States has a Bill of Rights and a constitution. I think we are capable of better behavior. It's about behaving as good as we can, not only in our country, but beyond our borders.


Supporters of the School of the Americas say that for many of these Latin American officers this is the only opportunity they will have to be introduced to the concept of human rights.

You have to look at what is said and what is the reality, what's going on. What is said and what is happening are really different in these countries. And the last thing they need is a stronger military. They have seen devastation, incomprehensible devastation. They need roads. They need schools. They need clinics. Beefing up the military is not what these people need.


Don't these countries have the right to defend themselves?

What are they defending themselves from? It's not from foreign invaders. What they learn in the School of the Americas is counterinsurgency warfare training. They make war against their own people.


Some of these governments are facing guerilla movements that are bent on overthrowing them.

Originally, that was the mission of the School of the Americas. To fight communism. To fight the counterinsurgents. But you have to ask "Who are the counterinsurgents?" Who are the people being targeted in this counterinsurgency warfare? It's labor organizers. It's church people. It's the poor. Those are the people being killed and targeted. That's the problem in Colombia right now. It's a war against the poor.


It's been noted in Colombia and other countries that the peasants are caught between the armed leftist guerillas and the rightist death squads.

That's the point. The peasants are in the middle. It's the poor that suffer. But to arm the military and the paramilitary is not the solution. When the poor speak out, they are targeted by the paramilitaries. That is what is happening in Chiapas, Mexico. They tell us, "Go back to your country and be a voice for us." They know when attention is brought, internationally, that there is some protection from the military and the paramilitary. And when more people become informed and start looking at what is going on, beyond what you are given in mainline media, there might be change. You have to go out of your way to find information. It is not given to you on a silver platter because there are interests at stake. If people really know, it would change how we buy things. It would change how we live in our consumer culture.


People would choose communist ideology to oppose these oppressive regimes. This alienates many Americans. Do you have to be a communist in order to oppose these dictatorships?

What do you mean by communism? If it's sharing, redistributing the land more justly, is that what you mean by communism? People are labeled communists for calling for human rights. It's about calling for a just society, so it's not a ton of wealth in the hands of the few.


The purpose of prison is to punish and change somebody's behavior. Will prison deter you from future action?

I am not a good candidate for rehabilitation. I know the cost of being asleep. The more I let truth come through and the more I am aware of what is going on and my culpability in that as an American citizen, I will take action. And if that means being back on Ft. Benning soil, I will do it.


Is there anything you wish to add?
On this journey, I have encountered people who would blatantly call me a communist. And I have been called unpatriotic. My response to that is I consider myself an American and I am patriotic. Our country is capable of much more decent behavior. And it is about finding ways of behaving that are honorable as to who we are as a country and to extend that not only within our own borders but outside our borders. It's about sharing. We can't live in this place of greed and excessive consumption in our culture and not think that it does not have consequences for other cultures.


POSTSCRIPT

On the same day that Judy Bierbaum began serving her 90-day sentence, eight members of the School of the Americas Watch were arrested in Philadelphia during protests held at the Republican Convention for blocking a main thoroughfare during the early morning rush hour. To symbolize a Latin American massacre by the U.S. trained military, the protesters laid in the street covered with fake blood. They were dragged to a waiting bus by the police.

One of those arrested said, "We will do whatever it takes to get our message out. If that means sitting in jail for a couple of days, then that is just what it means."

The Web site for the School of the Americas Watch is www.soaw.org.

The Web site for the School of the Americas is www.benning.army.mil/usarsa.


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