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Sister of Mercy

What's on Mary Kay Flanigan's mind as she heads for jail



Sister of Mercy

What's on Mary Kay Flanigan's mind as she heads for jail.

By Sridhar Pappu

"Do you want to see the letter?" says Sister Mary Kay Flanigan, and then smiles--smiles in a way that makes you want to believe that the piece of paper she's left the room for says something optimistic about life.

What she comes back with, though, is a letter dated March 4, 1998, from the United States District Court in Georgia. It reads:

"This is to advise you that we have received notification from the Bureau of Prisons of the location...of your sentence.

"For service of this sentence, you are instructed to report to the FCI later than 2:00 p.m., on March 23, 1998."

"They're very specific about reporting before two," Flanigan says, her smile now gone. "I suppose it's for processing."

In its starkest terms, the reason a 65-year-old Catholic nun is going to federal prison in downstate Pekin, Illinois, is that on November 16, 1997, she and 600 others marched onto the grounds of the Fort Benning army base in Columbus, Georgia, just a year after she had been banned from the base for five years. But in Flanigan's eyes, the reason is something else: In 1989, on the same day in November, 26 soldiers entered a Jesuit household in El Salvador and murdered the six priests who lived there, along with the housekeeper and her daughter. What 19 of the 26 soldiers had in common was this: they'd trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas, run by the United States government first in Panama but since 1984 out of Fort Benning.

Established in 1947, the SOA has trained over 57,000 soldiers from Central and South America in courses that serve, by its own account, "not only to teach combat skills but also the combat support and combat service support skills that are essential requirements for modern military and police forces."

The school can boast of alumni like strongmen Manuel Noriega of Panama and Hugo Banzer of Bolivia. In 1996 an oversight board created in 1993 by President Clinton found that course materials used to teach these "essential requirements" had condoned "executions of guerillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion, and false imprisonment." The Department of Defense declared that until 1991 the school had used Spanish-language manuals that contained material inconsistent with American foreign policy. Defense set out to destroy all copies of the manuals.

"Another function of CI [counterintelligence] agents is recommending CI targets for neutralizing," one of those manuals read. "The CI targets can include personalities, installations, organizations, documents and materials. A CI target is someone or something that could be included in the above categories and could be hostile or not.

"The personality targets prove to be valuable sources of intelligence," it went on to say. "Some examples of these targets are governmental officials, political leaders, and members of the infrastructure."

With the manuals gone, Secretary of Defense William Cohen was free to write Congress in January that "the instruction and training provided by the School of the Americas is fully consistent with the training and doctrine, particularly with respect to the observance of human rights, provided by the Department of Defense."

However, Flanigan and others point to the fact that only four hours of human rights training are mandatory at the school--including a 20-minute slide show, a one-hour video, a one-hour test, and class discussion. They also point to Chiapas, Mexico, where SOA graduates have been accused of orchestrating attempts to derail the Zapatista rebels, including censoring the local media and fostering paramilitary groups to spread fear among Zapatista sympathizers.

In a January letter urging his colleagues in Congress to close the school, Representative Joseph Kennedy cited three SOA alumni, one of them 1980 graduate General Juan Lopez Ortiz--"commander of the 1994 operation in Ocosingo where suspected Zapatista sympathizers were rounded up, placed alongside prisoners, and shot in the town's market."

"I can believe that the torture manual is not in circulation," Flanigan says. "I could believe that. But I also know that those manuals are throughout the world, that they're still being used, and I think Mexico is a big testimony to that.

"In August we spent a couple of days with the Zapatistas in the northern war zone for parts of two days. As part of a Christian peace mission, we went there to get a better understanding of the human rights. I particularly wanted to be close to the Zapatistas, because I think that they have a particular spark and I think that what they're trying to do there is very significant for the whole world. I don't support them in the armed uprising--thank God it only lasted 14 days. But I think it's a replay of Central America. The thumbprint, the footprint, of our government's involvement is there."

Flanigan first visited the School of the Americas during a 1996 protest, but she'd already seen its effect firsthand in Chicago. In the mid-1980s she helped a family of four that had fled El Salvador to seek legal immigrant status. The mother of the family had been a church worker who, in her last days in the country, was handcuffed to her daughter and beaten by government soldiers in the back of a truck before they were able to escape.

The soldiers may not have trained in the SOA, but Flanigan believed that the school had a great deal to do with injecting violence into that time and place.

In November 1996, she and nine others from around Uptown took part in a vigil outside Fort Benning. Some 500 people were there, and among them was a Native American woman sitting alone and silent. She held a sign that moved Flanigan deeply.

"It's all about killing Indians, isn't it?" it read.

Flanigan joined a group of 60 that marched onto the grounds of Fort Benning, hoping to reach the school with small, flimsy crosses bearing the names of the dead--victims of U.S.-inspired violence in places like Honduras and Guatemala.

A quarter of a mile into the grounds--the school would have been a two-mile walk--the group was stopped by military police on grounds that they'd made an unlawful entry and were taking part in partisan political activity--a no-no in an otherwise open base. She expected to go to jail then, perhaps for two months (that's what previous protesters had served), but all she received was a letter banning her from Fort Benning for the next five years.

But she felt she had to come back. The next year Flanigan was part of a group of 40 from Chicago. Two thousand people held a vigil outside the base, and after a Jesuit priest spoke about villages destroyed in Guatemala, 601 of them crossed into Fort Benning in a mock funeral procession. To the beating of drums, the crowd marched carrying eight coffins filled with petitions that bore nearly a million signatures and demanded the closure of the school. They got a little further this time before the military police stopped them.

The police had a list of past offenders, and when Flanigan saw them check her photo identification against it she knew that this time it was serious. That night the 31 repeats thought about what they should do. Most, including Flanigan and Ruth Woodring, another protester from Chicago, intended to plead not guilty and take their chances before a federal judge. But three of them wanted to plead no contest and get on with any prison time they might have to serve. Four months at the most, they believed.

On November 19 a federal magistrate gave the three the maximum sentence: six months in prison and a $3,000 fine.

"That took an adjustment," says Flanigan, of the moment she learned of her friends' sentence. "It took a mind adjustment, a heart adjustment."

She returned to Georgia two months later for a nonjury trial. The government had dropped charges against six protesters, leaving 22 to stand trial.

"The defendants are charged simply and only with unlawful entry," Assistant U.S. Attorney Dixie Morrow said in her opening argument. "We are not here to debate the curriculum or the existence of the School of the Americas."

After a two-day trial, Judge Robert Elliott found the 22 guilty and sentenced each to the same six months in federal prison, with a $3,000 fine.

"He said that he would take away the $3,000 fine if we would sign a paper saying that we would not go back onto the base without permission," Flanigan says. "Not one person signed."

Woodring was ordered to the federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky. She also reported Monday.

Flanigan's days of civil disobedience come at the latter stages of a life marked by great changes. The early part of it was spent in what she refers to as "the hinterlands" of Michigan, the Upper Peninsula. Flanigan's father worked as a machinist before taking over his own father's tavern. Her mother taught school.

When it came time for college, she chose the one in town--Northern Michigan--but transferred to Eastern Michigan after her sophomore year. She worked three years with deaf and hard-of-hearing kids in Flint and then came to Chicago, where in 1959 she earned a master's degree in social work from Loyola.

By 1974, after 15 years of going into poor neighborhoods for the city and looking at child neglect, she knew another change was due. This wasn't the familiar moment when the do-gooder, exhausted by poverty and suffering, decides to give up. Flanigan didn't want to remove herself from this way of life but to become more a part of it.

She wanted simpler things, and she found them in Uptown with the Sisters of Saint Francis. She lived there three years before she formally took her vows at age 44 and became a nun herself. In 1979 she went to work for the Chicago Uptown Ministry--a church and community center--where she helped organize programs for teenage mothers, the elderly, and children after school. In 1991 she left.

"I knew that it was time to make a change," she says. "I think it was different than burnout. I think I needed some time to see what those 12 years meant. Would I be called to stay in the same kind of work? What would be the path for me?"

For a year and a half Flanigan did the farthest thing from her former work that she could find: she packed boxes and stuffed envelopes at suburban factories and began to refocus herself. Then she learned of a Chicago-based organization called the 8th Day Center for Justice that had ties to her order and was devoted to social change through lobbying, workshops, educational programs, and peaceful demonstrations.

"I needed to work for systemic change rather than person by person, family by family," she says of her decision to begin working there. "I think that we need people to do the direct service, but I think also we need to change some of our policies. Like this work to close the School of the Americas is asking our government to change part of their foreign policy. Trying to work for fair and just public welfare is changing policy. Working for women's rights is changing the system's policy. So that's where I felt called to put my energy and effort and heart and soul."

Flanigan knows the next six months will be challenging. "I know it's going to be a big change of lifestyle. I know I'm going to have to be putting down a lot of my work, and I have been putting it down. I'm trying to attend to what will enable me to live peacefully, to be able to enter this without having my shirt in a bundle, really.

"It will be a mutual ministry," she says. "I'm a good listener, I have a presence that I bring, and I will bring those things to the prison. What I'm going to need from the prisoners, the other women prisoners, is to know how the system really works, so I think I'm going to be able to do some things for them and they're going to be able to do some things for me. But I'm really looking at this as a step to do what I can to close the school." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mary Kay Flanigan photo by Chip Williams.

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