Local Women to Do Prison Time for Protest

By Judith Scherr
Friday April 14, 2006

The gathering at St. Joseph the Worker Church Tuesday morning was a send-off of sorts for Sarah Harper and Cheryl Sommers. The two women had called friends and the media to the church where they intended to speak out in public for the last time before they went to jail for three months. 

Convicted of trespassing at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation—better known by its former name, the School of the Americas—the pair was to surrender their liberty at the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin that afternoon. 

The two arrestees were among 37 at a Ft. Benning, Geo., protest that drew 19,000 people last November calling for the closure of the U.S. army combat school that trains Latin American police and military. Opponents of the school say training manuals released publicly in 1996 demonstrate that the school teaches its graduates torture, extortion, blackmail and targets civilian populations. 

Neither Sommers nor Harper can be called lifetime activists.  

Sommers, 67, is a retired Berkeley elementary school teacher. She was sympathetic to the civil rights and free speech protests of the ‘60s. 

At the time, “I didn’t put myself on the line,” she said. “I didn’t get involved, even though I saw people brutalized.” 

The late Father Bill O’Donnell, a priest at St. Joseph the Worker , inspired Sommers to act. She decided to “cross the line” at the School of the Americas in November to honor O’Donnell, who served prison time for his civil disobedience at the School of the Americas, and, she said, “also because of my feeling of about how our government has taken the lives of people and is still doing it so casually that we would just allow this.”  

With tears in her eyes, Sommers talked about a man she met from Guatemala who had been tortured. 

“He didn’t see sunlight for two years,” she said. “Every time they moved him from prison to prison it was American planes with American pilots.” 

Sommers said she hopes by her action to publicize H.R. 1217, which calls on Congress to suspend operations at the School of the Americas. 

Sarah Harper, 37, of Emeryville, was also going to prison in Dublin. Like Sommers, she hasn’t been a longtime activist. In fact, she joined the military in what she calls “the poverty draft” so she could get an education. She served at Oakland’s Oak Knoll Hospital as an X-ray technician and LVN during the Gulf War and cared for some of the injured military returning home. 

Harper opposes teaching soldiers to act brutally, but she is not against the military. 

“I have nothing against the soldiers,” said Harper, now a member of Veterans for Peace. 

Still, the present state of war concerns her: “It seems like the same things are happening that happened in the first Gulf War.”  

Harper searched for her own way to express her dissent and participated in an earlier demonstration at Fort Benning before committing to do civil disobedience as she did last November. 

“Not everyone can be an astronaut,” she said, “But everyone in their own way and their own time can take a step for social justice.””