Interview with Dwight Lawton by Connie Furdeck
Man arrested at School of Americas prepares to serve 6-month sentence
Dwight is a tall, neatly dressed retiree of 67. His demeanor and appearance suggest mainstream USA. I talked to him Feb. 7, 1998 before his six month incarceration by the U.S. government for trespassing during a protest demonstration of the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, GA.
I suppose the first thing to ask - Why, in heaven's name, would a personable gentleman of retirement age, put yourself in a situation where you now face a six month jail term?
"About 4 years ago I got on someone's mailing list. This Dorothy Brownell of the Grandmothers for Peace started writing me about what was going on at the School of the Americas, how the U.S. is training Latin-American military officers and how they were returning to their countries and being used to suppress the populations, particularly the native indigenous peoples - because these people were standing up for their rights, their land was being taken over by wealthy people and corporations. When they stood up for their rights, they were being tortured and murdered."
And you say that this woman was blaming the School?
"Yes, and she was sending me materials from the School of America's Watch - originally organized by Father Ray Bougois, who had served in Latin America and saw what was going on. They had been protesting the School and were going around the country informing people and organizing rallies and demonstrations against it."
Was there any other proof that this School is responsible for the atrocities?
"The United Nations and other organizations have made numerous reports citing the numbers of School of Americas' graduates involved in beatings, assassinations, and murders of union leaders, social workers, priests and nuns, indigenous people etc. The School of the Americas is actually a perk for military people aspiring to rise to become colonels and generals in their various countries of Latin America. It isn't as if they acquired all their brutality at the School. Before enrolling, they had already proved that they were willing to suppress their people, - to murder and torture in order to support the existing governments. It is all involved in what they perceive as stability. How to keep the status quo - and, of course, the United states was interested in that. It makes a good situation for our investments. U.S. companies go down there and operate their businesses in these Latin American communities."
So you, yourself, have made some connections between U.S. corporate needs for stability and the setting up of institutions such as the School of Americas?
"Sure. I immediately saw the connection from my area of concern which is, and was, the farmworkers here in the U.S."
You've been helping out farmworkers here in Florida?
"Yes - and when I learned about the School, I said, - 'Hey, wait a minute. We don't have the military murdering people here, but we have all the other elements - the suppression, keeping them as second class citizens and denying them the rights of other citizens - including the right of dissent.'"
Let me get back to you for a moment. I understand you grew up and lived in the North, -in Philadelphia. Have you always been a concerned, dedicated person actively helping others ?
"No never! I was what I call a reforming capitalist."
You, a capitalist? Did you work for the companies or did you own them?
"Both. Mostly I worked for them but I also I owned them. I owned or worked in the truck leasing business for years."
So you 've been on the other side of the class struggle and have another perspective of the economy?
"Actually I was on the other side during most of my working life. There were many occasions when I had to negotiate contracts with machinists and teachers and others. Then I came to St. Petersburg and fell into a den of social justice people and that opened my eyes. I began to see things that I never saw before - like the people down here that speak up for the marginalized people, for the people that are discriminated against in many ways, racially, culturally, economically. I started to question and to read."
So coming from this perspective, it is easy for you to understand why a great deal of America is unable to relate to people like the farmworkers?
"That's right. I remember how I was. I know the techniques they use to maintain control. I know what is done because I worked in that climate - and I try to use my experiences to get others to understand the problems - like getting the farm owners to negotiate with their employees."
You know when you think about it, capitalism goes against almost every ideal we are brought up with. The majority of us are given a set of values like the Ten Commandments. We are taught to love our neighbor. But underlying every stage of our lives, the capitalist value system is forced on us. From the time we enter kindergarten and begin to interact with others, throughout adulthood and our work lives, we are pushed to compete, to climb over each other, to fight for success and to look only at our own wants and desires!
"That is absolutely true. But sometimes things happen in our lives that allows us to look beyond our individual needs and think about the plight of others. In other words, we grow up and get a broader view of life."
Yes, and today, most people don't think about how necessary each of us is to the scheme of things - each doing a necessary job that enables us to live. How well would society eat, for example, if it weren't for the "lowly" farm workers? You know Marx in the nineteenth century spoke a lot about class, but he wasn 't the only one. Working people at that time were very aware of their class and their common interests.
"I see that now, but I didn't earlier on. You don't see that in business. First of all when you begin, you go into the military right out of college like I did - because I had to go. It's a very hierarchical, bureaucratic thing. You don't like the regimentation, but when you come out of there and go into the business world, you find a similar Situation. They don't have uniforms, but it's another hierarchy."
Yes, and as a manager, you get tagged with a label and are referred to as middle class, wheras you 're really an relatively high-paid worker. You look at yourself as being apart from the rest of the workers and as having different interests. Of course when a strike occurs, management sides with the capitalists. When it performs the striker's job, it is, in effect, scabbing.
"Yes. That's very true."
So, I take it that your involvement with the farmworkers and other activities have lead you to question the way society is organized, the hierarchy etc. ?
"Actually, as I look back at my earlier working years, I always felt that it was the workers that created the wealth. But I also always saw that this system gives the biggest rewards to those on top, or on my level. And the institutions and even the church I went to accepted the status quo and discouraged questions."
Do you think that most managers and highly skilled workers have had their sense of humanity and justice stamped out of them and are only interested in themselves?
"No, not really. I think a lot of it is fear-related, because you have a family and responsibilities - and the competitiveness of our society - and peer pressures. It takes a lot of courage. I don't know if I could do what I'm doing, today, if I still had young children."
...Now let's get back to your impending jail sentence. It seems like kind of a harsh penalty. What is it exactly that you did at the School of the Americas?
"Well, this was not my first time there. I first went in November of 1996, a vigil of remembrance of the massacre of 7 priests in El Salvador. It is always in November. I joined about 50 others carrying crosses with the names of people that had been killed by the School's assassins all over Latin America and we got arrested. We got in past the gates, about a quarter of a mile up the road and they picked us up in busses and took us to an M.P. station where they get your name and process you. Shortly after that, you get a ban-and-bar letter from the commandant of the base. You are warned not to come back for a period of five years. The second time, for which I have the jail sentence, was November 1997. This time 601 of us crossed to the inside."
601 people compared to 50?
"Yes and there were over 2000 people at the gates. Of course, there was very little news coverage of it especially here in Florida."
Now, of the 601 that trespassed, how many got jail sentences like you?
"There were thirty-one of us that were second-time offenders. Of the thirty-one, three agreed to plead no contest and that put them before the magistrate but it didn't do them any good, because even though they backed down, they got the same sentence that we did, six months in jail and a three thousand dollar fine. That's when the rest of us realized how strong the penalty would be."
So you faced the judge -presumably with your own lawyer?
"Yes, we had the ACLU to help us, actually three of them because of the size of the group. So the balance of twenty-eight came back for the trial, January 21, 1998. There was no jury."
"I found out later why that is. Evidentially the judge can control that. If the sentencing is six months or less the judge has discretion to hear it himself. If the prosecuting attorney is trying to get more than six months, they have to impanel a jury."
Oh, isn't that shrewd. So, they just go for the six months because they know a jury might be sympathetic to your aims.
Do you suppose this is the way it's done all over the U.S. - incarcerating people like conscientious objectors without a trial of their peers?
"I do not know enough about the law to assess that. But it would seem to be true. This was a federal court. Anyway, the judge listened to our stories about why we were motivated to do what we did, why this was a matter of conscience. Of course, the team of prosecutors kept objecting that this was not the issue - and that's the way he ruled. The protestors that were found guilty come from all over the U.S. and three, from Florida - Rita Lucy from Orlando, Mary Earley from the Palm Beach Area, and myself. We all got jail sentences."
So you feel you would have been jailed no matter what?
"Listen, the judge was this Bob Elliot. He's 89 years old and was appointed by Kennedy - but he is anti-Catholic and a racist. He was active in politics and led the walkout of the 1964 Democratic Convention when they tried to put the plank in for Civil Rights. He obviously hasn't changed. Time after time, civil rights people have appeared in his court and have been convicted - including Martin Luther King. So we knew what we were up against. They call him Maximum Bob - and none of us were surprised with our sentences."
Is there anything more you would like to say to our readers?
"Yes, - it is just that what I learned as a kid - that there are these checks and balances between the three branches of our government, doesn't exist. The executive, legislative and legal are all aligned with the owners of the country. We have to be aware of how the system is working - it just reinforces what your readers will already know. I have now seen it personally. After the sentencing I was able to talk to the judge. I said I knew that no matter what defense we would put forth, we were still going to be punished. 1 told him-'You are afraid to acquit us. You and the prosecuting team are afraid that if this kind of activity continues - as it will - your class is going to lose control. You know, this is an outrageous charge. I shouldn't even be here for doing something like this. The trespass is just a cover-up. You don't want us to speak out. Dissent is a guarantee in the Bill of Rights - peaceful assembly and dissent.'" Finally I said that I did not hate him. I told him, 'I'm angry, but I know you're afraid.'"
Maybe Dwight, it's that we hate what the man stands for, we hate a system that makes him this way?
"Yeah, that's it. You know at the end of the trial, a really poignant thing happened. You know when they say, 'All rise' when the judge finishes and leaves the Court? The audience, many of which were our supporters, started humming We Shall Overcome. The bailiffs were starting to clear the court and the prosecutors were picking up their papers. They started looking around because the humming was barely audible. Then the humming got louder and we started to sing. The prosecutor went rigid. You got to know they hate to prosecute these things where there is so much compassion--so much conscience. She was visibly moved. You could tell."
So, if you had to do it again, I take it you would "trespass" again?
"Sure, I knew from the first ban-and-bar letter what I would face. All of us knew. I may be making a sacrifice. I'm giving up six months of my life. But, it's nothing to what others who were sentenced have done. Some of them are poor or have jobs they are going to lose. They have sacrificed all their lives working with the poor, whereas I am retired and comparatively well off. For example this twenty-four year old girl from Chicago spoke up, 'Judge! How do you come to your decision?' He hemmed and hawed and said, 'Well, this is to stop you from coming back--to penalize you.' And she said, 'I'ma Catholic worker. I took a vow of poverty. She said, 'You see these clothes? I get them out of dumpsters.' There is no way he could really penalize her is what she was really telling him!"
Dwight is currently serving out his sentence in Jesup, GA. Prisoner #88103-020, FCI Jesup, 2600 Highway 301 South, Jesup GA 31599.
A version of this article originally appeared in the New Unionist. Subscriptions are $5 a year to New Unionist, 2309 Nicollet Ave., Suite 202, Minneapolis, MN 55404.
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