The War Comes Home

As the War on Terrorism comes home, it trains its sights on an ironically familiar target: those who promote peace.

Case in point: Mark Colville, a pacifist jailed for trespassing at Sikorsky Aircraft in Stratford, CT, protesting the U.S.-backed war on innocent Colombians. As the Colombian military and right-wing paramilitaries—trained and equipped by our government—murder, rape and mutilate their way across the countryside, we Americans hit the snooze button. Colville wants to wake us up. The New Haven activist wants it so much that he willingly got arrested at Sikorsky last December. So much that he turned down a lenient plea bargain, went to trial, attempted to persuade a judge that international law had compelled Colville to trespass in an effort to stop the slaughter. So much that he’s now doing time at Bergin Correctional Institution in Storrs, CT.

If the prosecutor had his way, Colville would spend a year in the clink. For nonviolent trespassing. In the name of peace.

Why?

Evidently because Colville had the gall to suggest, at his trial early this month, a connection and an equivalency between U.S.-sponsored violence in Colombia and Islamic fundamentalist violence here on Sept. 11.

That, and because the prosecutor worried that Colville’s organization, the Catholic Worker Movement—committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty and hospitality for the homeless—might let itself be infiltrated by terrorists who could use anti-war demonstrations as a chance to attack U.S. targets. "I thought he was trouble. Saying that we deserved the bombing," says the prosecutor, Assistant State’s Attorney Donal Collimore, in an interview. "He could violate the law again."

Think Globally, Profit Locally

It didn’t take Sept. 11 to push America’s other war off the front pages. "Plan Colombia" was never in the headlines to begin with.

The U.S. last year agreed to spend $1.3 billion on "Plan Colombia," in the guise of the War on Drugs. Mainly, the U.S. support serves to prop up a corrupt and repressive Colombian government that’s been fighting a civil war for decades. The rebel troops commit plenty of their own brutality. But international human rights organizations say the worst violations are committed by right-wing paramilitaries, doing the work that’s too dirty even for the Colombian army and police.

Thinking globally and profiting locally, Sikorsky Aircraft has a $238 million contract to supply Black Hawk attack helicopters to the Colombian government, financed by us the taxpayers. Connecticut politicians from U.S. Sens. Christopher Dodd and Joe Lieberman to U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro back the contract, and Plan Colombia generally, as sound policy that just happens to mean jobs for voters and profits for a major campaign contributor (Sikorsky’s parent company, Hartford, CT-based United Technologies Corp.).

Colombia Action-Connecticut, of which Mark Colville is a member, holds regular antiwar demonstrations outside Sikorsky’s Stratford plant, hoping to win the attention of employees and drivers on the Merritt Parkway.

On Dec. 6, 2000, Colville and five others tried to hand-deliver a letter to Sikorsky President Dean Borgman. The letter outlined Colombia’s history of human rights abuses and asked how Borgman could justify profiting from them. "Must jobs in Connecticut be purchased with the blood of the poor?" the letter asked. (See box.)

When the six refused to leave Sikorsky property, they were arrested. Five of them accepted a deal that consisted of pleading guilty to an infraction—equivalent to a traffic ticket—and doing six hours’ community service, according to Kevin Wyer, one of the other defendants. But Colville wanted to "confront the issue," Wyer says. So he went to trial.

Small Crimes vs. War Crimes

That was the last chance Colville had to speak for himself until he gets out of prison: Department of Correction officials decline to make him available for an interview. (Not because of his politics; prison bureaucrats routinely make it hard for reporters to get access to inmates.) So this account of the trial, held Nov. 1-2 in state Superior Court in Bridgeport, CT, comes from interviews with three people who were there: Mark Colville’s wife, Luz, Kevin Wyer and prosecutor Donal Collimore.

Mark Colville, charged with criminal trespass and disorderly conduct, represented himself. Judge Thomas Upson heard the case without a jury. Colville tried to present two legal arguments: the necessity defense—a doctrine used mainly in civil disobedience cases, under which it’s permitted to commit a crime in order to prevent a greater crime—and the contention that the Geneva Conventions require citizens to intervene to stop war crimes. Colville’s supporters say the judge refused to allow those defenses and threatened him with contempt the first day. On the second day, they say, he was able to present evidence and arguments about the war in Colombia, including his own recent experiences there.

Prosecutor Collimore objected to those lines of argument as "irrelevant."
"This was a basic criminal trespass case," the prosecutor says. "He was on the property, he was asked to leave, he didn’t leave. An open-and-shut case."

Without criticizing the judge, Collimore suggests that Colville got too much leeway to make his case. The trial "probably lasted a lot longer than it needed to," he says.

Is there ever a place for those defenses?

"Sure," Collimore responds. Asked for an example of when the necessity defense is appropriate, he answers, "the civil rights movement." He won’t explain what distinguishes civil disobedience in protest of racist laws from civil disobedience in protest of U.S.-sponsored brutality abroad. "It’s irrelevant" to the question of criminal trespass, he repeats.

Whose Suffering Counts?

But it was the end of the trial that really bugged the prosecutor.

During his closing statement, Colville read out loud the letter he’d tried to deliver to Borgman at Sikorsky. He also read a letter from a 17-year-old Colombian girl whom he’d met on a recent trip to the country.

In that letter, addressed to "people of the court," Abrizne Gamboa wrote: "I have suffered the effects of war, and it makes me indignant to see what you are wanting to do with an innocent person who only wants to let people know the truth about the Black Hawk helicopters that you build daily in a factory in your country," according to Colville’s translation. She wrote of "the harm these machines cause to human life," mostly to "the poor and the civilian population. ... You don’t suffer hunger, cold and sickness, or the terrorism of the state that we have suffered."

Then came the part that incensed Collimore.

"What you are doing to us, some of your friends and fellow countrymen felt in their own bodies on Sept. 11," Gamboa wrote. "This is a small demonstration of your inventions and your modern technology and the like. ... Can it be that you never considered that by your [weapons-building] economy you were going about knocking things down [in the same way that] the Twin Towers [were knocked down]?"

After hearing that, the prosecutor doubled his recommended sentence, previously six months, to a year.

"I assume [Colville] was adopting her views," Collimore says of Gamboa’s letter. "It was my impression that she was endorsing the bombing of the World Trade Center. Quite frankly, the letter made me sick."

He asked for the longer sentence, he says, because "I thought he was trouble. He had no remorse for what he did at Sikorsky."

Does "saying that we deserved the bombing"—as Collimore interprets Colville’s decision to read the letter—mean that Colville might himself carry out a bombing? "I don’t know," the prosecutor replies.

During the trial, he questioned Colville about what it takes to join the Catholic Worker Movement. The organization, founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, operates 175 communities around the country. Volunteers run soup kitchens, homeless shelters, sober houses, immigrant hospitality.

After learning that Catholic Worker doesn’t do background checks, Collimore asked what would stop a terrorist from infiltrating the movement and then bombing the helicopter factory during a demonstration.

"It’s a possibility," he contends in an interview. "People that are part of this organization, they have criminal records"—like trespassing.

Is he really worried about violence by an anti-war group? "I don’t know if they have a rite of passage," Collimore says. "Anybody who wanted to bomb Sikorsky, if they really wanted to do it, they could just say they adopted the views."

But, he adds, he’s not saying Catholic Worker "as it’s presently constituted" has terrorist leanings.

Judge Upson found Colville guilty of criminal trespass and not guilty of disorderly conduct. The judge ignored Collimore’s recommendation, sentencing Colville instead to 45 days. Luz Colville calls it "a drop in the bucket." She and Wyer say the judge was fair; they don’t think the trial itself was politically motivated.

Nonetheless, the man who would bring peace sits behind bars, silenced for the time being. The man who would make it a crime to question U.S. policy remains free to do his job, prosecuting alleged criminals.

Carole Bass writes for the New Haven Advocate and can be reached at cbass@newhavenadvocate.com.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.