Carole Bass

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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.

Separation of Church and Scouts

Dave Trull is a man on the brink. After 18 years as scoutmaster of the Boy Scout troop he grew up in, the troop in which he earned his Eagle badge, Trull sees a longstanding Scouting relationship on the verge of a very unhappy ending. It's tearing him up. And it's all because of the Boy Scouts' national ban on gay Scouts and leaders.

"I'm trying not to take it personally," he says. But "of course you do. I'm hoping that ... they'll measure their disapproval with some temperance and tolerance, and say, 'Some things we're gonna do because it's good for the youth.'"

Trull isn't gay. It's not the Boy Scouts of America that will soon decide whether to sever ties with him. It's the Unitarian Society of Fairhaven, Mass. -- the church that has sponsored Trull's Troop 55 for nearly 60 years.

Across the country, congregations and families are wrestling with the clash between their egalitarian religious values and their attachment to the Boy Scouts. The clash became clearer in June, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it's OK for the Scouts to discriminate. But how to resolve the moral conflict is not so clear to many who are wrestling with it. So while the Fairhaven congregation and another Boston-area Unitarian church will probably kick their Scouts out unless the local Scout leaders sign nondiscrimination pledges, other congregations have decided to let their troops stay, at least for now.

Church leaders praise Trull's hard work and integrity. "He's a wonderful person," says past president Debbie Mitchell, who has spent two years trying to salvage the relationship. "I'm very certain he would never discriminate against anyone. However, he doesn't really have the backing of the Boy Scouts."

So, after years of soul-searching and intense negotiations, Mitchell has decided she can no longer abide BSA's discrimination. She believes her 200-member congregation will agree when it comes to a vote in January -- although she's not sure.

"I think because there's tremendous history and tradition, people feel somehow there'll be a miracle resolution," Mitchell says.

"There are people in the church who say, 'Why are we pushing this? This isn't what the church is about,'" adds the interim minister, Judith Downing. "It is what the church is about. We're not living our faith."

Hate-mongers like "Dr." Laura cite Bible verses to prop up their claim that homosexuality is sinful. But there's another view on homosexuality -- another religious view, another Judeo-Christian view. In that view, we are all created in God's image. We all have equal intrinsic value, a gift from our creator. Sexual orientation -- which, according to most current scientific thinking, is largely influenced by genetics -- has no bearing on our worth as human beings or as religious people. Or as Boy Scouts or scoutmasters.

For Mitchell and Downing, the Scouts' ban on gays isn't simply a matter of civil rights -- accent on civil. It's also a matter of deeply held religious conviction. Theirs is a Welcoming Congregation -- one that has formally declared itself open to all, regardless of sexual orientation. The civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s was rooted in Judeo-Christian ideals of universal love, respect and freedom. For some people, so are gay rights.

Which Side Are You On?

The fledgling churches-vs.-Scouts struggle raises many of the same questions as have the struggles for gay rights within mainstream Protestant denominations themselves.

Does anti-gay discrimination outweigh the overall good of an institution that means so much to so many -- including gay people?

Which is more important: an autocratic but distant national body, or the good work of a local organization that tacitly ignores the offending national policy (as many Scout troops do)?

Does principle require breaking with a discriminatory organization, or is it equally principled to fight for change from within?

Then there's the tactical question: Which is more effective, pressure from within or pressure from outside?

People don't always answer these questions the way you might expect. At this point, even in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, the majority opinion -- even among some gay Scouts and ex-Scouts -- seems to be to stick with it and work for change.

Unitarians are in the forefront of this brewing battle, spurred by a years-old dispute between their national organization and the Texas-based Boy Scouts of America. But they're not alone.

The national Episcopal Church this summer passed a resolution urging congregations to "dialogue" with local Scout leaders on the issue. The United Church of Christ asked BSA years ago to drop its ban, and now some UCC churches are re-examining their Scouting ties. The United Methodist Church, which sponsors more Scouts than any other religious denomination, is split right down the middle: Its men's group backed BSA in the Supreme Court case. Its board of church and society supported the ex-assistant Scoutmaster who was kicked out for being gay and sued to be reinstated. So did Judaism's Reform and Reconstructionist movements and a national Quaker organization. Just last month in Minnesota, an Episcopal school dropped its Boy Scout troop sponsorship and a rabbi preached against the Scout policy in his Rosh Hashanah sermon. Scouting for All, a national organization dedicated to ending the Boy Scouts' discrimination, has the support of a number of religious organizations.

The number of UU-sponsored Boy Scout troops is tiny -- no more than 30 across the country, by most estimates. Even Episcopal and UCC congregations account for only about 1,400 Scout units and some 50,000 Scouts per denomination, according to 1998 statistics on an unofficial but comprehensive gays-and-Scouting Web site (www.sir.home.texas.net). And BSA has some heavy-hitting religious denominations on its side -- especially the Mormon and Catholic churches, which between them sponsored more than 760,000 Scouts in about 41,000 units in 1998. The Mormon church has said it will pull out of Scouting if BSA changes its policy.

Still, because Scouting is so intertwined with churches -- religious organizations sponsored 55 percent of Scouts and 61 percent of units in '98 -- the pressure of liberal and moderate denominations could start to add up.

Jef Reilly, a Dallas public relations professional hired as a BSA spokesman, sounds unconcerned about losing liberal church sponsors. "We'd love to have an amiable situation with all churches," he says. "But we respect the churches' right to associate or disassociate with whichever organizations they choose. We're seeing a lot of the traditional families supporting us."

While the national leaders spar, individual congregations and families across the country are trying to figure out what to do. Here are some of their stories.

"Time for a Change"

The scout troop is not just another building user; it is part and parcel of the church organization. The Supreme Court has ruled that the BSA may discriminate as it is a 'private religious organization.' This is just appearing more and more as an irreconciliable difference in the values of two private religious organizations. Isn't it time for a change?

It wasn't someone from the Unitarian Society of Fairhaven who wrote that message. But it might have been. The message was posted on UU-Scouting, an e-mail listserve devoted to discussion of the fit and discomfiture between Unitarian Universalism -- UUism, as its practitioners call it -- and the Boy Scouts. Much of the discussion revolves around the Scouts' ban on gays.

It's no surprise that UUs are the first mainstream religious group to come into open conflict with the Boy Scouts of America. A self-described "liberal religion" with "historical roots in the Jewish and Christian traditions," Unitarian Universalism has no creed, or statement of required belief, and each of its 1,050 congregations is self-governing. "We believe that ... religious authority lies not in a book or person or institution, but in ourselves," says the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Boston-based national organization. North America's 217,000 UUs include not only Christians but Jews and Buddhists, agnostics and atheists.

As in many other religions, Unitarian Universalist Scouts can earn an emblem, similar to a merit badge, awarded by the church. In 1998, BSA decided to stop recognizing the Religion in Life emblem. The reason: The manual that accompanies the emblem criticizes Scouting's anti-gay policy as well as the requirement for Scouts to pledge loyalty to God.

The author of the "time for a change" message belongs to a UU church outside Boston that has chartered a Cub Scout pack for 20 years. But probably not much longer, says this person, who asks that he and his church not be named because, for now, "we consider this a private matter that we're trying to resolve internally."

The Cub pack's charter, a standard BSA document, says that the pack and the chartering organization -- the church -- agree to follow each other's policies. "It's a dead conflict," says the church member in an interview. He sits on a church committee working on the issue.

His is a Welcoming Congregation with an active gay and lesbian presence, including an openly gay assistant minister whose duties would include interacting with the Cub Scout pack. Some congregation members moved there specifically because they heard about the church's welcoming stance. The congregation also includes "many lifelong Scouters," he says.

"This isn't just a theoretical issue. It hits people in the gut." A meeting early this month, at which the whole congregation considered the conflict, "was like sitting shiva," he says. "People were grieving."

"The tragedy here," he says, "is that there is no evidence of discrimination in the local organization. But we're not chartering with the local organization. We have to charter with the Boy Scouts of America."

The committee's recommendation -- on which the congregation will vote Nov. 5 -- is to return the unsigned charter to the Cub Scout leaders along with a copy of the church's Welcoming Congregation statement. If the Scout leaders are willing to sign that document, the church would continue to support the pack.

Even that position is a compromise. Four of the nine committee members, including him, "want nothing further to do with the Scouts," he says. And there's no sentiment for signing the charter: "It would be like signing a contract you plan to violate." The pack leaders are already making alternative plans, he says. And the church is in the "preliminary stages" of exploring a relationship with the Campfire Association, a coed youth organization that doesn't discriminate.

That doesn't mean the pain will end now, the committee member says. "We need to do some pastoral work with some of our members who feel hurt by" dissolving the Scouting relationship. "And with some of our gay and lesbian members who feel we shouldn't even be discussing this -- that we've moved beyond it."

The Iron Fist

The Scout Oath and Law is ostensibly the basis for BSA's ban on gay Scouts and leaders. Among other things, a Scout who pledges the oath and law promises to keep himself "morally straight" and "clean." BSA argued in the Supreme Court case Boy Scouts of America vs. Dale that those terms preclude homosexuality. BSA also contends that "avowed homosexuals" are not "good role models for the traditional family values that [are] part of our program," in the words of Reilly, the BSA spokesman.

Obviously, the definitions of "clean" and "morally straight" are open to interpretation. A handful of local Scout organizations around the country have publicly rejected BSA's interpretation. So far, they -- unlike the openly gay Scouts and leaders who've been kicked out -- have apparently suffered no consequences.

For example:

Troop 260 of San Jose, Calif., adopted an inclusiveness policy in 1991: "We do not agree that sexual orientation such as male or female homosexuality is immoral. Sexual preference is a private issue. We don't believe it to be relevant in the selection of adult leaders or in the awarding of the Eagle Scout rank." Although BSA initially threatened ("I'd call it a promise") to revoke the troop's charter, nothing has happened, says Troop Committee Chairman Michael Cahn.

The troop is chartered by a Lutheran church, which "very strongly supported our position," Cahn says. In fact, before the troop adopted the inclusiveness statement, "A lot of people at the church would have liked to make us go away because of the Scouts' homophobic position." That's not what prompted the statement, though -- the troop addressed the issue on its own.

BSA spokesman Reilly says he's not familiar with the situation.

In Berkeley, parent leaders of Cub Scout Pack 30 have also declared their disagreement with BSA policy. In a September parade, they marched with a banner reading "Berkeley Scout Parents Say NO to Homophobia." The pack is chartered by Epworth United Methodist Church, "a Reconciling Congregation with an inclusive, non-discriminatory ministry," says Cubmaster and church lay leader Karl Georgi.

The parade was "the most open statement we've made" opposing BSA policy, Georgi says. "We're basically escalating it along with the national organization." He's heard nothing in the way of disapproval or reprisal from BSA.

In Piedmont, Calif., the nation's smallest Boy Scout council this month became the first to announce its opposition to the national policy. The Oakland Tribune quoted a BSA spokesman as saying national leaders would have to study the Piedmont Council's position before deciding how to respond.

In general, Reilly tries to downplay the growing opposition from Boy Scout ranks. Asked about what happens to troops or councils that openly disagree, he says only: "That issue will be discussed between the local executives and the area directors for the councils. And since this isn't a widespread thing, there really isn't any precedent."

That's not to say dissent is consequence-free. A United Church of Christ congregation in Petaluma, Calif., applied for a charter for a new Boy Scout troop. The proposed scoutmaster: Scott Cozza, co-founder of Scouting for All. BSA denied the charter application.

On a quieter level, many Scout troops and councils basically ignore the national discrimination policy, and just don't talk about it. For some liberal churches, that's good enough -- at least for now.

Guerrilla Tactics

First, we should work hard to get them cut off from United Way, which is a huge funding source. ... Second, is to work from the international fora. ... Many countries with Scouting are much more liberal and accepting of homosexuality than the U.S.

We are planning a little guerrilla warfare. ... This year, for example, we will give money only to the local pack. None of my money -- or cash from our sons' fundraising -- will leave town. If the council asks why, I will he happy to tell them. I have told them that I will not be doing any more recruiting in the schools. And my oldest son -- who "graduates" to Boy Scouts next spring -- has already told me ... he doesn't want to go to a group that discriminates.

I believe that the best course of action is to work towards the revocation of the BSA's Congressional Charter which grants them in the United States, a monopoly on terms such as "Scouting."


As these posts from the UU-Scouting list illustrate, there's no consensus on how best to pressure BSA for change -- or even whether that's better than creating an alternative scouting organization that wouldn't discriminate. Many people seem to agree, though, on an interim solution: Let each troop or local council decide for itself whether it wants to discriminate. In fact, many people believe that's already the de facto policy, as long as nobody makes too much noise about bucking the national decree.

In the longer term, the Boy Scouts face a choice: Catch up with what's becoming mainstream public opinion and learn to live with gays in their midst, or drop out of the mainstream. The Girl Scouts of America don't officially discriminate against lesbians (or gay men, for that matter). Nor do the Boy Scouts of Canada, which recently chartered an explicitly gay troop.

The Supreme Court decision permitting BSA to discriminate has sparked a backlash among churches, United Way agencies, public schools and local governments. That, in turn, is prompting a counter-backlash among conservative and homophobic groups.

"Conservative individuals and groups are rallying around BSA in support of their discriminatory practices," wrote one UU-Scouting correspondent. "Does continued participation in scouting indicate to the community at large at least tacit support of BSA's intolerant policies?"

To which another responded: "Let the religious zealots form their own Youth Program of Hate and Intolerance and leave the BSA to the rest of us."

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