Sister Soldier

At 71 Sr. Rita Steinhagen is going back to school--the School of the Americas, that is
Bill Kelley

The sun has yet to rise in Hopkins on a Wednesday in late fall as a group of 40 people gather outside the drab concrete building that houses Alliant Techsystems. Employees of the military contractor--dressed for winter, clutching either briefcases or McDonald's carry-out--scuttle past the group standing in the parking lot, past the picket signs that read "No More Land Mines." They've gotten used to the motley collection of members of Veterans for Peace, Women Against Military Madness, college students, and others who object to the business of the manufacturing plant. (In addition to land mines, Alliant makes the Objective Individual Combat Weapon, a combined rifle and grenade launcher designed to replace the army's M-16 rifle.) The crowd convenes every Wednesday at 7 a.m. across the street from Alliant's entrance. A step onto its grounds means trespassing and civil disobedience.

Today the protesters choose not to break the law. Soon the group thins as some members head for their jobs; another handful follows Anna Hickman, the St. Thomas student who is going to court on a trespassing charge from an earlier protest. The rest--mostly graying retirees, several nuns and members of the clergy, and a few college-age kids--stand around, tapping their feet against the cold, trading tales about other protests and their upcoming trek to the U.S. Army's School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga.

By 9 a.m. most of Alliant's employees are inside and the protesters head down the street for breakfast. Sipping coffee, an unassuming woman with close-cropped gray hair and alert blue eyes speaks up for the first time. "Did you hear that they caught Pinochet?" she says, obviously pleased that the British government had detained the former Chilean ruler and School of the Americas alum. "That's Sr. Rita Steinhagen," confides another activist.

Steinhagen is probably best known for her arrest last year at a School of the Americas protest, when she violated a court order barring her from the school's grounds. The offense earned her six months in federal prison, as well as minor-celebrity status. Since her release in September, Steinhagen has been asked to speak to groups ranging from local Army National Guard chaplains to Red Wing High School students.

"Unfortunately, civil disobedience is the only thing that gets people's attention," Steinhagen says. "When we were arrested at Fort Benning, some of the media said, 'What did you do that for?' I said, 'Well, you wouldn't be talking to me if I wasn't going to prison. I could sit on the steps down at the Capitol for five years, and I could have made 1,000 phone calls--you know, big deal."

The School of the Americas was established by the Army in 1946 to teach U.S. military tactics to Latin American soldiers. Critics have long charged that School alumni--such as Roberto d'Aubuisson, the former leader of El Salvador's ARENA Party and alleged architect of the country's death-squad network--have been responsible for atrocities including the 1980 assassination of Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero. The Twin Cities have been a hotbed of anti-School of the Americas activity, with large groups of protesters shuttling to Georgia for demonstrations at least once every year since the late 1980s.

Steinhagen first learned of the School of the Americas when she worked at a refugee shelter in El Paso, Texas, in the early '80s. Many of the people coming there were illegal immigrants; some told her they were fleeing death squads trained by the U.S. government. Steinhagen, a member of the order of St. Joseph of Carondelet, decided to go to Central America herself. She spent close to a year in Guatemala and Nicaragua and became convinced that the U.S. was partly responsible for human-rights violations in the region. After returning to this country in 1991, Steinhagen settled in the Twin Cities. It was here that she met Fr. Roy Bourgeois, a local priest and founder of SOA Watch, a group that has been protesting the School of the Americas for nine years.

Steinhagen is quick to concede that neither SOA Watch's demonstrations nor the Wednesday gatherings at Alliant Tech are likely to shut their targets down. But, she insists, "we draw attention to what [the U.S. military is] doing in our own back yard." One result, she speculates, may have been the Minnesota Congressional delegation's position toward the school : This September, all eight of the state's U.S. representatives voted for a 25-percent cut in the school's budget. The measure failed to pass the House by a mere 11 votes.

Activists, buoyed by the close vote, expect some 200 Twin Citians to board four chartered buses headed for Fort Benning November 20. Steinhagen is going too, though this time she'll make the journey in a bit more comfort: She's flying to Georgia, and she has no immediate plans to participate in civil disobedience. "I'm getting to be 71 years old," she says, "too old for prison. It's just too darn noisy in there for me. I think the younger ones should take their chance at six months in prison."

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