Crossing the Line

Civil disobedience has long been a vehicle for peace activists in their fight for justice. Each year, thousands of individuals gather in Columbus, Ga. at the U.S. military reservation at Fort Benning to protest the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC). Some people carry signs or crosses while others pray and make public witness. But a small few take action, by trespassing onto the property of WHISC, the former School of the Americas (SOA).

Mike Pasquale, director of Le Moyne College’s International House and director of the Brighton Family Center’s Job Connection program in Syracuse, walked across the line at Fort Benning in November 2001. It was his second time crossing the line onto government property. For his first trespass, Pasquale received a five-year ban-and-bar letter from the government. By violating the original ban-and-bar letter, he received a lifetime ban and was arrested. But this time, unlike the first, he would be charged and given prison time.

“I was notified in April of 2002 that I was going to trial. It came as a shock, because I didn’t think I would be called,” Pasquale said. “There were 37 of us on trial in July. The trials lasted for an entire week. In the end, I was given a six-month sentence.”

During the trial, each of the defendants was allowed to make a statement. Pasquale’s remarks focused on his faith, drawing from Gospel values to tell a story about why he committed his act of civil disobedience.

“And so I came to Fort Benning as a Roman Catholic Christian trying to be a better follower of Christ; as a man trying to become a better human being; as a citizen of the United States trying to be a better citizen and a neighbor trying to be neighborly. I crossed the line; I went around the fence. In those actions, I said ‘no’ to the killing sanctioned by my government and I said ‘yes’ to God’s greatest commandments. These commandments, I believe supercede any human law. Without these commandments there can be no law of humanity and justice, which is why I pled not guilty,” Pasquale said. “I suppose it is for others to decide as to whether or not I am succeeding in getting my life to make sense in terms of the Gospel. I know I still have much work to do to become a true peacemaker. And I will admit to feelings of fear and angst and stress; I do not particularly want to go to prison, if found guilty. Yet I also feel a sense of peace and joy and love in what I have done.” Following the guilty verdict, Pasquale was told to report to the Federal Prison Camp (FPC) Allenwood in Montgomery, Pa. during the afternoon of Sept. 10. There was some comfort, he said, in being held in the same facility as other “prisoners of conscience” such as Jack Gilroy, Ed Kinane, Dan Sage and the late Nick Cardell.

“I felt I was reasonably well prepared, after talking with Ed, Nick and Jack. I also read the book Prisoner of Conscience by another person who spent six months in prison who crossed the line at the SOA,” said Pasquale. “I had tons of support from people at home and at the trial, and I had a great level of knowledge. But it was still a shock to one’s system.”

Pasquale described FPC Allenwood as treating many inmates “extremely poorly” and giving them “no basic rights.” All of the Allenwood inmates were serving sentences of less than 10 years and weren’t considered “flight risks.” “I got a pretty good view of what the prison system is like and it’s not a pretty picture. The atmosphere at Allenwood was pretty darn oppressive. I respect the individuals who worked there — it can’t be an easy job. My father is a retired New York City cop, so I’m not unsympathetic,” explained Pasquale. “They say prisons are supposed to rehabilitate, to make people ‘better citizens’ but this is not how Allenwood works. You are treated as a second or third class human being and must abide by ‘our’ rules. But the rules are selectively enforced. The inmate’s well-being is not taken into consideration.”

Maintaining one’s health is an important aspect of prison life many forget, he said. “Other prisoners of conscience have told me that the best thing you can do in prison is to stay healthy. You don’t want to rely on the prison’s medical staff because they don’t know what they are doing,” noted Pasquale. The holiday season was the most difficult time to be in prison, Pasquale said. “Christmastime is not the time you want to be there. From Thanksgiving through until right after New Year’s, you would rather be with your family and celebrating,” he said. “That’s when it really felt like I was in prison and started counting the days until I got out. During Thanksgiving and Christmas, the prison did do a good job with the food. They sponsored a decorating contest between Unit A and B. Originally, I had mixed feelings about it, but it was nice to have the decorations.”

Over his six months, Pasquale said his faith grew while at FPC Allenwood. “I have a better sense of what it means to let go and what it means to trust. Faith is a lot of letting go and trusting. That’s a difficult thing to do, but you have to trust in God,” he said. “When I left to come here, I left my family, my community of Syracuse, my job at Le Moyne, my job at Catholic Charities. I had lots undone and I had to let it go. I couldn’t worry about this or that. I had the good fortune of being supported by my employers and I’m humbled by that. I also owe people a lot of debts that I might never repay.”

Pasquale prayed the rosary nearly every night while in prison. Between five and eight inmates gathered to pray about the concerns in their hearts, he said, and talk about their experiences. “I can’t stress enough about the importance of the friendships I formed while I was there. We were accompanying each other on the journey, just being with one another. I stood in solidarity with the men I got to know in Allenwood and they stood in solidarity with me. It’s impossible to get through the oppressive atmosphere without the help and support of so many great people,” Pasquale said.

The friends he made in prison were not the typical criminals one would expect, Pasquale explained. “People have this impression of criminals that they are bad and terrible people. That’s not the case. These people could be your next door neighbor in Syracuse or Fayetteville or whatever. There many not be too many saints in prisons, but there are no fewer in prison that anywhere else,” he said. “We have to get rid of the assumption that prisoners are terrible, evil, bad people. They have been separated from their families and in some cases are apart from their children. I can’t emphasize the friendships I had with these men. On Sept. 10, when I went into prison, I felt a sense of loss. When I came out on March 7, I had the same sense of loss. The people had nothing else to give but themselves.”

The six-month prison sentence allowed Pasquale to reflect on his life as a Catholic Christian. “My spirituality was expanded and deepened,” he said. “I had the opportunity to read over 15 books, with some being on spirituality and religion. I thought about all the people who have supported me and those role models, such as [Father] John Dear, SJ, Dan Berrigan, Phil Berrigan, Jerry and Carol Berrigan, Dorothy Day. Those are the lives I look to emulate.”

While in prison, Pasquale received over 550 letters from family, friends and other prisoners of conscience. “The support from all of these people was wonderful. I got letters from all over the world. I couldn’t even begin to respond,” he said. “People around the world were paying attention to what was happening here.” Since being back in Syracuse, Pasquale said he wants to keep the prison experience alive in the activism that he does in the future. “If the situation would warrant it, I would do this again. Do I have regrets? Yes. Was it difficult? Yes. Was it the most difficult thing I’ve ever done? No,” said Pasquale. “Whether it is protesting the war in Iraq or talking about the SOA or the unjust treatment of prisoners — they are all equally important in God’s eyes. They are God’s creations. Because people aren’t treated with reverence and respect, I can’t help but put my body on the line, or over the line. Each one of us has to be willing to respond when we see all creation being exploited.”

Pasquale was able to share his faith with another inmate through the RCIA program. By serving as instructor, Pasquale learned about this inmate’s Native American heritage while articulating Catholic teaching. “In the RCIA class, we talked about the notion of being holy, or being complete. We need to tear down the walls and try to achieve the holiness that God calls us to,” Pasquale said. “Going to jail was another step toward becoming a complete person. I’ll always be grateful for this opportunity.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Catholic SUN was trying to put together a story on Mike Pasquale while he was in prison this winter at FPC Allenwood. However, the request to send a photographer to the facility was denied.

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