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Going to jail to make a point

Dan Schwankl knew he was crossing the line.

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Dan Schwankl is a nice guy. In fact, anyone who meets Schwankl figures that out in a second. A Siler City native, Schwankl is polite, smiles often, goes to church on Sundays and enjoys family get-togethers. A great student, Schwankl, 31, earned a North Carolina Teaching Fellows scholarship to UNC-Chapel Hill. After graduation, Schwankl served two years in Belize with Jesuit Volunteers International--a Jesuit version of the Peace Corps--teaching English grammar and Caribbean literature at an alternative high school for girls who had gotten into various kinds of trouble. He also taught high school in Statesville and Pittsboro.

Today, Schwankl lives in a single-room wattle-and-daub house he helped build at the Silk Hope Catholic Worker. He gardens, keeps bees, feeds chickens and tries to take his daily cues for living from the wisdom he picks up each morning during the hour he spends in prayer with his community members.

So why's a nice guy like Schwankl probably going to be spending three to six months later this year locked away in federal prison for scaling a fence at Ft. Benning, Ga., home of the U.S. Army's Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas? The way Schwankl sees it, those many hours he spent last summer walking behind a tiller at Chatham County's Ayrshire Farm and the many hours he spent last fall on long runs as he trained for his first 26-mile marathon sort of sealed his fate.

It was while tilling and running that Schwankl says he communed with God and tried to figure out how to best live a holy and faithful life. Because of his travels and reading, Schwankl says he became acutely aware of the unjust stratification among the lives of people all over the world. He also realized that a primary message in scripture is one of liberation for the poor and justice for the oppressed.

Since 1991, thousands of activists have marched on the School of the Americas each fall in protest of the school's legacy of torture and murder throughout Latin America.

The United States operates the school as a combat training facility for Latin American soldiers, many of whom have been implicated in human rights violations and killings back in their native countries after their SOA training.

Schwankl was among 15 activists who crossed onto Ft. Benning in acts of civil disobedience last Nov. 21 during a protest that included more than 15,000 people.

In recent years, those who "cross the line" at Ft. Benning have been given three- to six-month federal prison sentences by U.S. Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth, who will be conducting bench trials for the defendants on Monday. Only on rare occasions has Faircloth not sentenced SOA protesters to active prison sentences, and then only when that defendant promised to abide by strict probationary conditions.

Schwankl says he has no such plans, and he's expecting to be sentenced to prison in Faircloth's Columbus, Ga., courtroom.

Schwankl says he does worry about how his parents, four siblings and friends will handle his incarceration. Anne-Marie, a nurse, and James "Jim" Schwankl, a pediatrician, have both expressed support of their son's actions. The Schwankl family is well-known in Siler City, where they worship at St. Julia's Catholic Church, a predominantly Latino congregation. Anne-Marie plays violin in the community orchestra and Jim acts in local theater, most recently playing the leads in My Fair Lady and The Pirates of Penzance.

"My father said he knew whatever decision I made, it would be the right one, and he would support me in that," Schwankl says. "Since then, other than a couple of questions about what I was thinking, how I was feeling, we haven't talked a whole lot more about it. Mom has been a little bit more inquisitive in just asking me things like, 'What's this going to do for the rest of the world?' "

Schwankl's answer is that by crossing the line and going to prison, he is simply doing his part in the greater effort to close the Army school; that his action will help "add lots of fuel to the fire" of resistance. And going to prison with the others will help build a movement for nonviolent change.

"It's not just one person doing one thing on one day of the year," he says. "The world will be a much better place if the School of the Americas shuts down."

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