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Peace activist home from prison

Steve Woolford served six months at Butner for throwing blood on the Pentagon


Annals of crime On March 9, Lenore Yarger went to Sunday mass at Siler City's St. Julia Catholic Church. It was an emotional time for Yarger. On March 7, her husband, Steve Woolford, had received a six-month prison sentence for splashing a small bottle of his blood on the Pentagon in an anti-war protest.

Yarger, a Raleigh native who graduated from Duke, was hoping for some solace in her place of worship. During announcements, Yarger stood up and asked people to pray for her husband. After mass, a woman approached Yarger with a less-than-loving comment.

"She said she didn't care about what happened to my husband," Yarger said. The woman added that political things should not be mentioned in church.

While several others offered her comfort, Yarger remembers the tearful ride back to the Silk Hope Catholic Worker House, the pacifist house of hospitality that she and her husband founded five years ago.

For the last six months, Yarger, 34, has spent a lot of hours in the community's small Honda driving once a week to visit Woolford in jail and prison. She made that trip for the last time Sept. 5, the day Woolford, 35, was released from a federal prison in Butner.

After picking up Woolford at 8 a.m., the two spent most of the day at Eno River State Park hiking with their dog, Scratch.

"I really enjoyed being outside in the outdoors, in the woods, walking around," Woolford said. "It was quite a contrast. You couldn't see razor wire anywhere I went."

That afternoon, Woolford joined other activists for the Friday weekly peace vigil the Silk Hope community has organized for more than five years at the intersection of Franklin Street and Elliott Road in Chapel Hill.

When he arrived at the vigil, community members Dan Schwankl and Anna Dioguardi were holding a "Welcome Home Steve" placard. Life was already getting back to normal for Woolford, a 1990 Notre Dame philosophy graduate.

When he arrived back home that evening, Woolford said the four-bedroom wooden farmhouse never looked so good, especially after six months of concrete blocks and tile.

"The house just looked so magnificent at night," Woolford said. "Everything was the same. The same pictures on the wall; the same furniture; the same paint. I kept feeling like something had been done here to make it look so nice and warm and homey. I think it was just being away from it so long."

That night, Woolford and Yarger had an odd experience. Woolford awoke about 1 a.m. unsure where he was.

"I think I thought I was still in prison and wondered how somebody else's arm got into my bunk and who that was," Woolford said with a chuckle. When her husband awoke, Yarger said she also was disoriented.

"I was kind of weirded out, too," she said. "It was disturbing."

Yarger said being separated from her husband because of war helped her identify with the thousands of military wives whose husbands are serving in Iraq. Unlike the military wives, however, Yarger was able to visit her husband and talk to him on the phone. She also knew that he was relatively safe, and, most important, she knew when he would be coming home.

"I had comforts that they didn't have," Yarger said.

Still, Yarger said not having her husband around never got easier. "We work together, live together and just do almost everything together," she said. "He's the person I love the most."

The war in Iraq started while Woolford was incarcerated.

"In some ways it was a good place to be," Woolford said. "At least it gave me a sense of solidarity that I had done something serious to try to stop this."

Watching the news reports about the war on television was sometimes emotional, Woolford said.

"At the risk of sounding like a big wussy, I'm someone who actually cries at times about things like that," he said. "In a way, jail's not a great place to be for that. Maybe if I was there longer I'd feel more comfortable with just opening up and crying around the people."

Yarger said she and Woolford were not caught off guard by the sentence.

"We prepared well." Yarger said. "We knew that six months was a possibility."

Support for the couple was also strong from family and friends. Woolford received regular visits from family members, including his and Yarger's parents, and from members of the Silk Hope Catholic Worker community. Even UNC graduate student, Alison Beloin, who lived at Silk Hope as a summer intern, came to visit. Beloin came while Woolford was locked up, and she completed her internship before he was released. About 100 people attended a welcome home party for Woolford on Sept. 7.

The Pentagon "blood pouring" landed Woolford and two other Catholic Worker activists--Steve Baggerly and Bill Frankel-Streit, both of Virginia--in front of U.S. District Court Judge Theresa Buchanan. A relative of conservative pundit Pat Buchanan, the judge gave the three men maximum six-month sentences without parole for violating a federal "preservation of property" statute, a misdemeanor.

Most of the inmates Woolford talked to were "supportive and sympathetic" with his reasons and motives for going to prison, but not interested in joining the peace movement.

"They weren't going to do anything voluntarily to come back to jail," Woolford said. "Some people thought we were crazy."

However, almost all of the people Woolford talked to--including prison staff--"were stunned" that he received a six-month sentence for his crime.

"There were people who didn't even believe you could be locked up for a misdemeanor," Woolford said. "Most people thought protesting should be completely legal, and a lot of people even thought you should be able to throw blood on the Pentagon legally."

One prisoner, an ex-Marine, told Woolford he disagreed with his actions, but said "I think you have a right to do what you did."

Woolford replied: "A right to do it--I'm here in prison."

"I don't think you should be in prison for it, though," the inmate said.

Buchanan, however, did think Woolford deserved prison, even though his crime required just soap and water to remedy.

Woolford said Buchanan, who has sentenced other protesters to prison for the same thing, gets "especially upset" with the use of blood.

"In no way is she willing to associate the Pentagon with blood," Woolford said, "and I don't think she likes anybody else making that connection or accusation that there's blood on the hands of the decision-makers at the Pentagon. I think she doesn't want to deal with that."

Despite the stiff consequences, both Yarger and Woolford say civil disobedience will remain part of their work. Earlier this year, Yarger was arrested in an anti-war protest at U.S. Rep. David Price's congressional office in Chapel Hill. The charges were dropped.

"I know that there will be other times when we are separated because one of us is in prison," Yarger said. "This has served us well, prepared us well." EndBlock

Patrick O'Neill, a regular Indy contributor, co-founded the Catholic Worker House in Garner.

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