Crossing Lines

A Houston teenager learns how convictions can lead to convictions

Donte Smith was in a lot of trouble. He had just been arrested. His hands were wrapped together in plastic riot gear behind his back. Carried onto a bus with about 30 other prisoners -- strangers -- he was waiting for transfer to a nearby federal facility in Georgia. The November day was cold and rainy, and his earlier exhilaration was beginning to drain out of him.

His cell phone rang. He had a pretty good idea who it might be. He had to answer it.

Contorting his body, he was able to wrestle the phone out of his back pocket and nose it open onto the seat. Bending over in a crouch with his head pressed to the cell phone, he ventured a hello. It was his mom, calling from Houston, Texas. He told her he was busy, would have to get back to her. It wasn't the time to break his news to her. He settled back into his seat. The phone rang again.

Donte Smith protested Latin American killings and 
ended up sentenced to federal prison.
Mike Haskey
Donte Smith protested Latin American killings and ended up sentenced to federal prison.

It was his grandma. He didn't tell her anything either. Not anything real, anyway.

It wouldn't be until January, when prestigious Georgetown University sent his parents a letter saying that their 19-year-old son had been suspended from school, that he sat down with them and broke the news that he was one of 32 protesters arrested and charged with a federal crime. He'd gone over the fence at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly (and still more commonly) referred to as the School of the Americas, an Army training school for Latin American military leaders. He and other protesters claim that the U.S. Army is training Latin American commanders and generals there who commit terrorist activities and other human rights violations in their home countries.

He had to tell his parents he faced punishment of as much as six months in federal prison and a fine for trespassing at the school adjacent to the Fort Benning Army base. He had to tell them that because he'd missed classes while he was in the Muskogee County Jail, and two of his professors had failed him.

He had to tell them that he'd gone before the school's Suspension Board and been told that he should be paying more attention to academics if he wanted to stay in the school. Georgetown does support student activism, but it appears, reasonably enough, that it wants its students engaged in class as well.

Donte Smith, a graduate of Hightower High School's broadcast academy, whose high grades and remarkable successes in state and national debate competitions had earned him an enormous scholarship to the Washington, D.C.-based Georgetown, had to tell his parents that he'd blown it all away demonstrating on behalf of Central and South American people -- people who, his parents said, weren't his people, weren't his cause.

His fellow arrestees were older and, in many cases, elderly white people, many of them nuns and priests. In a group shot of the demonstrators about to go into court, Smith stands out, and not just because he's front and center. The only black. A young college student. He isn't even Catholic.

Two weeks ago, Donte Smith, wonder boy, came to earth in a very leaden way. He crossed the line knowing he'd get arrested. He thought he'd get probation.

He was sentenced to three months in federal prison and a $500 fine. He will begin serving that sentence within the month.

Donte Smith sits across my kitchen table from me. It's night and my son, Ian, has brought him home. Ian, a senior in high school, had partnered with and been mentored by Donte a couple years earlier, and their friendship has lasted. When Donte would come home from college, they'd catch up. The biggest surprise was last spring, when Donte came back transformed. He'd gone on a hunger strike and lost 21 pounds. Debate had moved from an academic exercise to something much more profound and real.

I don't know Donte very well, other than that my son respects him for his intelligence, wit and debating prowess.

Donte has come to tell me his story, but he's not quite sure what to do next. He feels betrayed by his professors and the Jesuits at Georgetown who he says didn't support him, didn't reach out to him after his arrest. He's unhappy with the press coverage he got in Georgia and feels his parents were exploited when they were mentioned in stories. In court, his mother cried; his stepfather was visibly upset. As only a somewhat naive teenager can, he declares that it was his stand, his decision, and that's all that matters. I tell him it's not that simple. While I feel immense respect for the strength of Donte's convictions, I look at my son sitting next to him and hope that Ian doesn't choose this path.

Donte can reapply to go to Georgetown in Spring 2007, but he's not at all sure that's what he should do. It might be better to go to Berkeley or Chicago. He's asked for a delay in beginning his sentence so that he can honor a commitment he made to volunteer at a battered women's shelter in D.C. He mentions one women's studies professor, Elizabeth Velez, who supported him, cared about him.

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