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

Crossing Lines

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

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.

Before deciding to actually go over the fence, he talked to his friends. Thousands of people came and demonstrated outside the school. It was only the 32 who went over the barbed wire who were arrested. Why did he have to take that extra step? He concluded that he was called to do this and that he was doing this for the right reasons. Afterward, though, he hasn't gotten as much support as he expected from his friends. They were busy with class and other activities. Activism today is a lonelier cause than it was in the '60s.

Sitting in my kitchen, he seems vulnerable and alone. We agree that he should think about whether he wants to go forward with press in his hometown, to tell all his friends and neighbors that this former three-time UIL district champ in debate is going to prison.

It's a few days later, and now I'm sitting in Donte's kitchen, listening to him as he prepares dinner for his family. His two younger brothers are somewhere upstairs. Mom, a postal worker, and Dad, a truck driver just back from the Middle East, are elsewhere. Donte has just learned that the judge won't delay his sentencing; he'll have to go soon. He doesn't know where he'll be sent.

In his freshman year, Donte got involved in gay activism and women and gender studies movements. He found his classes challenging and absorbing, but he also wanted to be doing something in the world. He worked at a battered women's shelter and a pro-choice center. He got involved in labor organizing for the support staff at Georgetown. An on-campus hunger strike lasted 11 days. Donte was on a water-only diet and thought he was going to die. The students won; Georgetown signed an agreement to improve employee wages, but Donte says when students came back this fall, not everything had been put in place the way they'd intended. "We won, but we didn't," he says.

During this effort, Donte became friends with a fellow student who moved to the United States from Colombia after some of his family members were killed. Meeting his friend's family drew Donte deeper into South American political issues.

For years now, protesters have set up at the School of the Americas (briefly shut down and renamed in 2001) in November. The military puts up an extra portable barbed wire fence, while activists hold seminars nearby. On the fourth day, a Presente ceremony is held in which the names of people killed are read out. "It's a way of accounting for those who died," Donte says.

This year, Donte decided he should be at the November vigil. A dozen students from Georgetown went down on a bus.

Donte was handed a cross with the words "child, 4" on it. After his arrest, Donte searched out the background of his cross and found out it stood for Jairo Caucail, one of several children and adults killed in a chain-saw massacre in Choco, Colombia, in 2001, according to the Colombian Justice for Peace group.

After the Presente ceremony, they marched over to the military installation. At 12:10 Donte went over the barbed wire fence and sat down. He did not smash anything. He did not hit anyone or spit on them. Georgia state police and military police quickly descended upon him. "The cops nabbed me in five minutes, not even. My first thought was: 'There's so many people watching me get arrested.' "

Donte and the others were carried to the bus where they sat for four or five hours without moving. "We sang songs. 'We Shall Overcome.' 'This Little Light of Mine.' The nuns were really great about leading us in song."

Then they were moved to Fort Benning, where they were processed by the military in groups of four and five. Each was handed a "Ban and Bar" letter telling them to stay away from Fort Benning for the next five years. Fingerprinted, put in heavy chains, they were carried back to the bus and taken to Muskogee County Jail.

There, a nurse took out the piercing in Donte's ear with pliers. "It took her 15 minutes. The piercing broke and my ear started bleeding." Father Louis Vitale, a 73-year-old Jesuit priest, spotted Donte across the detox tank and encouraged him to persevere. Guards were about to put Donte in the general population, but when Donte confirmed he is gay, he was put in a special holding cell where he spent the next two days. The School of the Americas Watch group provided his $500 bail, and with the Georgetown bus long gone, he hitched a ride back to campus with another protester.

Back in school, he found himself increasingly distracted and didn't pay much attention to his classes. When he went home over the winter break, the die was cast. His parents did not take the news well. "Anger was the first emotion. Lots of anger. Then confusion. What would make me do something like this," Donte says. "There's resentment that I didn't include them in this decision."

People who don't know much about the School of the Americas might well make the assumption that protesting the facility is just some kind of far-left zealotry carried on by college students and overage hippies. But Google the name, and they'll discover that U.S. House Bill 1217 was refiled by Rep. James McGovern, D-MA, in 2005, and that 124 representatives have signed it, the latest being Al Green of Texas. The bill calls for the school to be closed again and re-examined before deciding to go on with it.

A week before his trial in late January, Donte flew back to Georgia. The SOA Watch group had offered a week of support and counseling, and Donte wanted to be around people telling him he'd done the right thing. His parents, who'd earlier said they might not come, arrived the day before the trial.

Donte, accompanied by a pro bono attorney, was in the first group to go before U.S. Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth on Monday, January 30. Before they went in, he spoke outside the courtroom. His words, captured on audiotape and matched to a slide show by the SOA Watch group (view it here), are emotional and affecting. "As a young person, I feel worn. My heart is heavy with all the names of crosses that we're bearing of actual people…

"The SOA is not just a place. It's a spirit of violence and militarism that claims millions of victims' lives every day, and until each of us says 'No more,' and until each of us stands up, it will continue to happen and people will continue to be harassed and insulted and tortured and killed across the world. Nunca más. Peace."

In court, Donte read another, lengthier statement. His parents had tried to stop him, sure that it would jeopardize his chances with the judge. He wouldn't let them see it ahead of time. The judge issued his sentence. Donte could hear his mother's quavering voice in the background, but he wouldn't look back. He paid a self-reporting fee and left.

Other defendants fared little better. The priest who encouraged him in detox, Father Vitale, age 73, was sentenced to six months in prison. An 81-year-old, Delmar Schwaller from Appleton, Wisconsin, got two months. For nuns and working people alike, it was all the same.

A crowd gathered to cheer the defendants as they came out. "My mother didn't want any part of that," Donte says. They went out a back way, grabbed a cab and went on to the motel and airport. His parents had always taught him to stand up for himself and to treat other people fairly, Donte says. They just hadn't bargained for this.

Georgetown professor Elizabeth Velez has been teaching there for 20 years. Her sense of today's times is that most students are focused on their studies, and she appreciates this because "they know it's tough out there when they graduate."

She can't speak for the school or its decision to suspend Donte. She had no part in that. But she is willing to talk about Donte, the student, whom she had in her fall feminist theory class. "I think that he is brilliant…He is incredibly insightful, thoughtful and has the potential to be an extraordinary student."

As a parent herself, she understands Donte's parents' anger but hopes they realize the good he is doing as well. "I'm not exactly comparing him to Martin Luther King, but I am saying that he is in that tradition of civil disobedience, and civil disobedience is a big American tradition to how we came about as a country."

As for Donte at this stage, he is busy readying himself for prison. "I think I'll be okay. I think I have to believe that." In fact, he's looking on this as a chance to advance his knowledge, to become involved in prison activism.

"I can learn a lot about the way the system works. As a black man and a queer, that's really important. The chance of me facing violence is a lot more than other people crossing the line."

He's now decided that when he gets out, he may take some college classes locally and get a part-time job. And he wants to return to Georgetown after all. There's unfinished business there, and he says that he's the only student who knows the staff by name.

He doesn't know what he'll do in the future. It might be community organizing or working for the National Organization for Women. It may change, he says. His parents want him to go to law school, and he sees the power in that.

In his statement to the court, Donte concluded with what he says Father Vitale told him in the detox cell. "Every time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring; those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

Donte says he was emboldened by that comment. It is, of course, both an incredibly uplifting and terrifying sentiment filled with promised hardship. On the one hand, the impulse is to say to Donte to stop, be safe, wait. On the other, it is the principled, the defiant, the courageous people like Donte -- who seem in fewer supply every day -- who prompt the changes of conscience that most of us in mainstream America will eventually accept, at little cost to ourselves.

Donte's grandmother calls him daily. His parents remain angry and worried. It is impossible to tell now if Donte possesses greatness or just great foolhardy passion.

The punishment is too much, of course, for a young man acting out of principle, who hurt no one and whose only harm done was to (at least temporarily) derail his own future. Knowing it is part of a continued effort across this country to silence dissent makes it all just the more chilling.

Every November, an extra fence goes up near Fort Benning, Georgia, and the annual passion play begins. The military and the protesters line up on their respective sides. The protesters hand out pamphlets and sing old protest songs. The state and military police stand on alert.

Every year someone crosses the line. This year the crossers included a teenager from Houston. Now he's going to prison. All for some dead men, women and children in Latin America. Now you know.


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