A Truly Turbulent Priest ; Not All Americans Believe in a Military Solution. Andrew Gumbel Talks to Father Bill O'Donnell as He Prepares to Go to Prison Following His Arrest at a US Military Training Camp

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ON 18 NOVEMBER last year, 10,000 protesters thronged outside the School of the Americas, the US military training camp at Fort Benning, Georgia, where, notoriously, Latin American soldiers and policemen have been schooled since 1984 in the dark arts of counter- revolutionary warfare. The demonstration is an annual event marking the deaths of six Jesuits and two housekeepers at the hands of paramilitary death squads in El Salvador in November 1989 - one of the more egregious crimes found to have been committed by School of the Americas (SOA) graduates. The demonstration has become something of a ritual, in which the protesters walk on to the base, reel off a catalogue of horrors perpetrated by school alumni from Central America to Argentina, hang up signs to denounce it as a school for terrorists, and promptly get arrested.

Last year's demo was a little different. First, it was the biggest gathering ever, a remarkable achievement in itself given the draconian treatment protesters have consistently received from the local federal court in Columbus, Georgia, which has a habit of putting even octogenarian nuns away for months of hard time on simple trespassing charges.

Secondly, the protest took place barely two months after the 11 September attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre, at a time when popular sentiment in the United States seemed to militate against anti-government protest of any kind. The commander at Fort Benning lobbied hard to keep the protesters away, arguing that their presence would be somehow distasteful. When that didn't work, he had a 10ft barbed-wire fence constructed around the base's entrance.

As the protesters gathered - to stage a mock funeral for the innocent civilians abducted, tortured and killed across Latin America by US-trained soldiers over the past two decades - most of them seemed resigned to the idea that they would, for once, have to stay off the base. But one man had a different idea. Bill O'Donnell, a 72-year-old radical Catholic priest from Berkeley, California, persisted in leading a sizeable group of followers along the perimeter of the fence. Less than a hundred yards from the main gate, the fence stopped. He and his followers - around 90 of them, at this point - simply walked around it and, to the evident fury of the base commanders, made their way across the grounds, smiling richly from ear to ear.

It was a vintage moment for Father O'Donnell, whose insatiable appetite for civil disobedience and blank refusal to buckle under the voice of authority have made him something of a folk hero in left-wing protest circles over the past two decades. Since last November, they have also made for some of the most astonishing, outrageous and irreverent political theatre seen in the US since the days of the Yippies and the trial of the Chicago Eight.

O'Donnell and his friends were arrested - of course - and given a talking- to by the army chaplain, another Irish-American Catholic called Father O'Malley. O'Malley tried to explain that the protesters had it wrong, that the school no longer taught what is euphemistically known as "low- intensity conflict", that it wasn't the wellspring of evil they imagined it to be. But O'Donnell wasn't having any of it. As he recounted recently, chortling impishly at the memory: "I told him he was a disgrace to the priesthood, a betrayer of the Gospel, that he was in it for the money, and that he was a sell-out, not only to Christianity but to humanity as well."

O'Donnell knows the routine. This was arrest number 224 in an astonishingly tenacious and colourful career that spans the civil rights movement in Alabama, Cesar Chavez's campaigns to unionise California's farm labourers, various protests against nuclear weapons and, of course, the iniquities of American foreign policy, particularly in Latin America. He's been to Fort Benning four years running, and four years running he has been arrested. …