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The Protester

After three months in prison, local peace activist Nancy Gowen shares her message of nonviolence.


Gowen, 68, is the mother of five, a grandmother, an advocate for the homeless, and member of Pax Christi — a Catholic peace advocacy group. And she's just spent three months in federal prison for civil disobedience — for nonviolent protest of something she thinks is wrong. She was doing what many would consider harmless and symbolic.

On Dec. 6, Gowen was released from Alderson Women's Prison, a federal prison in Alderson, W.Va. She spent 88 days in prison for trespassing on a U.S. Army base that she and thousands of others contend is a school that trains Latin American soldiers to use controversial military tactics in their own countries. Opponents of the school call it a terrorist camp. Supporters say the school helps Latin American militia quell insurgencies.

The training school is called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation — formerly the School of the Americas. It's located on the U.S. Army base at Fort Benning, Ga.

In 1989, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, were murdered in El Salvador by that government's militia, by soldiers who had trained at the school. Since then, the school has become the target of growing protest by peace activists throughout the world, specifically members of the School of the Americas Watch, a nonviolent human right's advocacy group whose mission is to shut it down. Gowen is one of them.

She was one of thousands who marched outside the gates of the base Nov. 18, 2001. But Gowen did more than march. She joined a group that pressed the gate — which was erected for security after Sept. 11 — and moved deliberately into an area off-limits to civilians. In July, her case, along with that of 37 others, went on trial in U.S. District Court in Columbus, Ga. Gowen was convicted of trespassing, a Class B misdemeanor. She was sentenced to three months in prison and ordered to pay a $500 fine.

Gowen views her protest as more than symbolic. She views it as an opportunity to raise awareness about the prevalence of violence. Gowen mentions Michael Moore's movie "Bowling for Columbine" as an example of how discourse is provoked. The movie uses the events of the Columbine High School massacre of 12 students and a teacher April 20, 1999, as a lens to examine the use of guns and violence in the United States. Critics say Moore's movie capitalizes on the tragedy.

Gowen planned to see the controversial documentary at the theater. She missed it. By the time she was released from Alderson, made it home to Richmond, had her furnace repaired, rejoined her meditation group and let friends know of her return, the movie had left town.

Nevertheless, its message is not lost on Gowen. She has lived the perversity of guns and violence.

In 1984, Gowen's mother was brutally murdered in Richmond. The killers were caught and later executed. Despite feelings of loss and anger, Gowen found an unlikely way to grieve. She chose to live her life protesting violence of any kind — including capital punishment and war.

"It's never justified," she says. "Never."

Inside the coffee shop, Gowen has a look about her that's tired but serene. She wears no makeup, faded jeans that flare at the ankles, a loose moss-green sweater and sneakers. A black backpack stuffed with books and sundries is propped in a seat next to her. Judging by its fullness, the weight must act as an anchor to the tiny Gowen. A dried pink rose, a pair of reading glasses and a copy of Michael Moore's book "Stupid White Men" lies in the seat next to her.

While incarcerated at Alderson, Gowen grieved the recent death of her eldest son, Chuck. He died unexpectedly in Malaysia a month before she went to prison. He had known of his mother's activism and had supported her. She was able to mourn her son in prison because there were no distractions and she was acutely aware of where she was and concentrated on the experience, she says: "You can't be an inmate and a noninmate simultaneously."

She spent three months sharing a 9- by-12-foot cell with a another female inmate, wearing a khaki uniform and state-issued shoes, working for 12 cents an hour and living with ceaseless talk that's amplified in jail.

What does Gowen make of her actions now? She sees them as necessary, as "planting the seeds of thought for change."

Gowen would protest again, she says. The media that swarm to the annual protest force attention on a subject that, she says, goes ignored.

"We don't have the freedom we think we have," she says. "The activist is one who finds what's real and true on their own, someone who tries to live their values. … My action represents what I could do."

Her mantra is this: "Be peace." Between observations and questions, she pauses to sip hot tea. She is busy these days balancing the world she thought about in jail and the one she's part of today. It's been a struggle.

She can't bring herself to turn her computer on or hook up her answering machine. She used to consider amenities important; they were things that made life easier. Prison changed her mind.

"In prison I learned how to correspond," she says — to really learn how to communicate.

She pulls out a bundle of envelopes, some as thin and transparent as butterfly wings. Each bears the same address: Federal Prison Camp Alderson. Many read "by air mail" and have been sent over oceans from places like England, Spain and Germany. Most contain wishes for freedom, love and peace. The meaning of the words, if not the language, is universal.

It is easy to see how the messages must have been a comfort to Gowen in prison. But they are of equal comfort to her now she's free, she says.

"Each one is an opportunity," she says with a smile. "Isn't this where dialogue begins? We talk small world and here it is." S

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