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Retired Teacher Headed to Prison for Human Rights Protest



Al Simmons will soon have lots of time to think about his inaugural day trip to Washington — two months, to be exact, in a federal prison where he'll serve time for protesting his government's support of third-world dictators.

Simmons, 64, is a mild-mannered, retired preschool teacher at Second Presbyterian Church. He was arrested Nov. 23 for protesting the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning, Ga.

Formerly known as the School of the Americas, the facility trains military and militia leaders from South and Central American countries. It has been linked by several groups to numerous instances of torture and human rights violations.

He joined a different scene Jan. 20. “We had a glorious day,” Simmons says of his chilly walk from a friend's Arlington house to the National Mall and back again for President Barack Obama's inauguration. That was on Tuesday.

By Thursday he was back in Richmond, taking his car to the shop in anticipation of his next trip — to Georgia for a sentencing hearing in federal court the next day.

He was convicted along with five others who were among thousands participating in the protest, organized annually by School of the Americas Watch.

Simmons and his five companions' crime was taking the protest onto the army base, which is in the middle of town, open to daily civilian traffic and lacks any significant gates to keep out “trespassers.” The trespass statute was instituted a few years ago and applies only to the one day of the year when protesters descend.

Simmons, a Vietnam veteran, doesn't yet know when or where he'll be reporting to federal prison.
“I'm going to have to explain this to my 10-year-old grandson,” Simmons says. “He basically thinks of good guys and bad guys — and bad guys go to jail. I'm going to ask him if he knows about Martin Luther King. Sometimes in this country, good people go to jail.”

Simmons says his busy week — witnessing the inauguration of the country's first black president and then being punished for speaking out against human-rights violations — represents “two sides of the same coin, in that each action is a furthering of human freedom.”

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