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Sunday News Lancaster, PA

20-Days In Jail Wasn't Vacation For This Activist:

Harold Penner Stepped Over 'The Line' When He, And Others, Including Celebrities, Protested Navy Practice Bombings On Puerto Rican Island.

By Jon Rutter

July 22, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Lancaster Newspapers. All Rights Reserved.

When he began protesting Navy bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques , Akron peace activist Harold Penner was not overly worried about doing time.

"I didn't expect to go to prison. I thought I would be reprimanded. I thought I would be fined."

That's not what happened.

On May 2, Penner, 56, was arrested for stepping across the fence at Camp Garcia.

On June 28, in San Juan, a federal magistrate convicted Penner and three other Christian Peacemaker Teams activists of trespassing. At the end of the seven-hour proceeding, Penner said, "We were taken in metal handcuffs from the courtroom."

Penner served a 20-day sentence in the Guaynabo Metropolitan Detention Center, where his prison mates included celebrities such as environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr.

Penner returned to Lancaster July 14.

One Penner colleague from New Jersey remains in detention while the other two, from Boulder, Colo., and Goshen, Ind., were sentenced to community service in their communities.

Prison was no picnic, said Penner, who is still readjusting to life "on the outside." Still, he considers the past three weeks more of an education than an ordeal.

"I'm grateful for the experience... by putting all these people in jail, this is only communicating much more broadly to the world that there's something that's not right there."

Many of Vieques' 9,400 residents reportedly agree.

The Navy has used the island as a gunnery range since 1940; historic resentment escalated in 1999 after misguided bombs killed a civilian security guard.

Islanders have blamed what they say are rising cancer rates and other health problems on depleted uranium shells and firing range concussions. Navy officials have denied any links.

At the end of July, residents will hold a referendum to decide whether they want the Navy to stay or leave immediately.

George Bush has promised that the Navy will withdraw in 2003, but, Penner said, there is no guarantee that the government would clean up the target range. Meanwhile, he added, "more maneuvers are scheduled for the beginning of August."

In recent months, the island has become a cause celebre.

Jacqueline Jackson, the wife of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, was taken into custody June 18. Kennedy, whose son was born last week, remains in prison with about 60 others.

Kennedy and Penner ate breakfast together several times, Penner said. Puerto Rican folk singer Danny Rivera sang to the prisoners when they were released from overnight lockup at 6 a.m. Another prisoner, a professional artist, drew sketches to be published in a book.

"It was almost a fraternity," Penner said. "It was a different environment than it would have been had we been in with the general prison community."

The 8-year-old fortress featured air conditioning and common-room TVs, but offered few other luxuries.

"It was quite a bit noisier than I thought it would be," Penner said. The surroundings were spartan.

Each cell contained a sink, small desk, metal cabinets and steel- framed bunks.

Guards confiscated Penner's watch, ring, Bible, writing materials and civilian clothes. All prisoners wore slippers, T-shirts and khaki- colored coveralls.

The menu leaned heavily toward rice and beans. Walls topped with razor wire loomed outside the windows.

Penner received phone privileges after 12 days, but was limited to a call a day.

"That was a real change. We are so used to phones and e-mails. Not to have any kind of quick communication was challenging."

Prisoner pastimes were reading, writing, exercising and talking, said Penner, who shared a cell with Adam Clayton Powell IV, a New York state assemblyman and son of the civil rights leader.

Though the guards read his mail, Penner was gratified to be able to send a letter to a convention of the Mennonite Church USA.

The church subsequently passed a resolution supporting anti- bombing demonstrators, said Penner, an Akron Mennonite Church member who had planned to attend the Mennonite gathering in Nashville, Tenn.

Penner, too, will continue to support anti-bombing advocates, though he hasn't yet decided whether he would again cross the bombing range boundary line.

Demonstrating is "a way to put one's Christian faith into action," Penner said. "It's making the difference. We hope for a better world as a result of what we do."

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