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The Washington Post Company

Credibility Behind Bars

By Mary McGrory

July 29, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Washington Post Company. All Rights Reserved.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who will be released next week from Puerto Rico's Guaynabo federal prison, is not the first man with something on his mind to find that jail is a great place to get it down on paper.

The late attorney general's son got 30 days for trespassing on Navy property on Vieques Island, site of 60 years of naval bombing exercises. An ardent environmentalist, Kennedy -- along with New York labor leader Dennis Rivera and thousands of Puerto Ricans who object to having their state used for target practice -- engaged in massive civil disobedience.

He has written a letter from the lockup in longhand, and mailed it to his secretary in New York for typing. "I wanted to explain why I did what I did," he said in a telephone interview from jail. "I wanted to tell people how I went against the Navy even though we're a Navy family, and I love my country and want a strong defense, and how I do not believe in civil disobedience except as a last resort. I'm a lawyer and an officer of the court."

He writes about his imprisonment without rancor, which is understandable. Even the Navy police who arrested him and Rivera wanted his autograph. When he arrived on his cell block, the prisoners sang the Puerto Rican anthem. The guards are on the felons' side -- as is just about everybody except the judge who sentenced Kennedy and wouldn't listen to his lawyer, former New York governor Mario Cuomo.

When Ethel Kennedy came to visit, one of the guards apologized to her for son'sdetainment. "He came to help us and our children and our children's children," Kennedy said the guard told her with tears in his eyes.

Kennedy said on the phone that "there are many here who have made tremendous sacrifices and are suffering for a moral commitment. I am not one of them. For Dennis and me, it's a vacation. The morale is very high here, we have a real sense of community; they sing a lot and beat the conga drums and play guitars. I have missed my family. What jail gives you is the gift of time."

The day he spoke he had had a visit that sent the autograph seekers into orbit. His sister Kerry Kennedy Cuomo and his wife, Mary Richardson, came to call, bringing Kennedy's six children. He was introduced to his 2-week-old son, who is to be named AidanCaohman after two Irish saints and -- "at grandma's insistence" -- "Vieques." Kennedy is circulating drafts of his manuscript and hopes for publication when he gets out. If he succeeds, it means more bad news for the Navy, which in a situation that calls for the human touch has persisted in leaden-footed obtuseness. Critics say that the Navy's continued bombing exercises are "a rehearsal for the last war."

"If the Navy would only recognize that people are getting sick because of the bombing and the contamination," Kennedy said, "they would do differently, help people with their health problems, help them with jobs, housing development. Instead, they just break promises, break the law and tell people that 'this is the price you pay for being an American colony. We will just lie to you if we want to.' "

Here is his jailhouse indictment of the health and environmental consequences of the maneuvers:

"A series of health studies by federal and commonwealth governments and Puerto Rico's medical schools suggested that the people of Vieques had the highest infant mortality, the highest overall mortality, the highest cancer rate in Puerto Rico. . . . Another health study suggested many Viequenses suffered high levels of vibroacoustic disease, a potentially lethal thickening of the lining of the heart caused by persistent exposure to sonic booms. . . . Federal government surveys found that soils, groundwater, fishes, crabs, and sea-grasses, plants, including food crops. . .were all contaminated with deadly toxics."

President Clinton offered the Puerto Ricans a referendum on the matter, which is to be held in November. President Bush, on his June visit to Europe, issued a statement that infuriated everybody, the Navy and disobedientes alike. He said the bombing was a bad thing and the Navy could only do it for two more years.

Robert Kennedy found many heroes in jail, most notably a lionhearted woman named Norma Burgos, a local senator and official of the pro-statehood party who drew the same pro-Navy judge as himself. The judge gave her 40 days and berated her for breaking the law; she talked back, told him he should have put the Navy on trial. His Honor promptly upped her time to 60 days. Kennedy met her in a dog cage where they were locked up after they were arrested and subjected to strip-searches that the Navy says never occurred.

When Burgos sassed the judge, she seemed to be speaking for the whole island. "No politician in Puerto Rico," says Kennedy, "has more credibility."

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