News & Politics

The Lost Art of Going to Jail



[Photo of Barrios from]

There are those cynics in this generation who believe that public protest is more or less a dead art — long discredited, a relic of the sixties.

But don’t tell that to Luis Barrios.

Barrios, a professor of forensic psychology and Latin American Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is slated to report to a federal jail in lower Manhattan this afternoon to serve a two month sentence for trespassing onto a military base last year.

The fiery 56-year-old professor and Episcopal priest from the Bronx was arrested in November for pushing a wheelchair-bound Vietnam veteran about one mile past the gates of the sprawling Fort Benning military base in Georgia. Think about that: six civilians, including a guy in a wheelchair, breached one of the biggest army bases in the world, and got about a mile inside before anyone stopped them.

Barrios, who has co-written a book on street gangs and has also been a newspaper columnist, and five others were protesting the continued operation there of the School of the Americas, a controversial institution which trains police and soldiers from Latin American countries in counter-revolutionary tactics.

It has long been alleged — and even proven in some instances — that graduates of the school use their training to form death squads, and to torture and repress their own people.

“The soldiers that arrested us were all 18 years old,” he says. “They were so scared. I told one of them, ‘if you arrest me, I’m going to call your daddy.’ The other guard says, ‘don’t pay attention to him. He’s fooling around with you.'”

Barrios says he was surprised that even the soldiers on the base had little knowledge of the School for the Americas. But, he says, one officer told him, “I hope you manage to get it closed. It discredits what we’re doing here.”

No matter what folks think about protest, Barrios still sees the value in it. “It’s a political strategy,” he says. “I am going to use this to put the whole system on trial. But you can’t run away from the consequences. You have to take whatever they give you.”

Indeed, Barrios refused to simply plead guilty to the charges. He forced a trial, during which he actually reprimanded the judge in court. Given the power of federal judges, it was a gusty — or foolhardy — thing to do.

“I told him that he wasn’t just neutral, he wasn’t just applying the law, that he was responsible, too” he says. “The hottest places in hell are reserved for people who in a crisis say they are neutral. I told him he was part of the problem.”

The judge was not happy, telling Barrios, “I’m not used to someone talking to me like this.”

Even so, the judge said he admired Barrios’ integrity, and did him a solid by agreeing to house him near home in a Manhattan jail, rather than in Georgia or elsewhere.

Asked what his bosses at John Jay thought about his arrest, Barrios chuckles, and says, “It’s not an administration that sympathizes with what I am doing. I think they tolerate me. But I don’t need permission to do this. This is a moral responsibility that we have as citizens.”

As for protesting, Barrios says folks have to do more than just show up. “My biggest criticism is that people think it’s enough just to organize rallies and demonstrations,” he says. “That’s not enough. It’s only a first step.”

You can read more about Barrios’ arrest and the overall background of the case at

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