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Gary Ashbeck

Frank Klein

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 1/25/2006

Gary Ashbeck celebrates his 30th birthday this January in Baltimore, living and working at Jonah House on the city’s west side. He was one of 25 Catholic anti-war activists who in December paid a surprise—and illegal—visit to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, marching from the town of Santiago de Cuba to the checkpoint outside the U.S. military base and prison there (“Cuban Intervention,” Quick and Dirty, Dec. 7). U.S. officials denied the group access to the prisoners, so they prayed and fasted outside the gate for three days before returning home.


City Paper: Where do you come from?

Gary Ashbeck: I grew up in northern Wisconsin, in a pretty normal American family. I grew up killing animals, eating meat. It was a pretty conservative Catholic place. Guns and abortion were the big political issues in my town.


CP: How did your thinking change?

GA: I went to the Dominican school in Madison called Edgewood College. But by then I was not very religious anymore. Basically, when I left home, I had never seen what I was taught, what I was hearing in church, being done. So I didn’t feel any strong desire to carry all that on.


CP: Your faith was—

GA: —I wasn’t really a practicing Catholic then.


CP: What changed that?

GA: I took an alternative spring break trip to Mexico [in 1997]. We did a hospitality house for indigenous Tarahumara Indians. I did some hikes in the Copper Canyon, saw what NAFTA was doing. This priest that I got to know, he was working with [indigenous] people to make sustainable agriculture, sustainable medical care, housing. He was threatened, his garage got burned down. I couldn’t understand how that could be possible. He was the first person that I met who was doing Christian works. I thought, Damn, I have to be a Catholic again.


CP: What did you do?

GA: Basically, I moved down there [to Anahuac, Chihuahua] to work in an orphanage. When I got home, I tried to find out why [the priest] was being threatened. Pretty soon I ran into the [U.S. Army] School of the Americas (SOA).


CP: How did that come about?

GA: Some friends of mine had gone down to protest [at Fort Benning, Ga., where the School of Americas is based]. They came back with a wealth of information [about the school, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation]. I went back to school a month after that and protested.

I also read a book by Steve Kelly and Sue Crane [of the Catholic Worker House in Baltimore], Disciples and Dissidents. That woke me up to military issues generally. I had supported the first Gulf War. Years later I went to Iraq. It was the summer of 2002. I saw the Amiriyah Shelter in Baghdad. That was the one that U.S. planes bombed [Feb. 13, 1991, killing more than 300 women and children] and the administration said was a high-level military bunker. I had believed the “It’s a bunker” story. I have pictures of flesh burned into the wall, with blood and hair. To see that, it was such an earthquake.


CP: So when did you start on your life of crime?

GA: In 2001, I had worked for SOA Watch in D.C. [a nonprofit whose mission is to expose human-rights violations of the School of the America’s graduates] and stayed at the Catholic Worker house for just over a year. In 2002 . . . two Jesuits and I, we had discerned through the Gospel of John this idea of praying on the base for the victims of what the SOA was doing, so we climbed a fence and attempted to pray. We were quickly seized by defense protective services and hauled off to jail.


CP: Where did they send you?

GA: I went to three jails in Georgia. These were county jails. Columbus [Ga.’s jail] was pretty bad. I lost 20 pounds there, and I don’t have 20 pounds to lose.


CP: Were you menaced in jail?

GA: The only time that I ever felt fearful was when I was in the custody of the MPs [military police]. I got hit three times in the balls.


CP: They hit you in the balls?

GA: When we first were being arrested at the base, that’s when we were subjected to abuse by the MPs. They hit me in the crotch three different times—they made it part of the search. They come up the leg, and they came up very hard, all the way up, and they reacted when you screamed at the obvious pain.


CP: When was all this?

GA: November 2003.


CP: You served your time in Georgia jails?

GA: I ended up sent to prison in Schuylkill, Pa., with white-collar criminals who had self-reported. I was loving the food. They were all complaining about the food, but those guys had never been in a Georgia jail. I left prison in May 2004.


CP: Why do you keep doing this?

GA: When I was working a job, it hurt to do it. I was having to compromise—everything. I was general manager of a restaurant. I was buying the cheapest food I could get my hands on, I was hiring part-time workers because they’re cheaper, and for what?


CP: What is your job today?

GA: Now I’m the caretaker for the [St. Peter’s] cemetery [in West Baltimore]. We have goats, we have llamas in there now. I think of myself as a goat herder now.


CP: Did you say llamas?

GA: The llamas guard the goats, which clear the brush. The llamas are there because there are some pretty big, mean dogs running around in that area, and the llamas don’t take anything from those dogs. I love it. It’s from my redneck upbringing. All of it is to lessen our footprint on the earth.


CP: You have a brother in the military, right?

GA: National Guard. My brother was in Iraq. He just deactivated. He has been very supportive about what I’m doing. He says he likes what I write. And I support him.


CP: What is his name?

GA: I would rather not say.


CP: What do your parents think of your work?

GA: My parents think I have all these marketable skills. I’ve been a carpenter, a handyman, a restaurant manager. I do them all [now]—I just don’t do them for pay. I can’t say I’m always going to live like this.


CP: So what happened at Guantanamo?

GA: We went to visit the prisoners as an act of my Christian faith.


CP: What was the finest moment?

GA: I think really what it came down to was when we actually arrived at the checkpoint and then started initiating phone calls to the White House and to the base. It seemed like we shifted into a new perspective. And just to have gotten that far, to be so close, and to be able to—we were just kilometers, just a few kilometers from the prison. The closest that anyone not associated with the base could come, including family members. To be able to be there and pray was a very powerful moment.


CP: The worst moment?

GA: I think when we first got there and the Cubans expressed their fear of us being—you know, being so close to the base and, um, I guess trying to understand that fear that they have, which is a legitimate fear of the U.S., [that] they would use any pretext to come down [on us]. It’s a very sensitive area. There was a time when we first thought we would be on the next plane out.


CP: How did the Cubans manifest their fears?

GA: They tried to explain the fact . . . they said over the years these type of things had been done. Later we saw a video. People—soldiers had been shooting over fisherman, killing people and saying they had been spying. U.S. soldiers at these guard booths, flipping [the Cubans] off, mooning them. It is an area of friction. What we had proposed was to step right into that area.


CP: What was the scariest moment?

GA: I think the scariest moment really was coming back—not knowing what immigration was going to do when we came back. There was a possibility they would have just grabbed us there [in the Bahamas, where he went through customs]. There is this fear, but there is also this joy—of doing the act that you’re doing. A fear mixed with joy. Wondering when the gig is gonna be up.


CP: What did happen?

GA: The [customs] officers said, “You know you’re supposed to get permission to get down there [to Cuba].” I explained that I did not think I needed permission. I was waved through.


CP: Was everybody in the group waved through?

GA: I was separate—I had to come
back in a different way. I actually came through alone.


CP: How did customs know? Was your passport stamped in Cuba?

GA: Oh no, I told them. They give you a form. I didn’t lie, because if you lie then they have you on lying, which is a stiffer penalty. So the group discerned we should be very transparent on this.


CP: Describe the moment you felt the most relief.

GA: I guess I would have to say when I finally got into my bed last night. After all of this camping on rocky ground, and sleeping in airports and stuff like that, it was divine.

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