“I call myself a professional protester,” said Mary Vaughan of White Bear Lake, and the 76-year-old has a record to prove it. After retiring at the age of 62, the former nun, educator, missionary, volunteer, “prisoner of conscience” and author has dedicated her life to peaceful protest against social and political injustice.
Vaughan is an active member of the SOA Watch, an activism group committed to overcoming social and economic injustice, especially “oppressive U.S. foreign policy” with a focus on the School of the Americas at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia.
Members of the group travel to Fort Benning each November to protest at the grounds of the SOA, an institution believed to teach torture and other violent military tactics to their students for use in Latin America. During her career as a peace activist and SOA Watch member, Vaughan has been arrested four times for criminal trespassing. In 2001, Vaughan and eight other women, including a 19 year-old-student and two 88-year-old Franciscan nuns, were sentenced to six months in Camp Pekin Federal Prison in Illinois after being charged with trespassing on federal property after crossing an “invisible line” during a SOA protest at Fort Benning.
“We were put in there for a misdemeanor which is the same as a traffic violation here,” Vaughan said. “but it was different because of it being a federal crime.” The events leading up to and during her imprisonment, including surviving a heart attack, are detailed in her recently published memoir, Pistol Pete’s Memoirs of Camp Pekin- A Federal Prison. (Vaughan is nicknamed Pistol Pete after the notoriously spirited basketball star Pete Maravich, due to her vivacious personality.)
Pistol Pete’s Memoirs of Camp Pekin- A Federal Prison can be ordered at Celebrations of LIfe.
Vaughan describes her book as “not political at all, it’s very personal.” However, she does highlight the work of activists against the SOA and her frustration towards the penal system in her memoir.
“Since the protests began, 183 people have collectively served over eighty-one years in prison for civil disobedience while countless innocent people in Latin American countries continue to die from the repressive efforts led by SOA graduates,” Vaughan writes.
On June 28, following the publication of her book, Vaughan received the 2009 Celebrations of Life Inspirational Life Story award preceding her book signing at St. Mary of the Lake Church in White Bear Lake.
Vaughan was awarded a plaque by her publisher and editor, Tracie Bluse Ward, President of Celebrations of Life, a company in St. Paul “dedicated to helping elders share their life stories, ethical wills, and meaningful legacies.” The event was attended by friends and fellow peace activists who spoke in her honor. Vaughan called the event, “One of the happiest days of my life!”
When asked how prison has changed her life, Vaughan said, “I believe that I am an entirely different person because of that experience. I really look at life nonviolently. Like, even if I had a relationship with [someone] and I was angry, that is very real to me. And that to me is just as wrong as hitting somebody or being violent in getting your point across.”
Vaughan returns to Fort Benning each November to protest the SOA, despite her previous imprisonment and arrests.
When asked if it was worth it, Vaughan said, “Absolutely! As an American citizen, I believe it is not only our right, but our obligation to inform people of issues that are unjust and to stand up for those who cannot speak for themselves, even if we have to break a few rules along the way.”
Jaclyn Evert is a journalism student at the University of Minnesota.
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