My friend Tom Cahill has given me permission to publish the e-mails that he sends out from his voluntary exile in France. So I am putting up this page to tell just a bit about him and also a bit about myself, since Tom has been quite an influence on me. I will start with Tom's brief autobiography and move on to my own meandering rendition
Tom CahillTom Cahill was born in New Jersey, , 1937, at a time when fascism could have been stopped in Spain and WW II averted. While still a teenager, he was an analyst inU.S. Air Force intelligence in Germany and in 1957, he tried unsuccessfully—fortunately for him--to organize a union of fellow disgruntled enlisted men. Afterward he studied journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and since 1963, has been an advocacy journalist and photographer as well as a firefighter, small boat instructor, and groundskeeper.In the late 60s, Cahill published an underground newspaper called Inferno in Spanish and English in what he calls “America’s most fascist city”—San Antonio, Texas. Memos from his FBI files indicate COINTELPRO may have set him up to be beaten, gang-raped and otherwise tortured while jailed for civil disobedience in 1968 to “neutralize” him because of his “anti-Vietnam (war) activities.”In early 2003, Cahill served as a volunteer “human shield” at a water treatment plant near Baghdad during the bombing and invasion. Later that same year, he witnessed Pres. George W. Bush sign into law the Prison Rape Elimination Act. He was invited to the signing ceremony in the Oval Office because he was a survivor and the activist who worked on the issue longest. He accepted the invitation because of “curiosity” and describes the experience as “more surreal than any acid trip I ever took .”In 2001, Cahill received an award from Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch for his decades of work trying to halt the rape of prisoners. In 2005, he was nominated along with Cindy Sheehan for the Agape Foundation Peace Prize. The next year, an annual human rights fellowship was named for him by Just Detention International (formerly Stop Prisoner Rape), an organization with which he has long been associated. Some other groups he has worked with are the International Workers of the World, Earth First, Amnesty International, Alliance For Democracy, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Veterans For Peace.Cahill has written about sexual assault behind bars, the fraudulent War on Drugs, the assassinations of Pres. John Kennedy and possibly of his son, the U.S. use of radioactive munitions and armor in Iraq and other countries since 1991, and other issues including spiritual. He has been a self-ordained syncretist priest since 1984. He has lived in France since May 2013 where he enjoys travel, kayaking, sailing and collecting nautica.
Chez H. Cneude375 Rue du Robinet50400 GranvileFRANCECell phone in France--06 52 49 63 36Calling from USA--011 33 6 52 49 63 36
That guy shaking hands with Tom in the picture used to be the President of the United States. Tom is congratulating him on signing the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. Tom's comment that I should have been there too is a remark I will always cherish.
After the ceremony Tom went to the Treasury Building to turn himself in. Other Americans who had served as human shields in Iraq were subject to fines. Much to his frustration, they didn't accept his surrender. As far as I know, Tom was the only veteran of the United States Air Force to serve as a human shield in Iraq.
Although that clearly was not a typical day in the life of Tom Cahill, it does give you something of a nutshell of at least his public persona. He was a close to lifelong activist in many areas including peace and the environment, but his primary concern was the systematic sexual abuse of people in detention.
Some Brief Facts About Tom
Tom was born in 1937 and grew up in Jersey City, NJ. He enlisted in the Air Force when he was seventeen, barely making him a Korean era veteran. He was very idealistic. He told me that after he had been at camp a while he was told to get in line with the other recruits. When he asked what this particular line was for, he was told that it was payday. His comment was "You mean we get paid?"
He served in intelligence in Germany and was honorably discharged. His time in Germany rubbed off a bit of the idealism.
The First Turning Point In Tom's Life
The first turning point in Tom's life was one that he shared with most Americans alive on that day in November 1963.
On the morning of November 22, 1963, I was a 26-year-old reporter/photographer with “Texas Co-Op Power” magazine in Austin. I was excitedly gathering up my huge Speed Graphic camera and gear and making plans to photograph Pres. and Mrs. Kennedy at a Democratic Party fund raiser in Austin that evening. I had a White House press pass and a friend of then Vice-Pres. Lyndon Johnson was going to set-up a photo-op for me.
Needless-to-say the Kennedys never made it to Austin that night and what happened to the President changed the course of world history and definitely changed my life as is it did many others globally. All these years later, like many people, I am still traumatized by The Assassination.The Second Turning Point In Tom's Life
The second turning point was much more personal.
It happened to me. I was involved in anti-war activism in San Antonio during the Vietnam War. It was 1968, and San Antonio, with all its military bases and retirees, was not a friendly place for dissidents. Worse yet, I was a member of Veterans for Peace; a lot of people considered us traitors. I was jailed for civil disobedience.
The jailers put me in a 24-bed cell with 30 guys, mainly black and hispanic, with three white guys, two cowering in the back. The third white guy was retarded and maybe criminally insane. He was the leader of the guys who raped me. The jailers told them I was a short eyes -- a child molester -- and that if they took care of me they would get extra rations of jello.
This went on for 24-hours, until one of my Hispanic activist friends, an ex-con with friends in the jail, heard through the grapevine that I was being "turned out." He got word back into the cellblock vouching for me, and the rapes stopped on a dime.The PTSD from the assault was so severe that Tom qualified for a non-service connected disability pension.
The Worst Acronym In History
I'm going to pass over most of what went on with Tom for the next nearly thirty years. Maybe I will fill that in later. The part that is most relevant to me is that in 1983 Tom took over an organization that had been founded by Russell Smith in 1980. The organization was called People Organized To Stop The Rape Of Imprisoned Persons. POSRIP is at least the worst acronym I have ever encountered but that is neither here nor there.
Tom turned POSRIP leadership over to Stephen Donaldson a/k/a Donny the Punk, who recruited me to be on the board in 1995 since every board should have a CPA. Donny had renamed the organization Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR), incorporated it and we applied for exempt status. He was rather charismatic and had recruited an eclectic board.
Donny died just over a year after I met him. An emergency board meeting was arranged in New York. Don Collins, another POSRIP veteran came in from LA and was made the new president and executive director. I assumed the treasurer role.
For the next few years, the precarious finances of SPR were in my desk drawer in Worcester. Initially the main office was Don's apartment in Los Angeles. Don retired after a couple of years and Tom assumed the presidency. That's when we started working together a lot.
We had met for the first time in the spring of 1997 at a retreat that Ellen Spertus had arranged at Dead Cow Ranch which was about an hour from San Francisco. Tom drove down from Mendocino where he lived in what he called a gentrified barn, which lacked indoor plumbing. It was an interesting group, that I took to calling the Dead Cow Eight. Tom thought that a CPA being on the scene was a big breakthrough. It indicated that the "establishment" was embracing the cause.
Around 1998, at some level, SPR was down to Tom answering the phone and the website, which made it look much bigger than it was. Then we were discovered. John Kaneb sent us a large donation. Well it was large to us anyway - 10 grand I think and used his influence to get Amnesty International to pay attention to us. I remembered be really impressed that I got to talk to William Schulz, then executive director of Amnesty International, who had formerly been the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. He insists that being President of the UUA is not equivalent to being Pope, but it's as good as it gets for a religious liberal.
At any rate, Tom started getting calls from Amnesty to speak here and there, but then came our big break. I have to tell you this is probably the worst business plan ever for a not for profit, but what happened was we got discovered.
It was Lara Stemple just out of Harvard Law School who did it. A friend of hers had made a boat load of money in the dot-com bubble (I think that was it), she convinced him that he should do something worthwhile with the money. He asks her well what should I do. She says well what do you find interesting that could make the world a better a place. He says. Well you know you often here about people getting raped in prison. People make jokes about, but when I think about it, it seems like an awful thing. Is there any group out there that is trying to do anything about it?
So now the guy in the gentrified barn on disability and the accountant with the checkbook in his desk drawer have this bright energetic young woman who just raised like four grand a month for SPR and is about three times as smart as the two of us put together. It didn't take us long to get her to be the executive director and before you know it there is an office in Los Angeles and all these impressive board members. And it was just great.
The Big Conference
In October 2001 there was a conference in Washington - "Not Part of the Penalty" - sponsored by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Stop Prisoner Rape. One of these days I will track down the video.
One of the things that makes the issue just a little easier to deal with is that extremists on both the Left and the Right end up in prison from time to time, so even though the overall board composition of SPR has been tinged leftish and rather extremely so in the case of Tom, there has been significant support from conservatives.
That accounts for the rather odd meeting that Tom Cahill, Bob Dumond and I had with a high level Republican political operative right before the day before the conference.
In a happy coincidence, Tom was just coming back from Europe, so he flew into Boston. Bob Dumond is a prison mental health professional. He has served as an expert witness in prison rape cases and had gotten to know Donny pretty well. The three of us drove down to Washington in Plymouth Voyager and we did a little sight seeing the day before the conference and had our meeting with the operative. All the tourist sites were practically deserted, this being just a month after the Septermber 11 attack. We stayed in a Motel 6 taking turns sleeping on the floor. I was too cheap to have HBO, so I got my first taste of Band of Brothers including one of my favorite scenes
The meeting with the operative was something. He was basically issuing orders to us. He told us that we had to tell the ACLU that their effort to repeal the Prison Rape Litigation Reform Act were hopeless. Like the three of us had a lot of pull with ACLU. He implored Tom to not talk about the Kennedy assassination. Needless to say in Tom's talk there was mention of the Kennedy assassination. The conference does not have a strong internet trail, but I did find the paper that Bob Dumond presented.
After The Conference
Tom gradually lessened his involvement in running SPR, as the organization professionalized. Grass roots activists can become disgruntled as professionals take their organizations to the next level, but not Tom. He is pretty well delighted with Stop Prisoner Rape which renamed itself to Just Detention International. He has focused mainly on peace activism including his time in Iraq as a human shield.
One of Tom's goofier activist activities was his service in the navy of the Duchy of Grand Fenwcik
which had been waging peace. He and Donny had an endless debate as to whether Fenwick could have a Royal Navy or if it needed to be a Ducal Navy.
There's more, but that will have to do for now.
My forbes.com coverage of Tom including his guest posts.
IRS Feels Peace Activists Stubborn Ounces
Occupy Wall Street - Veteran Activist Speaks Out
Open Letter To Warren Buffett From A Prison Rape Survivor And Another Century
Warning To Occupy Wall Street - Rape Can Still Be Part Of The Penalty