From School of the Americas Watch
Presbyterian SOA protester
prepares for 60-day prison term
Phil Gates, one of the Presbyterians
arrested during the witness against the School of the Americas last
November, will enter prison on March 21st. He sends a letter
about ways people can support him and the other 13 who will be entering
prison on that day.
Among other things, he urges us to support the bill that
will be introduced by Rep. James McGovern (D- MA) this month or next. Last
year, it failed by only 15 votes, and given the changes wrought by last
fall’s election, he says "our hopes are high for its successful passage this
time around." He includes a
sample draft letter to Congress, for your use.
A report on the trial of the "SOA 17"
Even the judge acknowledges the complexity of the
This report comes from Robert Leslie, of Decatur, GA,
who participated in the protest action last November without "crossing the
I was sitting in the back of the courtroom with about
60-70 supporters of those on trial. We were allowed in as long as we did not
express ourselves verbally in any way, and as long as we stayed in our seats
unless required to stand, no exceptions.
I was struck continually during the trial by the quote
posted in large brass letters on the wall of the narrow, long courtroom,
which reads, "There is but one law for all, the law of humanity and justice"
- J. Carter. (Pres. Carter, I assume). How ironic, I thought, since this
court showed little of either in my opinion.
There were to be 16 defendants and they were to be tried
in 3 groups of 5. One was a minor of age 17, and was to be treated
separately. The format was very cut and dried. Charges were read once for
all, and then each one was brought up with counsel. The basic charge was
trespassing with an illegal purpose and is classified as a class B
misdemeanor. Normally such an act would not bring jail time, but in Judge
Faircloth's court the punishment would be time in Federal Prison.
Each made a plea which in the main was "guilty with
stipulations," which meant that they plead guilty to trespass on Government
property but not for illegal reasons. Their reason for trespassing was
obedience to a higher calling from God or conscience. The prosecution and
defense both had to sign that they understood these "stipulations" to the
Each then made a statement to the court, all of which were
very heart-felt and many of which were very eloquent. There were some quiet
sighs among the observers, and there were some facial expressions of
non-acceptance and even disdain from court workers, who I suppose have heard
every story imaginable. I felt that the faces belied the true feelings about
these friends of mine.
The judge for his part made very little comment and was
very restrained, allowing some to go on with their statements even after all
meaningful points had been made. He was patient, even though firm in his
conviction that punishment was due. His sentences, which ranged from 30 to
100 days, were seen by all as lenient. They could have gotten 6 months. Even
the judge confided to the court that he was in a mood of compromise. The
reasons for this, at this point in the history of SOA protests, are not
clear. The prosecution asked for sentences of no more than 90 days.
Possibly Judge Faircloth is beginning to believe that we
protesters are not so much against the people doing the military bidding of
their superiors, but simply against the training done at the SOA. He
explained his attitude by saying he was simply doing his duty before the
law. And we on the other side are doing ours as well. The government may
feel it is in a somewhat weak position vis Á vis the continued
viability of the SOA.
The judge did show that he was struggling a bit with
exactly how to sentence. One defense attorney had mentioned that through his
experience over the years he had come to recognize that sentencing is one of
the most difficult things a judge has to deal with and it is not taught in
law school. Judge Faircloth responded by saying he agreed and he was
appreciative of the defense's understanding of his difficult position.
The type of plea, any prior convictions at SOA, as well as
obedience to "ban and bar" orders to stay off Fort Benning for 5 years,
influenced the lengths of the sentences.
It is interesting that the court does not place ban and
bar orders on defendants, but the Base itself is able to do this according
to some set of guidelines. There were 5 individuals who had such orders,
including a very small, but obviously brave, woman who was previously banned
and barred for life from entering Ft. Benning. Even she only received 100
days of imprisonment.
The statement of Phil Gates was very persuasive recounting his work with the
Presbyterian Church and PPF in Colombia two years ago.
One of the Presbyterians convicted, Philip Gates, a retired school
superintendent living in Prescott, AZ, gave this statement to the court:
Philip Gates Statement of Record
Federal District Court
January 29, 2007
I served as a Presbyterian Church USA accompanier
in the Barranquilla and Cartagena area in northwestern Colombia in
July and August, 2005. It is the practice of the Presbyterian Church
to send pairs of volunteers trained by Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
to that troubled country to be conspicuously visible among Colombian
church and secular human rights advocates in order to protect their
On several occasions my American colleague Kathryn
‘Cat’ Bucher and I were told that by virtue of our highly visible
presence, we were saving lives.
The two of us accompaniers visited ten displaced
person communities throughout northwestern Colombia—slum communities
at the edge of large cities, and villages in the jungle and the
mountains. Some of the four million people in these displaced
communities are ranchers and most of the others are farmers .... all
forced off their land. Size of the communities varies from about 120
to upwards of 40,000 people.
During these visits, I met a woman in her 60s who
told me about watching her husband killed before her very eyes
because he was not vacating their land quickly enough. Another woman
in her 80s told us she was forced to witness her adult daughter
raped and then murdered during a village massacre. A 60 year old
priest told me he lives in constant fear of assassination, having
been arrested but then exonerated for alleged subversive teaching.
These are but a few of the score of individual testimonies I heard
from survivors of human rights abuse.
Deeply disturbed about all of the unnecessary
suffering I had seen and inspired by the courageous efforts of
Colombian human rights advocates, I returned to the United States
determined to do what I could to tell their story. This I did by
making interpretive presentations to about 25 churches in my home
state of Arizona, personally contacting my federal legislators, and
studying Latin American political history.
During the course of my study, I learned that a
United Nations Truth Commission completed a study of human rights
abuse involving military personnel in Colombia. Its report revealed
that of 246 individual Colombian soldiers cited for participation in
acts of human rights abuse, 105 of these (43%) had graduated from
the School of the Americas.
I learned similar patterns of human rights abuse
involving SOA graduates have been documented in many other Latin
American countries as well. For example, I learned that during the
12-year civil war in El Salvador from 1980-1992 fully 73% of the
Salvador officers cited for human rights abuse by a U.N. Truth
Commission were SOA graduates.
What do I hope to accomplish by my act of civil
disobedience in crossing onto Ft. Benning November 19 for which I
appear in court today? Specifically, my goal is to help keep the
issue of the existence of the Western Hemisphere Institute for
Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) on Congress’ front burner with the
hope it will finally decide to close this institution. I find
encouragement in the fact that last June a vote in the House of
Representatives (H.B. 1217) which would have required closure of the
school, failed by only 15 votes.
I am also encouraged that this past December 12, a
Wisconsin colleague of mine received letters from both of her U. S.
Senators acknowledging they want to see the WHINSEC closed. In
Senator Herb Kohl’s letter to her he wrote in part: "The proposed
changes made by the Army in 2001 to improve the School of Americas
have shown only a few substantive reforms that do not seem to ensure
a significant change from past practices. Accordingly, I remain
convinced that the best course of action in the interest of
Wisconsin’s citizens, and all Americans, is to simply close the
Those of us who fall on the side of closing SOA/WHINSEC
are in good company. My own Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly,
representing over two million Americans from all over this country,
has twice passed resolutions urging Congress to close the SOA. Over
300 Catholic bishops from South, Central, and North America have
written letters of request to shut it down. At least ten of our
country’s major newspapers from Coast to Coast have published
articles which condemn the WHINSEC, of which at least seven,
including the Atlanta Constitution, have called for its outright
It is my position that if my efforts to garner
support to close the SOA/WHINSEC contribute to that end, my act of
civil disobedience at Ft. Benning last November will not have been
Note: After making this statement, Phil was
declared guilty by Federal Court Magistrate G. Mannon Faircloth, and
sentenced to two months in a federal minimum security prison. He
will be notified as to the actual time and place where he will serve
this sentence by the Bureau of Prisons within the next four to six
weeks, and will have between one and two weeks prior to the actual
date for Self Reporting.
Gates also wrote in
December about his decision to "cross the line."
School of the Americas demonstrators tried,
White of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship has sent this report:
From Columbus, Georgia, January 29, 2007
The "SOA 16" were tried today, and all were found guilty
(except for one 17 year old who had a closed hearing and I have not yet
heard the outcome of that).
Four Presbyterians were among the defendants.
|Julienne Oldfield of Syracuse, New York, was sentenced
to 90 days, no fine.|
|Phil Gates of Prescott, Arizona, was sentenced to 60
days, no fine.|
|Don Coleman of Chicago, Illinois, was sentenced to 60
days, no fine.|
|Graymon Ward, age 20, of Raleigh,
North Carolina, was sentenced to 30 days, no fine.|
Here to support the defendants were their spouses and
families. Some other PPF and Presbyterian friends attending the trial were
Dwight Lawton, Dick Rustay, Bob Leslie, Anne Sayre, Marilee Blanchard, Ken
Kennon, Jane Wood, and me.
Peace, Marilyn White
Your WebWeaver asked Marilyn (by e-mail) why the sentences seemed lighter
this year than in past years. She responded:
Yes, the sentences are a bit lighter this year. There
are many different theories about why. Maybe the judge's heart is
softening; maybe like so many these days he is becoming more cynical about
our government's claims that we are not involved in torture. Or maybe he
just wants to diminish the impact the long sentences have in getting more
publicity for the message of SOA Watch.
Graymon pled "nolo contendre." The judge accepted that as a guilty plea.
The others all pled not guilty, but stipulating to the facts of the case.
Sometimes in the past, he has gone easier on those accepting
responsibility with a guilty plea. That combined with Graymon's young age
seemed to be the factors going into the 30 day sentence.
Julienne was one of 4 defendants who had previous arrests and expired
ban-and-bar letters. This year the government charged them with illegal
"reentry" instead of unlawful "entry." Usually the only people charged
with reentry are those with active ban-and-bars. However there is a
provision in the law that prohibits reentry after being previously evicted
from the base OR in violation of an order not to return. This year the
government took advantage of the loophole which seemed not to require an
active ban-and-bar. However, in light of the fact that the four had
honored their ban-and-bar letters while they were in effect, the
government only requested sentences of 90 days. In Julienne's case, her
five year ban was issued in 1997. She testified that she had waited 9
years and had worked hard through legal means to close the school. The
judge changed her charge to illegal entry and sentenced her to 90 days.
(By the way, the penalty for entry and reentry are both the same - up to 6
The other three repeat offenders [not Presbyterians] had been issued ban
and bar letters in the year 2000. This was the first protest after their
bars had expired. Seeing that they took advantage of the first opportunity
to recross the line without a ban and bar letter, the judge sentenced all
three of them to 100 days. So Julienne actually received a lighter
sentence than others in her category. Phil, Graymon, and Don were all
first time crossers without ban-and-bar letters.
There was one defendant with an active ban-and-bar letter. This was her
3rd arrest in five years, and she has already served two prison terms. She
received 6 months in prison, but no fine.
More on the School of
the Americas Watch website >>
See our earlier report on the
demonstration, with a photo of three of those who were tried and
Why go to prison to protest against School of
|Philip Gates (right) with fellow
witnesses Don Coleman and Julienne Oldfield
Presbyterian Phil Gates, a retired school superintendent
living in Prescott, AZ, writes about his decision to "cross the line" at
Fort Benning, GA, in an act of civil disobedience to protest against the
School of the Americas.
Soon after his arrest he wrote this letter to some
friends, and has kindly given his permission for us to share it here. He
draws very illuminating connections between his experience as an
accompanier in Colombia and his decision to take action against the School
of the Americas, showing how US actions in South America are closely tied
to SOA, and even more important, to the American attitudes and policies
that support SOA.
And therein lie the reasons for resistance.
Dr. Gates' letter:
DR. PHILIP E. GATES
November 24, 2006
There are certain friends near and far with whom I would
like to share some special news. On Sunday, Nov. 19, I was one of 16
individuals from various parts of the United States who in an act of civil
disobedience chose to trespass onto the grounds of Ft. Benning, Columbus,
GA. All but one of us (a 17 year old minor) were immediately arrested,
processed, and released on bail. Except for the minor, the remaining 15 of
us will go to trial in Federal District Court in Columbus on Jan. 29. At
that time I, along with most of the others, will plead guilty, and then will
be sentenced. It is likely we will be given anywhere from two to six months
in a minimum security federal prison, fined up to $5,000, and stripped of
monthly social security stipends during incarceration.
During the last 10 years, 183 individuals have "crossed
the line" onto the fort in an act of civil disobedience for the same reason
we did on Sunday. Collectively, they have received a total of 81 years in
What, you ask, has precipitated such an unusual action on
the part of all these people? And why did I, after approximately six months
of reflection and prayer, decide to join them in their cause?
The short version is that my wife Lorie (who fully
subscribes to this action) and I, like the others who have trespassed in an
act of civil disobedience, believe our government’s operation of a military
training school known as the School of the Americas (SOA) on the campus of
Ft. Benning, for soldiers and police from assorted Latin American countries,
is both immoral and counter-productive. It is a demonstrated fact that many
SOA graduates return to their respective countries, and eventually become
involved in illegal, abusive treatment of their citizenry.
By way of example, the notorious slayings of Archbishop
Oscar Romero, four American churchwomen, six Jesuit priests (including a
university rector) and their housekeeper and her daughter, and the massacre
of approximately 900 Mozote villagers in El Salvador — were carried out by
military personnel which included soldiers and officers who attended the SOA.
Since this series of events associated with the SOA, 300 Latin America and
U.S. bishops have written statements condemning continuation of the school.
One archbishop wrote: "This military academy has
generated for a long time, directly and indirectly, much pain and suffering
among our brothers and sisters in Latin America."
My own interest in all of this began as a result of my
personal exposure to the prevailing culture of human rights abuse in Latin
America while serving as a Presbyterian Church (USA) accompanier in Colombia
for nine weeks during the summer of 2005. Together with Kathryn "Cat"
Bucher, Sherman, TX, we accompanied Colombian Presbyterian and Catholic
clergy and lay leaders whose lives are in danger because of their roles as
human rights advocates. Basically, our intentionally visible presence as
internationals served to reduce the chances of these leaders getting
kidnapped, tortured or killed. "You are saving lives," we were told often.
Sadly, three priests in other parts of Colombia were assassinated while I
There are nearly four million displaced persons in
Colombia (10% of the population, the largest number of displaced persons in
any country other than The Sudan) and 28 million citizens (65% of the
population) living in poverty. The wealthy and the powerful want to maintain
this economic status quo; thus, a largely corrupt government does little to
try to help its suffering people. The President of the country has himself
labeled clergy and churches who try to champion the rights of the oppressed
as "fronts for terrorists." Thus, when clergy try to intervene, they run the
risk of being kidnapped, tortured, or killed. Over 100 clergy associated
with human rights advocacy have been assassinated during the past decade in
The use of accompaniers has been established to try to
reduce this violence.
In our role as accompaniers Cat and I visited ten
displaced communities within an approximately 250-mile radius of
Barranquilla, site of the national headquarters for the Presbyterian Church
of Colombia (IPC). These communities consist of mainly farmers and ranchers
forced off their land by one or the other of the three armies which have
been at civil war since the mid-1960’s. They are located on the outskirts of
cities, in the jungle, or further up in the mountains. One village is but
120 people; another community holds 40,000 displaced. Regardless of their
size, however, each suffers the same afflictions; viz., poverty, hunger,
sickness, fear of the omniscient fighting forces, and hopelessness.
We were intimately exposed to the profound and unrelenting
suffering of huge numbers of people during the course of lengthy small and
large group interviews we conducted at each of the sites. In one community
we learned that during the previous six months seven of their community
members had been murdered by unidentified armed actors (and though they
certainly knew who those perpetrators are, they would never dare indicate
this out of fear of retaliation). Another community experienced seven of
their people being ordered out of their shanties to be shot, one fatally, by
either the paramilitary or opposing guerrilla forces (again, no one would
identify who that might be).
A mother of six children told us she leaves home at 2:30
a.m. each day, walks five miles to the city where she works at a day care
center as a cook, gets paid in food, and walks back home with her groceries
which she uses to prepare a nourishing meal for her family that evening. For
me, she serves as a face of but one of the 28 million Colombians (65% of the
population) who live in poverty due to the four decade old civil war and
repressive government policies which favor the wealthy minority at the
expense of the masses.
A priest in the Cartagena area personally told me that he
had been arrested for alleged subversive teaching. Questioned and held
overnight, he was released on his own recognizance, and ultimately cleared
of all charges. However, the fact someone had turned him in was seen as a
warning to him that his life is in danger. Consequently, if at any time he
hears or sees an approaching motorcycle while walking, he tries to move as
far away from the street as possible, as quickly as possible, out of fear he
may be a target for assassination. Three individuals associated with the
head of the Colombian Presbyterian Church were approached in much the same
manner late last year. Two fell victim of automatic gunfire while one, who
had earlier refused to serve as a paid informant against the executive
director of the Colombian Presbyterian Church, escaped. This was considered
a clear signal that the church executive and his family were in serious
danger; consequently it was determined they would have to leave the country,
which they have subsequently done.
My partner and I met a woman in one of the displaced
communities who told us about witnessing her husband being shot and killed
by rebels when he did not respond quickly enough when ordered to take his
family and leave his land. In another community we met an 80-year-old woman
who was forced to watch as men who had come to her jungle town of 6,000 to
order everyone to leave, raped and then murdered her adult daughter. We were
introduced to a cheerful, upbeat woman who was helping children who had been
compelled to watch as some of their playmates were chosen by lot and hanged
by paramilitary forces as a way to motivate the community to leave their
land immediately and never to come back.
Our list of first-hand accounts of human rights abuse grew
much longer. Our empathy deepened for the suffering which so many very good
people are forced to endure. Our anger festered. It was only after this
exposure over a nine week period that I began to connect the dots between
the numerous abuses I had seen first-hand, and the well-publicized
documentation of large numbers of SOA graduates who are the instigators of
some of these atrocities.
Upon returning to the U.S., I began doing more research. I
have learned, for example, that of 246 Colombian soldiers cited by the
United Nations Truth Commission for their involvement in human rights
related abuses of the type I have described, 100 of the perpetrators are SOA
Another fact which outrages those of us who have gotten so
involved in this is that we know our own government’s elected officials at
the highest levels are fully aware of this culture of abuse. For the past
several years the House of Representatives has debated closing the SOA for
the very reasons to which I have alluded. A few years ago when Joseph
Kennedy (D-MA) initiated such a bill to close the SOA, it failed by only 10
votes. This past June, a similar bill authored by James McGovern (D-MA) and
Sam Farr (D-CA) failed by only 15 votes. More recently, 34 Republicans who
voted against the bill were not re-elected in November. Consequently, it is
the hope of many (including this registered Republican) that a similar bill
to close the School of the Americas will finally pass.
The 16 of us who engaged in civil disobedience at Ft.
Benning Sunday did so to help keep the SOA issue on Congress’ front burner.
In addition, we acted in the hope that our friends, colleagues, loved ones,
church and community constituents, and others who learn of this event will
consider supporting this effort. We knew going into this what would be the
consequences of our act of civil disobedience (aka "divine obedience"), but
we believe it a small price to pay for the desired outcome: i.e., to close
While we were crossing over Sunday morning, the names of
scores of individuals who have been raped, tortured, and killed at the hands
of SOA trained militia were read over the loud speaker, one at a time. After
each name was broadcast, the parade of approximately 20,000 demonstrators
cried out in unison, "Presente," after which to the cadence of a drum roll
all 20,000 took another resolute step toward the fort’s gate. As they
approached the fort and passed by the gate, most of the 20,000 individuals
each placed a small white wooden cross with a victim’s name on it at the
entrance to the military installation. This massive display of respect for
the memory of the hundreds upon hundreds of innocent victims throughout
Latin America took about two hours to complete. It was conducted to remind
the world that these innocent people will never be forgotten — nor will the
cause of their fate, responsibility for which must be shared in some measure
by the SOA and its U.S. government supporters.
If you are interested in learning more about the SOA and
how you might get involved, go to
www.soaw.org, or just google SOA Watch. If
you are somewhat troubled by the notion of our "breaking the law" by
trespassing onto the fort, I urge you to google "Letter from a Birmingham
Jail," written by Dr. Martin Luther King. He writes, in part, "One who
breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to
accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that
conscience tells him is unjust [i.e., laws that permit the SOA to exist]
and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse
the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing
the highest respect for the law."
Recipients of this letter, approximately 50 friends and
colleagues, are in Lorie’s and my prayers. We pray that with this new
information, the Lord will touch you perhaps in a way that you have not been
touched before (as were we).
Thank you for giving your time to reading and reflecting
on this rather lengthy letter which we consider so very important to send to
you. Do not hesitate to contact me to share your thoughts and questions.
Another look at the School of the Americas protests
The world was watching
The Guardian (of Manchester, England) carried a
report on December 6, giving a good, clear account of the demonstration and
some of the main points that were made by the speakers. For example:
Many speakers cited recent electoral victories in Latin
America and opposition there to the US military build-up as signs of hope
and positive change in the region. SOA Watch activists described their
campaign to persuade Latin American political leaders to no longer send
troops to the SOA, a step already taken by Uruguay, Argentina and
whole story >>
And the PC(USA) was watching, too
Evan Silverstein of Presbyterian News Service also
provided a good report, noting that "More than 150 Presbyterians are
believed to have taken part in the protest, which involved as many as 22,000
demonstrators from around the country."
The PNS report >>
Our earlier report on the
SOA protest >>
|Acting for peace ...
Marching to close the School of the Americas
Doug King [11-19-06]
For the first time, your WebWeaver was privileged to be
present yesterday for part of the annual action to close the School of the
Americas, now renamed as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security
I just want to report on some of the things I saw and
heard yesterday (Saturday, November 18, 2006); I was not able to stay
through today, when the main actions have been taking place.
For the latest and most complete reports, go to
the website of the School of the Americas
Watch (They report that fourteen people have been arrested today;
we don’t have their names yet.)
Were you there?? Or do you have
We'd like to hear from you!
Just send a note, to be
|An update on Tuesday, Nov. 21:
Rick Ufford-Chase has reported since the weekend that
there were an estimated 22,000 persons there for the actual vigil on
Sunday, with 16 persons who crossed the line and were arrested.
Three of those arrested were Presbyterian.
January 29, 2007 court dates have been set with an expectation of 6
months' service time. Rick reported 80 people at the PF Breakfast,
high traffic at the PF Booth, and gratitude that was a Presbyterian
Peace Fellowship breakfast
A friend and I arrived after a two-hour drive from
Atlanta, just in time for the breakfast of the
Fellowship. Some 50 or 60 people filled a dining room to enjoy
breakfast, and to hear brief presentations from Peace Fellowship leaders and
others. Marilyn White, the PPF person who organized the breakfast (and much
more), opened the festivities – and indeed there was a festive sense about
this gathering. She introduced Kelly Wesselink, one of the co-moderators of
the Fellowship, who then introduced Joel Hanisek, the Presbyterian Church’s
representative at the United Nations; he spoke briefly about our church’s
efforts, in cooperation with many other faith groups, to further and deepen
the UN’s work for peace.
Ann Barstow then told of the Colombian Accompaniment
Program, describing it as "an incredible experience in peacemaking," where
North American Presbyterians have learned from our brothers and sisters in
Colombia "the price that is to be paid for standing against evil."
Rick Ufford-Chase, former moderator of the PC(USA) and now
Executive Director of the Peace Fellowship, talked of his visit to Kinshasa,
and the Presbyterian Church of the Congo, during his moderatorial term.
Leading one service of worship he read from Psalm 92, which offers
thanksgiving after deliverance from enemies. He highlighted verse 12: "The
righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of
our God." And that kind of joy in God’s work, he said, "is what I’ve been
feeling during my time with PPF."
He went on to describe some of the current and planned
projects of PPF, including a major endowment campaign. He spoke also of a
large, non-violent, inter-faith witness of peace which is being planned for
Washington, DC, on March 9 or 16. It will include an act of civil
disobedience – which he prefers to call an act of obedience to God. He urged
the group to begin work now to get 5,000 Presbyterians to that event, to say
"get out of Iraq, support our troops by bringing them home, and No to
torture." He promised to have
more information on
his blog, hopefully within a couple weeks.
Other events that he mentioned included the
conference in Los Angeles, January 19-20; a trip to the Middle East
after Easter; and a seminar for theologians and ethicists at Columbia
Seminary next fall, in which they will be invited to engage in "imaging a
world without torture."
The Peace Fellowship is also planning to create a "circle
of elders," who will serve as mentors to college and seminary students,
helping them to explore peacemaking as a vocation.
Praying at the locked gate
Finally, Rick described plans now being considered to form
a "Presbyterian Peace Corps," in which people would volunteer 5 to 10 hours
of their time each week for organizing peacemaking programs. This would
involve giving people particular tasks, and organizing around those tasks.
This would give people specific ways to channel their own passions for
peacemaking, and would help build the Peace Fellowship as well. "I learned
as Moderator," he said, "that money always follows mission and passion."
The Peace Fellowship gathering drew to a close with a
brief service of commissioning for the three Presbyterians who had chosen to
"cross the line" during the demonstration the next day.
Don Beisswenger, who served 6
months in prison in 2004 for performing the same act of witness in 2003,
introduced the three people: Phil Gates, Don Coleman, and Julienne Oldfield.
The three of them, said Beisswenger, "are engaged in the struggle for faith
and for justice." Each of them spoke of what had moved them to take this
action, and they all told of how their own visits to places like Nicaragua
and Colombia had impacted them.
Everyone in the room was then invited to join in a laying
on of hands, as the three witnesses knelt in the center of the group and we
united in prayer for them as they faced the costs they might have to pay for
their faithful witness.
SOA Watch preparatory plenary
After the breakfast, many of us went to the Columbus
Convention Center, where a plenary session was held to provide orientation
information for the actions Saturday afternoon and
Sunday at the gates of Fort Benning. We were told that the witness in 2005
drew over 19,000 people, and that 20,000 were expected for today’s action.
(The SOAW reports on their website says there were actually 22,000 there
today for the Sunday vigil and march, and the closing Return to Life
Among all the announcements and reports during the plenary
session, two stood out for me. One was given by Pam Bowman [at least I think
that’s who it was], the SOAW’s Legislative Coordinator, about current
efforts to get legislation through Congress. She declared that last year
they came within 15 votes of cutting funding in House for the School of the
Americas/WHINSEC, and said that "after this election, the chances are
better." She encouraged people to urge their own legislators to join as
co-sponsors of the bill that will likely be introduced again by Rep. Jim
McGovern (D-MA). The best outcome, she said, would be a suspension of SOA
funding plus an investigation of its activities; if a legislator is
unwilling to do that, he or she can be encouraged at least to support
Later, Lisa Sullivan Rodriguez, SOAW’s Latin America
Coordinator, reported on one important new development: seven Latin American
countries – El Salvador, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Paraguay, Ecuador and
Venezuela – were to see similar actions this weekend calling for the closing
of the School of the Americas.
Two final observations:
Protesting can be fun. The atmosphere on Saturday
afternoon, as thousands of people strolled up and down the road leading up
to the gates of Fort Benning, felt a little like a state fair: bright sun,
warm sunshine, blue skies, people enjoying themselves deeply. Folks were
obviously meeting old friends, getting acquainted with new one, chatting
earnestly with people at the 100 or so tables set up along the side of the
road. The Peace Fellowship had a table there for the first time, and Marilyn
White commented that it was providing a great opportunity to connect with
people, including many Presbyterians, who have no particular connection with
the Peace Fellowship. People were networking on a grand scale!
These people were deeply serious about the cause that
brought them together, but they were clearly rejoicing in their acting
together for peace and justice.
And the other thing:
Enjoying the songs and speeches.
This was a gathering of "young and old together," without a lot in the
middle. The number of people in their twenties, plus late teens and
early thirties, was impressive and very encouraging. There were lots of
college and university sweatshirts. (There was a group of students from
McCormick at the Peace Fellowship breakfast, and we saw groups from many
colleges at the Saturday afternoon witness, including Warren Wilson
College.) Then there were lots of gray heads (and beards, of course, though
not all of us had those). I heard someone comment the other day that the "me
generation" is being succeeded by the "we generation," which values
being connected with others, and working with others to make life, and the
world, better for us all. Well, they were at Fort Benning in force (if it’s
OK to use that word for a non-violent group).
So along with joy I sensed in the crowd, there was hope – great hope for
all of us and for the world.
Counterterrorism Unit spies on peaceful, faith-based protest group
News release from ACLU, The American Civil Liberties
ACLU releases documents showing years of spying on School of the
ATLANTA - The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU
of Georgia today released new evidence that the Federal Bureau of
Investigation is using counterterrorism resources to spy on peaceful faith-
and conscience-based advocacy groups. School of the Americas Watch (SOA
Watch) and its multinational faith-based network is the latest organization
uncovered by the ACLU to have been subject to Federal Bureau of
Investigation counterterrorism surveillance.
"We gather yearly to remember those killed by graduates of
this school, and to call for a change in U.S. policy towards Latin America,"
said Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch. "Our intentions are
peaceful and our commitment unwavering as we nonviolently call attention to
a school that has trained some of the worst human rights abusers in this
Founded by Bourgeois in 1990, SOA Watch conducts research
on the U.S. Army School of the Americas, now renamed the Western Hemisphere
Institute for Security Cooperation and located at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Each year the school trains hundreds of soldiers from Latin America, funded
entirely by U.S. taxpayers. SOA Watch sponsors an annual vigil to call for
the closure of the facility. Last year 19,000 people from around the country
poured into Georgia to take part.
The documents released today show that FBI surveillance of
these peaceful protests and acts of civil disobedience outside Fort Benning,
once classified as "Routine" after 200,1 became "Priority" and subject to
"Counterterrorism" monitoring. One memo dated October 2003 explicitly states
that "The leaders of the SOA Watch have taken strides to impart upon the
protest participants that the protest should be a peaceful event."
"Clearly the FBI knew it was spying on a peaceful
demonstration, activity protected by the First Amendment," said Gerry Weber,
ACLU of Georgia Legal Director. "That vital protection extends even to those
who express controversial views."
Judge G. Mallon Faircloth of the Middle District of
Georgia federal court held in November 2001 that the demonstrators are
"protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, to freely assemble
and express their political views, which may and are, as a matter of fact at
this point in time, contrary to the Congress of the United States, contrary
to the United States Army, and contrary to the President's opinion itself.
So be it. That's the American way."
The documents come to the ACLU as a result of a national
campaign to expose domestic spying by the FBI and other government agencies.
The ACLU has filed Freedom of Information Act requests in 20 states on
behalf of more than 150 organizations and individuals. In response to these
requests, the government has released documents that reveal monitoring and
infiltration by the FBI and local law enforcement, targeting political,
environmental and anti-war groups.
In Senate Judiciary Committee hearings earlier this week,
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) referenced many of the documents received by
the ACLU while aggressively questioning the FBI Director Robert Mueller
about spying on faith-based organizations.
Many other faith-based and peace groups affiliated with
SOA Watch have also been targets of FBI spying, according to the ACLU. Every
year Bourgeois tours the country to spread the word about the demonstration
and often speaks to organizations such as the American Friends Service
Committee, the Thomas Merton Center, Veterans for Peace and the Catholic
Workers Group. The ACLU is uncertain if the organizations were spied on as a
direct result of Bourgeois' visit.
"From Quakers to monks to priests, the FBI is targeting
innocent Americans for counterterrorism surveillance," said Ann Beeson,
Associate Legal Director of the national ACLU. "The quintessential American
values of freedom and fairness are predicated on people being able to stand
up and speak out when they feel they have seen an injustice. The FBI's
investigation into peaceful protests under the guise of counterterrorism
shackles our ability to speak freely and violates the fundamental notion of
what it means to be an American."
More information about the ACLU's Spy Files project
including the documents released today as well as a profile of Father Roy
Bourgeois, founder of School of the Americas Watch, is available online at:
More information about the School of the Americas Watch is
available online at: www.SOAW.org
Progressive magazine has also published a brief report >>>
|Human rights advocates face
six months in prison for civil disobedience opposing controversial U.S. Army
Trials begin in Columbus, Georgia on Monday, January
30; grandmother, priests, retirees, nun, students among those prosecuted
Press release from School of the Americas Watch, 27
On Monday, January 30 thirty-two people ranging in age from 19 to 81 will
begin federal trials for peacefully walking onto a military base in protest
of a controversial Army training school. Each person faces up to six months
in prison and a $5,000 fine for this act of nonviolent civil disobedience.
The 34 were among 19,000 who gathered on November 18-20
outside the gates of Ft. Benning, Georgia to demand a dramatic shift in U.S.
foreign policy and the closure of the controversial U.S. Army's School of
the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security
Cooperation (SOA/WHINSEC). The group peacefully crossed onto Ft. Benning,
site of the school, at the culmination of a symbolic funeral procession in
memory of those killed by graduates of the institution.
"People speaking out for justice and accountability will
most likely be sent to prison next week," said Fr. Roy Bourgeois, founder of
SOA Watch, "while the SOA and its graduates continue to operate outside a
system of real accountability."
Those arrested at the demonstration 40 in all cited the
Bush Administration's opposition to banning torture techniques, pictures of
abuse at the hands U.S. personnel, and reports about secret CIA detention
facilities as catalysts for this growing grassroots movement for human
rights. The demonstration was the largest yet in a 16-year history of
opposition to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, a
combat-training school for Latin American soldiers.
The SOA/ WHINSEC made headlines in 1996 when the Pentagon
released training manuals used at the school that advocated torture,
extortion and execution. Despite this admission and hundreds of documented
human rights abuses connected to soldiers trained at the school, no
independent investigation into the facility has ever taken place. New
research confirms that the school continues to support known human rights
Despite having been investigated by the United Nations for
ordering the shooting of 16 indigenous peasants in El Salvador (a massacre
recorded by the State Department), Col. Francisco del Cid Diaz returned to
SOA/WHINSEC in 2003.
The defendants are scheduled to begin trial at 9 am on
Monday morning before Judge G. Mallon Faircloth, known for handing down
stiff sentences to opponents of the SOA/ WHINSEC. Since protests against the
SOA/WHINSEC began more than a decade ago, 183 people have served a total of
over 81 years in prison for engaging in nonviolent resistance in a
broad-based campaign to close the school.
The movement to close the SOA/ WHINSEC continues to grow.
In 2005, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) introduced HR 1217, a bill to suspend
operations at WHINSEC and to investigate the development and use of the
"torture manuals." The bill currently has 123 bipartisan co-sponsors.
Get the latest reports on the trials on
the SOA Watch home page >>
SOA Watch urges: Be a part of the 2006 Legislative Campaign
They also call for support for anti-SOA activists as they are taken to
court and sent to prison for their stand
Be a part of this year's legislative campaign!
This year we have our best chance in years to close the
School of the Americas, but we need as many people as possible dedicating
these next few months to constant pressure on our Members of Congress. We
can win a vote in Congress to close the school by following a series of easy
action items each month. Please share this email and these action items with
your family, friends, coworkers, and communities and let them know that it
has never been more important to be involved in the legislative campaign to
close the SOA/ WHINSEC.
For the next few months, we will release new, easy action
items that YOU can take to make a win in Congress a reality. Starting this
month, visit our legislative action index for
FOUR STEPS to take
during the next few weeks.
BE A PART of the 2006 legislative campaign to close the
School of the Assassins!
Anti-SOA activists take struggle to the courts
In November of 2005, 40 people were arrested in acts of
civil disobedience calling for the closure of the School of the Americas.
Thirty four of these individuals will begin federal trials in Columbus,
Georgia on Monday, January 30.
On Sunday, January 29, at 7 pm, a FESTIVAL OF HOPE will be
held at the Columbus, Georgia Howard Johnson's to celebrate these 34 members
of our movement and the ongoing, worldwide resistance to the SOA and systems
of oppression. Please JOIN US if you'll be in the area! This is our
opportunity to celebrate the courageous stand of the 34 and remember the
thousands in Latin America who work for peace, human rights and economic
justice. Contact the SOA Watch office for more info.
These 34 defendants join 233 others in our movement who
have faced trial for acts of civil disobedience at Fort Benning, the home of
the School of the Americas. Since our movement began, 186 activists have
been sentenced to prison or home confinement, and 47 have been sentenced to
probation. We gather in remembrance and hope as our friends take our protest
into the federal courts.
SUPPORT THOSE FACING PRISON >>
Five SOA Watch activists are currently in custody at
different jails and prisons. Write to them to offer your support!
Find addresses here >>
LEARN MORE about political prisoners and the prison
industrial complex in the US:
- Critical Resistance -
- Prison Activist Resource Center -
- The Nuclear Resister -
ratified (or not) by the presbyteries
A number of the most important actions of the 219th
General Assembly are now being sent to the presbyteries for their
action, to confirm or reject them as amendments to the PC(USA) Book
We're providing resources to help inform the
reflection and debate, along with updates on the voting.
Our three areas of primary interest are:
which would remove the current ban on
lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender persons being considered as
possible candidates for ordination as elder or ministers.|
which would add the Belhar Confession to our Book of
10-1, which would adopt the new Form of Government
that was approved by the Assembly. |
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Some blogs worth visiting
Mitch Trigger, PVJ's
Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where
Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and
views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both
personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!
You can post your own news and views,
or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.
Voices of Sophia blog
Heather Reichgott, who has created
this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:
After fifteen years of scholarship
and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the
voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy,
students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers
and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God
in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God
through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through
articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and
John Harris’ Summit to
Theological and philosophical
reflections on everything between summit to shore, including
kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology,
politics, culture, travel, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New
York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood by a progressive
New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the
Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian
Church in Flushing, NY.
John Shuck’s Shuck and Jive
A Presbyterian minister, currently
serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton,
Tenn., blogs about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized
and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and
Got more blogs to recommend?
send a note, and we'll see what we can do!