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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 situation

This report comes from Robert Leslie, of Decatur, GA, who participated in the protest action last November without "crossing the line."    [2-3-07]

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 guilty plea.

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
Columbus, Georgia
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 physical safety.

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 school."

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 closure.

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 in vain.


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, convicted  [1-29-07]

Marilyn 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.

bulletJulienne Oldfield of Syracuse, New York, was sentenced to 90 days, no fine.
bulletPhil Gates of Prescott, Arizona, was sentenced to 60 days, no fine.
bulletDon Coleman of Chicago, Illinois, was sentenced to 60 days, no fine.
bulletGraymon 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 months.)

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 convicted today.

Why go to prison to protest against School of the Americas?
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:


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 prison.

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 was there.

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 Colombia.

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 graduates.

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 the SOA.

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, 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.

Phil Gates

Another look at the School of the Americas protests   [12-6-06]

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 Venezuela.

The 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 Cooperation (WHINSEC).

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 comments?
We'd like to hear from you!
Just send a note, to be shared here.

Other reports:

bullet The Boston Globe >>
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 presence there.

Peace Fellowship breakfast

A friend and I arrived after a two-hour drive from Atlanta, just in time for the breakfast of the Presbyterian Peace 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 No2Torture 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 and

Orientation session

 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 Ritual.)

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 defunding.

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.

FBI Counterterrorism Unit spies on peaceful, faith-based protest group

News release from ACLU, The American Civil Liberties Union, 5/4/2006

ACLU releases documents showing years of spying on School of the Americas Watch


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 hemisphere."

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:

The Progressive magazine has also published a brief report >>>

Human rights advocates face six months in prison for civil disobedience opposing controversial U.S. Army training school

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 January 2006

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 abusers.

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.


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 -


GA actions 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 of Order.

We're providing resources to help inform the reflection and debate, along with updates on the voting.

Our three areas of primary interest are:

bullet Amendment 10-A, which would remove the current ban on lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender persons being considered as possible candidates for ordination as elder or ministers.

bullet Amendment 10-2, which would add the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.

bullet Amendment 10-1, which would adopt the new Form of Government that was approved by the Assembly.

If you like what you find here,
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Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

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 thoughtful community.


John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

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 lightening up.


Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!


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