Phil Gates on Crossing the Line at Ft. Benning


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) was 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 like 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 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 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 that 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 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 shot and killed by rebels when he did not respond quickly enough to being told 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 rape and then murder 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 chosen by lot were hung by paramilitary forces as a way to motivate the community to leave their land immediately and to never come back.

Our list of first-hand accounts of human rights abuse grew much longer. Our empathy for the suffering which so many very good people are forced to endure deepened. 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 being 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 arouses the ire of those of us who have gotten so involved in this is that we know our own governments’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 did what we did hoping our friends, colleagues, loved ones, church and community constituents, and others who learn of this event will consider supporting this effort. We knew going in the consequences of our act of civil disobedience (aka “divine obedience”), but 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, which must be shared in some measure by the SOA and its U.S. government supporters.

If interested in learning more about the SOA and how you might get involved, visit SOA Watch. If somewhat troubled by the notion of our “breaking the law” by trespassing onto the fort, I urge you to read “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

Phil Gates and his partner Lorie are members of PPF and are available to speak to your organization.

Join us this year to close SOA/WHINSEC!