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Home About Us Prisoners of Conscience 2006 - SOA 16 Philip Gates
Philip Gates PDF Print E-mail
Philip Gates was released on May 18, 2007 after serving a 60 day sentence for tresspassing onto the Ft. Benning Military Reservation during the 2007 November Vigil to Close the SOA


Philip E. Gates, a member of Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF), recently returned from Colombia where he served as a Presbyterian Church (USA) accompanier to the Colombian Presbyterian Church (IPC) from June 30 through August 30, 2005.

Church accompaniers from the U.S. are assigned in pairs for a month at a time. Their job is to see and be seen. By being highly visible, their presence helps to discourage adversaries of the IPC and many of its church and non-church associates from being targets for extortion, kidnapping or worse. While in Colombia, Gates and his Presbyterian partner, Catherine Bucher, visited with many farmers and ranchers forced off their land by rebel armies fighting for control of the country. These displaced persons have fled to the cities where they live in abject poverty in slums or on the streets.

It is as a direct result of what he learned while interacting with these displaced Colombians as well as various church and secular human rights advocates that he decided to participate in the act of civil disobedience (which he refers to as an act of divine obedience) in which he and 15 others trespassed onto the grounds of Ft. Benning Nov. 19, 2006.


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 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 60's 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 80?s 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 Congresses? 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.


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