Claremont Grad Student Stands Up for his Beliefs, May End Up in Prison Print
Josh Harris, a 30-year-old student at the Claremont Graduate University pursuing a master?s degree in religion, made a conscious decision to trespass on government property, knowing that it would likely land him in federal prison.

At the yearly vigil held November 17 through 19 at Fort Benning, Georgia, an estimated 22,000 protesters showed up to make their voices heard and announce their opposition to the School of Americas (SOA).

The SOA, which in 2001 changed its name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WINSEC), is a US army-funded military education institute which has been widely criticized for training soldiers on various torture techniques and supporting a number of authoritarian regimes in Latin American, known for large-scale human rights abuses. Originally established in Panama in 1946, the SOA trains mainly Latin American military personnel on counterinsurgency tactics.

Mr. Harris was one of 16 protesters who decided to bypass the fenced-off boundary, which separates those gathered outside from SOA?s property. At last year?s protest, that same decision to cross the line sent 36 of 37 perpetrators into federal prison for up to 6 months.

?For the past several years, people, in an act of peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience, have spent 3 to 6 months in prison,? said Mr. Harris. ?The taxpayers are paying for this because someone crossed a fence to raise awareness about something that I believe, if most people knew about, they would not support.?

In the 1990?s, shortly after the release of some of the institute?s training manuals, which appeared to condone torture, executions and other human rights abuses, US Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy called for the shutdown of the school.

?These tactics come right out of an SS manual and have no place in a civilized society,? said Congressman Kennedy, at a press conference on Capitol Hill in 1996. ?They certainly have no place in any course taught with taxpayer dollars on US soil by members of our own military.?

The yearly vigil that Mr. Harris attended is held to commemorate a massacre at the University of Central America in El Salvador in which 6 Salvadoran priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered. A United Nations Commission found that, of the 27 soldiers who were involved in the massacre, 19 were SOA graduates.

Mr. Harris has taken part in other protests and supported a variety of movements including some involving immigration and gender issues. However, his latest act of political engagement goes a step further.

?I just felt like it was time for my politics and my activism to be something that could possibly disrupt my life,? said Mr. Harris.

He is a member of a group, SOA Watch, an independent organization dedicated to the closure of the School of Americas through non-violent means. The group is hopeful that a narrowly defeated 2006 congressional bill to investigate SOA and cut its funding will be reviewed under the newly-elected congress.

Even faced with the possibilities of a 6-month prison sentence, losing his job and missing a semester of his studies, Mr. Harris feels that he made the right decision. He hopes that his actions might encourage others to fight for what they believe in and shed light on a cause that he feels passionate about.

?I feel great about what I did,? he said. ?I don?t regret it for a minute. Maybe more people will learn about what the SOA is and what it is doing.?

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