Trespassing during political protest lands former schools chief in prison Print

Philip Gates, 70, will learn soon where he will go to prison.

Gates, a Prescott resident who lived in the Phoenix area for years, brought the two-month sentence on himself. He was arrested last November for trespassing on a military base.

He was taking part in the 16th-annual protest against the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga. The school, founded in 1946 as the School of the Americas, trains about 1,000 people a year from Latin American nations.

The issue is over who is trained and what they do with the training afterwards.

Gates was one of 16 protesters from among the 22,000 people who gathered to cross a fence on to the base. It was a decision he spent several years reaching.

The annual protest, which draws thousands, was organized 17 years ago by the School of the Americas Watch, founded by a Catholic priest. It is timed to commemorate the murder of six Jesuit priests who were killed in El Salvador in November 1989.

Several of the killers had attended the school.

The Army acknowledges that some of its students committed crimes after attending but says no cause-and-effect relationship has ever been established.

Gates, who served as superintendent of schools in Scottsdale from 1982-86, said his decision to trespass stems from a mission trip to Colombia as an "accompanier" for the Presbyterian Church USA.

He served for two months in the summer 2005 after being trained by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.

His job was to protect Colombian human rights activists by being "conspicuously visible." Gates said long-term violence in the South American nation, much of it the product of drug cartels, has resulted in millions of refugees, thousands of deaths, hundreds of kidnappings and dozens of assassinations. He learned about the Western Hemisphere Institute's connection to Latin American violence when a U.N. commission investigating human rights abuses in Colombia determined that almost half the abusers were institute graduates.

Further investigation, Gates said, indicated institute ties to abuses throughout Latin America, including the violence in El Salvador that led to the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the killings of the Jesuit priests.

"I started connecting the dots," Gates said.

He also decided to make his voice heard.

"The whole idea is that we are keeping alive all those people without a voice," Gates said.

Lee Rials, public affairs officer at the Institute, said the protesters have a right to make their voices heard, "but when you cross the fence, you're trespassing."

"Bringing their political statement to the fort is not legal," Rials said. "The trespass is antithetical to what they believe. They don't want us to impose political views on other countries, so why do they want to impose their political views on us?"

Gates responded that far too many cases of human rights abuses have been tied to the school. He said the school may not be directly behind the abuses, but it has provided sophisticated training to those who "were thugs before they got there."

"The school needs to be closed, and the reason for the protest is because the normal, conventional approaches have not succeeded yet," Gates said.