Here I Stand

Statements of Conscience and Resistance

by members of Presbyterian Peace Fellowship who have engaged in civil disobedience.

edited by Bill Galvin

PPF traces its beginning to the support group for Presbyterian Conscientious Objectors during WWII. Since that time, as a community we have encouraged and supported those who take risks for justice and peace. Besides objecting to 'the good war', our community has at times been on the cutting edge of the civil rights movement, and other movements for change. We have resisted the draft for the Vietnam War, and been arrested for other nonviolent antiwar civil disobedience -- from sitting in at congressional offices, trespassing onto the nuclear weapons test site in the Nevada desert, "playing dead" during protests on the Pentagon parade grounds, and blocking railroad tracks to prevent the delivery of weapons. Some of us have even been arrested at the Presbyterian General Assembly with Soulforce, calling attention to our church's shutting out many people who have been called by God into ordained leadership. A number of us have refused to pay taxes for war, and although the risk of jail for this is minimal, the possibility of the IRS seizing one's property is real.

In recent years, dozens of us have 'crossed the line' at Ft. Benning, Georgia, in an effort to close the US Army School of the Americas. Ten of us who have done this have served time in Federal prison, with sentences ranging from 3 to 6 months: Don Beisswenger, Charles Booker-Hirsch, John Ewers, Cliff Frasier, Jane Huntwerk, Erik Johnson, Ken Kennon, Dwight Lawton, Marilyn White, and Ruthy Woodring. Below are the eloquent words of some of these Presbyterian-related "prisoners of conscience" who have taken seriously the call to resist violence and injustice by nonviolent means.

John Thomas Ewers of Dayton, OH.

From his statement made to the Federal Dictrict Court, Columbus, GA, at his trial on May 22, 2001:

I am here because I have finally been willing to face my denial that our country would willingly do something terribly wrong: that is, to treat the people of other nations differently than we treat ourselves.

I am a product of a modest upbringing by loving parents, a solid education and all the trappings of a successful business career. In other words, I have lived the American dream as millions of others in this country have.

I must tell you: I am ANGRY. I am FRUSTRATED. I am EMBARRASSED that we in the Unites States of America treat others less fairly than we expect to be treated ourselves.

The end of my denial, and the beginning of my acceptance that, as a U.S. citizen, I am a part of this flagrant denial of basic human rights began in Colombia, South America. I was standing with a group of Presbyterian Christians in May of 1998 on an abandoned garbage dump outside of Cartagena, Colombia in the midst of 25,000 displaced Colombians barely surviving in cardboard and plastic shacks, minimum food, no medicine, no education.

These people were among more than a million Colombian citizens driven from their homes and property by paramilitaries, guerrillas and the military of their own government. Through a translator we heard a typical story. Sell us your farm (at a ridiculous price) or we'll buy it from your widow.

At that moment, we knew we had to do something—ANYTHING!

As we read and talked and researched the situation, we discovered that the U.S.Army at Fort Benning, GA, was training Colombian soldiers in combat warfare and repressive citizen control techniques. These soldiers were graduating from the School of the Americas at Fort Benning and going back home to control and abuse their own people....

With many others I joined those already working to close this horrible school. We use peaceful, non-violent lawful actions: letter-writing, visits to congressional offices, education and mobilization of fellow citizens and a November gathering at the gates of Ft. Benning culminating in a solemn funeral procession onto the base in remembrance of thousands of murdered Latin American brothers and sisters.

In my heart and soul, I know I have done nothing wrong. I am doing what God has called me to do. I must do this. I must continue to be among thousands that continue to work to close this school forever and renew hope among the powerless people of Latin America and vindication for their leaders...

I am a person who had a successful career for over thirty years as a manager in a large U.S. corporation... The mark of a well managed organization is to track performance of its products or services. In this way weaknesses can be identified and a continuously improving product or service can be achieved. The School of the Americas admits that it doesn't track performance of its graduates (its product). And yet the School leadership denies any "product" problems without even tracking "product" performance. A statement like this is absurd.

Hopefully, the U.S. Congress will [close this school]. I will continue to work to this end regardless of the outcome of this trial.

The Rev. Clifford Frasier of New York City.

From his statement made to the Federal Dictrict Court, Columbus, GA, at his trial on January 28, 2003:

I was ordained as a United Church of Christ minister in 1997, at The Riverside Church in New York City. Currently I serve 14 Presbyterian churches in New York City as their Director and Minister of Outreach and Inclusion for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons.

I respect that it is your sworn duty, your Honor, to uphold U.S. law, which includes the class-B federal misdemeanor of trespass. However, my walking onto Ft. Benning was my best attempt to be a responsible citizen in troubling times. I was in New York City on the day of the terrorist attacks, and I witnessed its chaos and destruction, and I want our country and world to be safe from such horrible violence. I am troubled, your Honor, by knowing that my country and yours is the only nation in the world found-guilty by the World Court for international terrorism. In 1986 the United States was ordered to pay reparations for unlawful use of force in Latin America—reparations we still have not paid. ....

My intent was and is to do everything within the American tradition to improve the human rights record of the United States, including voting, writing to my legislators, and, when necessary, participating in the highly regarded American tradition of non-violent civil disobedience.

Your honor, WHINSEC is a combat training school that instructs foreign military personnel in the use of lethal force ... Even when the human rights abuses against civilians by these armies are well documented, as they are currently in Colombia, even then WHINSEC continues this policy of training-and-releasing foreign soldiers with no reliable way to track them or hold them accountable in courts of law.

Your Honor, I know WHINSEC claims, by pointing to its mission-statement and to some of its courses, that its purpose is to promote human rights. But if WHINSEC is actually a human-rights school, why are most of its courses in methods for the deployment of lethal force? If WHINSEC is actually a human-rights school, why does WHINSEC receive no recognition for being such by other human rights organizations, and why aren't there human rights groups rushing to WHINSEC's defense? If WHINSEC is a human rights school, why does WHINSEC approve (and here I assume its administration does approve, at least tacitly . . . . ) of giving maximum penalties and prison sentences to peaceful, non-violent citizens who wish to hold a funeral service for the thousands who have been killed or tortured at the hands of persons who trained at that site? ....

Your honor, the denomination in which I now serve, the Presbyterian Church, voted in 1994 to call for an end to U.S. military training of Latin American military personnel. I am responding to that call, and ask that you and others join with me.

Thank you, your Honor.

Ann Huntwork, of Portland, OR.

From her statement made to the Federal Dictrict Court, Columbus, GA, at her trial on January 28, 2003:

I am co-parent of six children, with two grandchildren. As we raised these young people, our word to them was first of all to be persons of truth and kindness; and to stand up for what they know to be right and just. Well, one can't say that to children if one is not also willing to pursue that kind of life, however stumblingly. It is my prayer as a parent and as a person of faith that I will live my life, trying daily to be faithful in the way the prophet Micah so well describes - to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with God....

There is a young Indigenous Guatemalan in Portland who painted a banner for us to bring to Columbus. The banner is a portrait of his experience—an indigenous village being burned, side by side with a woman and two young children. (I placed the large photo on the witness stand.) To listen to his story was heartbreaking. To hear the stories of the people of his village answered any questions I might have raised about the rightness of standing in this place, in solidarity with those whose voices have been silenced. To those who say we hear only the view presented by the formal organization School of the Americas Watch, I offer this banner as evidence. It represents the voices that call me and those who stand before you to speak their truth, and we speak in a spirit of gratitude for their lives and witness.... I must cry out ... I cannot remain silent!

The Rev. Kenneth Kennon, a retired Disciples of Christ minister, who is active with Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson AZ

From a sermon he delivered a few months after his release from prison in September 1998:

We are ministers and priests, business executives, school teachers, nuns, lay religious workers, university professors and students, and health care professionals. We are residents of small towns and large cities all across America.... Last November we prisoners were among over 600 who very peacefully walked toward the headquarters of the U.S. Army School of the Americas on Fort Benning, Georgia. (Also known as the SOA.) We were commemorating the anniversary of the assassination of six Jesuit priests and two women co-workers at the command and hands of SOA graduates. They are but eight of countless thousands of victims, in 22 Latin American countries, of this infamous institution. Our purpose was to peacefully deliver petitions from almost a million Americans demanding its closure. We were not threatening in our actions. We walked silently and solemnly toward the "school of assassins" three miles down the road. Fort Benning has no gates, fences or MP guard posts.

Where we walked is entirely open to the public. In less than a mile we were halted. Our petitions were confiscated. During our arrest the SOA Commandante, a U.S. Army officer, held a press conference and called us "communists." Later an SOA spokesperson said, "It's not a religious issue. It's not a moral issue. It's not a human rights issue. It has to do with Marxism. It has to do with Liberation Theology and supporting the Communist insurgents down there." .... The Bible says, in The Letter of James , "You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Last January, in a pre-sentencing statement, I told Judge Elliott that it was at my mother's knee I had learned the greatest law -- to love God with our whole being and our neighbor as ourselves. I told him I hope that, when the chips are down, my children and grandchildren will obey that law. ...

I traveled in Guatemala and El Salvador for extended periods in 1990 and 1992. The militaries were arrayed against their own people there. They were led, and are still led, by military and ex-military strong men who were carefully taught at the U.S. Army School of the Americas. Before one of these trips a special gift was purchased by five Tucson faith communities -- Presbyterian, Lutheran, Catholic, Jewish, and Disciples. It was transported in a Pastors for Peace Caravan to El Salvador. And I personally delivered the gift to Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez. The special gift was a bullet-proof vest. ...

During my imprisonment I received more than 1,000 letters.... There were many memorable ones, but none more memorable than from the Coalition of the Missing of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission. The letter says, in part, We write to let you know that we are thinking of you and that we are with you in spirit. We also thank you...[The] work to close the SOA has been so important to us, as we ourselves are survivors of state violence in Guatemala...And as you may know, SOA graduates have been involved in crimes against at least two of us.1 I do know several of these people. I do know about their pain and long suffering by personal disappearance and torture, and the death of loved ones. And they were thanking me? When I received their gracious and humbling words in my prison cell, I cried and cried and cried.

The Rev. Charles Booker-Hirsch, Pastor of Northside Presbyterian Church, Anne Arbor, MI

Speaking to the judge and prosecutors at his trial in Federal District Court, Columbus, GA, July 12, 2002:

Join us. If not as a Christian ... or as a Jew ... or as a Muslim ... or as a person of faith of any kind ... then, as an American. As a human being. For the blood is on your hands. The blood is on all our hands. And until that school, by whatever name and cosmetic make-up that masks its intentions, is closed ... and until a half century of truth, hidden in plain sight behind that line and behind that fence is so widely and so fully publicized that even the stones will cry out for the school's closure ... until that happens, the blood of our Southern neighbors on all our North American hands will never ... ever ... EVER ... ever, begin to wash off.

Mr. Daskall: You and the Department of Justice are forgiven for what you have been doing since indicting us in April, including what you are doing here this week. Your Honor: You are forgiven for what perhaps you are about to do. May the Latin American people forgive us all. And toward that end, I invite you to join us, your fellow and sister Americans as we together make the amends of our ways.

God help us all. Thank you for listening.

And from an article he later wrote:

Among a prison population of 300, I was the only inmate incarcerated for a misdemeanor -- and a Class B one, at that. I was serving 90 days; no one else was serving less than 10 months. At least once a week a staff member, whether from the front office or the rear guard, would look at me quizzically and ask, "Why are you even here?"

Every time I would be asked that, I would be reminded why I was even there. For it became more and more apparent that 29 of my co-defendants and I were imprisoned because the federal government is frightened. Frightened, because our nonviolent resistance actions have exposed our Pentagon's Latin American security apparatus still popularly known as the School of the Americas, which since 1994 our denomination has insisted should be closed. And yet the SOA continues to stand today.

Elder Marilyn White, League City, TX.

After serving 6 months in Federal prison for her civil disobedience in protest against the SOA, Marilyn White spent a month war-torn Colombia in the summer of 2005 accompanying Presbyterians who are at risk there for defending human rights. From her statement made to the Federal Dictrict Court, Columbus, GA, at her trial on January 28, 2003:

On November 17, 2002, I became one link in a long chain of witnesses calling for significant reform of U.S. policy in Latin America. My actions that day were partly motivated by an urgent letter I received earlier in the year from Alice Winters, a Presbyterian mission co-worker in Colombia.

The letter contained disturbing news of new attacks by the military forces of Colombia on rural areas, bringing the war back to a region of the country that had previously been demilitarized. She included a "call to action" from a Colombian ecumenical group, addressed to us as "friends, brothers and sisters in Christ." I found two of the requests in this call for action particularly compelling:

One of them was to "pressure your government to express respect for life."

The other was to "raise up prayers, organize marches, DO WHATEVER MAY BE NECESSARY to avoid a war which as usual will end up taking its toll most of all among the poor."

Last November as I approached the gate at Fort Benning to remember the victims, mourn the dead, and pray for peace, the question on my heart was this: What was necessary to end the series of U.S. proxy wars in South and Central America? Wars that continued year after year in country after country: Guatemala yesterday, Colombia today, Venezuela tomorrow. On November 17, I understood that for me the next necessary step was to take that prayer for peace onto the base itself—a place which I saw as both the symbol and the reality of my own complicity in these wars. As I took that step across the line, I was deeply afraid of this court and its judgment. But in that moment, my grief and my shame were stronger than my fear.

I conclude with a word about the military police and other personnel at Fort Benning. Throughout my arrest and processing there I was treated with courtesy and respect and I was offered many small kindnesses. In these dangerous times, those soldiers are in my prayers, that they may neither come to nor cause any harm.

Bill Galvin has long experience working with conscientious objectors through The Center on Conscience & War and the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.