Phil Gates doesn’t want to go to prison for 60 hours, much less 60 days. But just before Thanksgiving, the former Scottsdale Unified School District superintendent knew that’s where he was heading.
He crossed through a fence surrounding Fort Benning in Georgia and was arrested for trespassing.
Gates isn’t an Iraq war protester. In fact, he said Saturday he applauds the Army and its sacrifices in the Mideast.
But he said he learned too much about oppression of the poor — homeless and defenseless — when he visited the South American nation of Colombia nearly two years ago to have done anything else but walk through that chain-link fence.
Gates, who is 70 years old and a Christian, led Scottsdale schools from 1982 to 1986 after serving as assistant superintendent for 10 years. Today, he is retired and lives in Prescott.
He and his wife, Lorie, talked at length with each other, their three adult children and their Presbyterian pastors before he made his decision on Fort Benning.
On that November day, Gates and 15 others passed through the fence, behind which is housed a training center for Latin American military officers and troops, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas. Gates was convicted Jan. 29, and on Wednesday will start a two-month sentence in a federal minimum-security prison in Los Angeles.
Activists such as Gates say some graduates of the school have been responsible for horrible acts against civilians in their home countries, which is enough reason to shut it down.
Others might say it is important to continue to train these nations’ troops to fight the illegal drug trade and terrorism, which Gates said the Clinton and Bush administrations commissioned it to do.
Legislation to close the facility has failed to pass in Congress. Gates said another bill is to be introduced this year.
Two summers ago, Gates spent nine weeks in Colombia as one of several “accompaneers” who worked with Presbyterian ministers who are human rights advocates. Years of civil war and fighting among factions seeking to control that nation’s huge illegal drug trade has resulted in the murders of many such advocates there, Gates said.
“They live in fear of the other shoe dropping all the time — I should say terror,” he said.
He returned home with little awareness of the school. But then he said he met other Presbyterians who had been arrested for trespassing at Fort Benning at what is an annual protest.
Gates said he’s aware of the irony of being a former educator responsible for teaching children about respecting the law now going to jail. He said he willingly broke the law because his conscience wouldn’t let him ignore what he learned.
“There are those, friends of mine even, who say there are other ways to do it besides this,” he said. “I refer them to Martin Luther King’s 1963 ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’”
Paraphrasing the civil rights leader, Gates said at times the only way to get an unjust law changed is to break it.
“This is after we have exhausted all the other nicer ways of trying to solve this that we’re all taught in school,” he said.
At a Phoenix ceremony Saturday, Gates and his wife received an award for contributing to peace and justice from the Presbyterian Church of central and northern Arizona.
If he were still in education today, he said his experience taught him to believe that students should be taught American history well.
“Starting with the Boston Tea Party, how normal human beings had to struggle to bring our country to the wonderful point in most respects that it is today,” he said. “We have women who can vote, in part, because we had women who chained themselves to the White House fence in the 1800s. They got 60 days, too. I’m honored to have also been given 60 days.”
He said he has no plans to trespass again. The strain on his family has been enough.
Gates said he committed “divine obedience” rather than civil disobedience.
“When I get back, I will just wait to see what the next call will be,” he said.