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The BG News
BG24 Newscast
November 30, 2023

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Rev. battles violation of human rights

Two months after 9-11, the Rev. Chuck Booker-Hirsch crossed the line. His actions resulted in 90 days in federal prison.

Booker-Hirsch was a featured speaker Sunday evening and was brought to the UCF Community and Spiritual Development Center by Reach Out, a student organization that connects spirituality with active justice.

Booker-Hirsch spoke about “crossing the line” at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. WHISC is a training facility for Latin American military personnel that is run by the U.S. Army. WHISC is located at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga.

WHISC is the successor to the School of the Americas. SOA was established in 1946 and provided Latin American soldiers with military training, including counter-insurgency, counter-narcotics and combat training. SOA was closed in 2001 due to surfaced training manuals that promoted techniques violating human rights.

WHISC replaced the SOA on Jan. 17, 2001, however, it remained in the same building as the SOA and teaches many of the same courses, according to the Center for International Policy Web site.

Booker-Hirsch, however, said he does not believe the switch of names is ending the human rights violations committed by the former SOA.

“Within 17 days it [SOA] closed and reopened in the same facility with a very similar curriculum – it was a very disingenuous move,” Booker-Hirsch said.

A Presbyterian pastor from Ann Arbor, Mich., Booker-Hirsch, was arrested in November 2001 along with 36 other human rights activists for trespassing onto the property of WHISC.

Those arrested were among 10,000 who gathered at Fort Benning to peacefully protest the former SOA.

“When we crossed, it was two months after 9-11,” Booker-Hirsch said. “We were seen as more of a threat. [The government] is scared to death of us — and that is why they put us away.”

Booker-Hirsch faced trial for his arrest in the summer of 2002 and was sentenced to 90 days in a federal prison in Pennsylvania. He spent his time in prison answering letters from strangers all over the world, inquiring and thanking him for his protest actions.

Booker-Hirsch said WHISC is a “school of terrorism on our own soil” and will be at Fort Benning in November for the annual protest organized by a group called SOA Watch.

Booker-Hirsch said he will not cross the line again, so as not to separate himself from his wife and 6-year-old son.

Booker-Hirsch said many protestors don’t mind crossing the line onto WHISC’s property to demonstrate the suffering caused by the SOA.

“It is a faith-based commitment — it is very minor compared to the suffering people in Latin America,” Booker-Hirsch said. “The protest also draws the public attention to SOA and shows that non-violent resistance can work.”

Defenders of WHISC argue that WHISC’s curriculum now includes human rights issues as a component of every class. Col. Richard Downie, school commandant, told the North Carolina-based newspaper, the Asheville Global Report, the goals of WHISC. “Our real goal is to ensure our students understand their role in a democratic society and that they serve the people – not abuse them,” Downie said in July 2002.

The former SOA has nearly 60,000 graduates, including dictator Manuel Noriega of Panama as well as dictators from Argentina, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. SOA graduates have also been tied to multiple human rights abuses, including the El Mozote Massacre of 900 civilians and the assasination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980.

Booker-Hirsch said no one can guess the future of WHISC but said, “We know we are [heading] in the right direction.”

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