Alumnus jailed for protest at Army base

Andrea Wilson

Trespassing on a U.S. Army base landed a University alumnus in federal prison last week. Ron Durham, ’03, was sentenced to a three-month prison term and a $500 fine by a district judge. Eleven others who crossed a boundary during a Nov. 21 protest at the base in Fort Benning, Ga. were also arrested.

The nonviolent incident occurred when about 16,000 protestors gathered at the U.S. Army base to protest the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly the U.S. Army School of the Americas. Several protestors, including two high school students, were arrested for trespassing when they climbed a 10-foot chain link fence at the base’s gates, which were erected to keep protestors off the grounds.

School of the Americas Watch, which opposes the school that primarily trains Latin American security personnel, claims over 170 of its supporters have spent a collective 78 years in prison for their activism.

Sociology professor Richard Juliani described Durham as a quiet student during his time at the University. He said the fact that not many faculty members remember him is a testament to his unassuming personality.

“A lot of students graduate and want to do well, but some want to do good, and that describes Ron,” Juliani said. He thinks many students come from backgrounds that don’t encourage a “critical imagination.”

Juliani admitted that many at the University would not agree with Durham’s decision to break the law, adding that he probably would not have done the same if he were at the protest.

Durham majored in sociology at the University and went on to volunteer with inner-city teens and for homelessness causes in Chicago. According to the SOAW website, he is “grateful for the opportunity to … be connected with other people who have participated in civil disobedience… [He] plans to continue working to bring attention to the unjust economic conditions the U.S. imposes on Latin America and the use of military force for political advantage.”

WHINSEC, the controversial Spanish-language institution that has trained students under the name “The School of the Americas” since 1946, insists that guarding human rights has become a central part of the curriculum.

According to the military, the purpose of the school is to “provide professional education and training to eligible personnel of nations of the Western Hemisphere … while fostering mutual knowledge, openness, confidence, and cooperation among the participating nations and promoting democratic values, respect for human rights, and knowledge.”

Supporters of the school say it has promoted stability and prevented communism from spreading throughout the American continents.

Critics, however, say the school is responsible for teaching its pupils methods of torture, murder and exploitation in Latin American nations, which have long been gripped by civil war, poverty and powerful drug cartels.

SOAW claims that human rights violations committed by some of its graduates justify its closure. The 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests by military forces in El Salvador drew international criticism of the school. SOAW, a popular cause among celebrity entertainers, has organized annual protests outside Fort Benning since 1990.