UCC minister faces likely 6-month prison term
Written by J. Bennett Guess
January - February 2003
Members of Washington Park UCC in Denver were part of the nearly 100 UCC members from across the country participating in this year's School of the Americas protests. Sandra Sorensen photo.
The Rev. Cliff Frasier says he was just following Jesus that day when he stepped through a hole in a fence at Ft. Benning, Ga. He now faces six months in a federal prison.
Frasier, a UCC minister from New York City, was among several thousand peace advocates who gathered on Nov. 16 and 17 for their annual vigil to demand the closing of the U.S. Army?s School of the Americas. He was also one of 96 persons who risked arrest and federal prison time for participating in non-violent civil disobedience.
"I think it?s important for people to know how profound the violence is that our government promotes in other countries, and that their actions have a direct impact on us all," he says. "My heart has been aching over the way that our civilian-led military is operating."
Following a handmade sign that simply read, "Follow me," Frasier and his friend, Marilyn White, a Presbyterian elder from Houston, climbed through a small opening in a fence on Ft. Benning property. "We had planned to read a poem called, ?A New Day in Colombia,? a beautiful resurrection poem about what that country will look like after the military and paramilitary violence has ended, but unfortunately, within a couple of steps, we were apprehended," Frasier says.
Aware of consequences
The arrest came as no surprise. The two had carefully deliberated the consequences of civil disobedience. They even participated in a commissioning service conducted for them by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.
Frasier, who received a "ban and bar letter" from military police after participating in a similar action in 2000, is scheduled to appear on Jan. 27 in a Muscogee County, Ga., courtroom on charges of criminal trespassing, a class B federal misdemeanor.
Others similarly charged in recent years have received the maximum sentence allowed under federal law: six months in prison and a possible $5,000 fine. Frasier expects his fate to be the same. "The fact that they are putting non-violent offenders in prison for six months is noteworthy," he says. Frasier hopes his likely prison term will increase public attention on the school and its poor human rights record.
Human rights abuses
Numerous graduates of the School of the Americas, which has been renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, have been linked to gross human rights abuses throughout Latin America. The UCC General Synod has called for the school to be closed, and in December, Amnesty International issued a new report that says that SOA/WHISC should be shut down while an independent investigation is conducted.
"I don?t think that most in this country are aware that we train soldiers who then work for other governments," Frasier said. "At the very least, if we are going to be in the business of training soliders, I don?t think that we should train any person that is not going to be under our direct supervision. There is no accountability."
Frasier said he first learned about social justice through the church of his youth, Trinitarian Congregational UCC in Concord, Mass., and the preaching of its then-senior minister, the Rev. Tuck Gilbert, now retired.
"I see this witness as a continuation of my spiritual journey that began and was formed in a UCC congregation," Frasier said. "I wouldn?t be here at this point in my life if it were not for the ministries of the UCC."
Frasier, 35, is a member of The Riverside Church, UCC/ABC in New York City. He hopes that his time in federal prison will encourage more people to become involved in the movement to close the SOA/WHISC.
"Absence can be a form of presence, and my absence will be a constant reminder to my friends, my family members, and the churches I work with of the violence that is so present everyday throughout Latin America. It?s so easy to for get what we are doing in those places," he says.
Frasier can be contacted via Presbyterian Welcome, 2095 Broadway, Suite 306, New York, NY 10023. Letters will be forwarded to him during his possible prison sentence.
The Rev. J. Bennett Guess is Minister for Communication and Mission Education for the UCC?s Justice and Witness Ministries.