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Conscientious objector

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by Pia K. Hansen


Eric Robison is sitting at a small table at the Rocket on Main Street with a mug of coffee. In his white T-shirt, with his loosely braided long hair, he looks like someone whose local band would be playing Riverfront Park this weekend. Actually, he's just come back to his hometown from Washington, D.C., where he spent three days in jail for his part in a protest at the Pentagon. And in a couple of weeks, he's heading off to federal prison in Oregon, where he's to serve six months for his role in a protest outside the U.S. Army's School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga.


"I've gone down to protest the SOA for the last three years," he says. "We have a rally there with music and speakers, and then there's a procession on the road out from the base, to protest the school and what's going on in there."


The SOA -- which just changed its name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation -- was established in 1946. Operating on an approximately $4 million annual budget, it attracts a large number of Latin American military students for courses that are supposed to help the school's graduates assist the United States' so-called war on drugs once they return to their home countries.


The problem, say Robison and others, is that the same graduates continue to turn up as human rights violators who participate in oppression and support South American military dictatorships. Dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama, Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru and Hug Banzer Suarez of Bolivia are all graduates of the program funded by taxpayer dollars.


"The problem is the United States supports the SOA with millions of dollars every year, supposedly to help fight the war on drugs, where in reality the money goes to an education in suppression," says Robison. "We shouldn't support governments that are corrupt. I mean, regular people like you and me just disappear in these countries if they don't cooperate -- it's horrid."


Robison, 21, is a Lewis and Clark High School graduate. He won a Chase Youth Award in 1998 for environmental concern, because of the work he had done in Ecology's Youth Corps. Since 1997 he's been involved with the Peace and Justice Action League (PJALS) in Spokane, and that's where he first heard talk about SOA Watch -- the group that continues to protest the SOA.


He's uncertain what exactly it was that drew his attention.


"I think I've moved socially so now people have become more important to me," says Robison. "I believe the United States' involvement in SOA is keeping a lot of people in South America from making life better for themselves. That's why I protest."


Robison participated in protests at SOA in 1998, '99 and 2000.


"We have a rally and speakers in the road leading to the base. It all ends with a procession," says Robison. "I was convicted of a class B criminal trespass, because they had told me not to come back. About 20 people got the same sentence. One was a Sister [a nun] from the Seattle area, she's 75 and she got three months."


Father Roy Bouregois founded SOA Watch in 1990 as a response to the civilian massacres and human rights violations committed by SOA graduates in South America.


So how does he feel about going to jail for participating in a non-violent protest?


"I don't have a lot of confidence in the current two-party system; I feel pretty disillusioned," says Robison. "Is it going to deter me from going again? No."