A column from Fred Chase, then General Secretary-Treasurer of the IWW, on a member who had been imprisoned for a protest at the School of the Americas. Originally appeared in Industrial Worker #1617 (November 1998)
This squeaky old chair I'm sitting in doesn't move a lot; but some days it can be the seat for a rollercoaster of emotions. One day at the end of September I was going through the mail as usual, recording delegate reports, logging in new members. On that day we reached a new 47 year high in membership. Our numbers dipped to their lowest in 1961 after our last large shops in Cleveland left to join the CIO rather than face McCarthy-era political repression when the IWW's General Executive Board refused to sign loyalty oaths. I guess the Board members figured they owed their alliegance to their class, not to a government which would want to crush them for their ideas. Some things don't change.
The rollercoaster reached apex as I thought about our growth and increased activity in recent years. Then I opened the next letter and the rollercoaster took a dive. It was from Fellow Worker Bill Bichsel from the Catholic Worker house in Tacoma ,Washington. He was catching up on his dues and notifying me of a change of address. The new address is a federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon. Bill's going to be there for 18 months for nonviolent protest at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia.
Bill isn't the first Wobbly to go to prison for exercising his freedom of speech. He won't be the last, another thing that doesn't seem to change much. But he's the one who's in there now; and that weighs heavy on my mind. I did some time in the early '70s for destroying selective service files, so I feel some affinity.
The U.S. government - hell, all governments - commit so many atrocities it's hard to know which ones are worth going to prison to fight. And it's frustrating to know that with a rational judge Bill would have gotten a slap on the wrist. Because he faced an irrational one he'll spend 1 1/2 years behind bars. I can feel some affinity for that too. Our sentences in the '70s were between 5 and 10 years. The next year another group did the same thing and got 1 year suspended sentences and a commendation from the judge for their actions. Ahh the vagaries of "justice."
Bill sent along some information on the School of the Americas, appropriately dubbed the School of the Assassins by its opponents. Colombia was experiencing the murder of a trade unionist every other day in the early '90s. In 1996 that number increased to 253. Of 247 Colombian military personnel cited for human rights violations, 124, 50% were graduates of the School of the Assassins. SOA training manuals advocate the use of torture, execution, false imprisonment and extortion. More than 500 SOA graduates have been implicated so far in human rights abuses. The SOA trains 900-2,000 soldiers a year from Latin America and the Caribbean. They are taught combat skills, counterinsurgency, sniper fire, military intelligence, commando tactics, and psychological operations - not to defend their borders from invasion but to make war on their own people - specifically religious leaders, labor organizers, educators, students and others working for the rights of the poor.
SOA attendees, guest speakers, members of the SOA hall of "fame" include Major Luis Felipe Becerra Bohorquez. He led a massacre in which 20 union farm workers were pulled from their beds, lined face down on the ground, and shot in the back of their heads. General Henan Jose Guzman Rodrigues allegedly aided paramilitary death squads responsible for at least 149 killings. He's in the SOA hall of fame. Etc, etc...
With NAFTA, Latin American countries import jobs that used to be done for higher wages in the U.S. and then use SOA graduates to prevent attempts to unionize. Any opposition or call for reform is likely to get the proponent killed.
So Bill Bichsel has made a good choice of where to take a stand. While I'm extremely saddened by his sentence, I'm extremely proud to call him Fellow Worker, Fellow Wobbly. Keep him in your thoughts. Paraphrasing our General Defense Committee slogan, Remember, Fellow Workers, he's in there for us. We're out here for him. Some generous Wobs have already assured that Bill's dues will be paid during his incarceration. The best tribute to Bill for his courageous stand is to work for the closing of the School of the Assassins. For some that means direct action like Bill's. Every new person who faces an outrageous sentence tweaks society's conscience just a bit more. That leads to the end of wars, to the end of segregation, soon to the end of the School of the Assassins.
If you are into petitioning government you can urge senators and representatives to support Senate bill 980 / House bill 611 to close the school. SOA Watch is planning what has become an annual demonstration at Fort Benning soon. They can be reached at 706/682-5369. Wobblies from Atlanta and Gainesville are making plans to attend.
Meanwhile, Bill, know you are in our thoughts. Being in prison for the working class is walking the picket line 24 hours a day. We're looking forward to the day when we will again see you outside on the picket line.
-- Fred Chase, General Secretary-Treasurer
Originally appeared in Industrial Worker #1617 (November 1998)