At the School of the Americas protest in Fort Benning, Georgia, on November 16th and 17th, people wore T-shirts that borrowed the words of President Bush: “All known terrorist training camps must be shut down–start with the SOA.”
Since 1990, people gather every November in outrage at the existence of this Army training school by U.S. design, with U.S. government funding and–since 1984–on U.S. soil. The existence of a school whose lessons have largely been how to destabilize, torture, and kill, is especially repugnant in the current American climate of anti-terrorism.
SOA graduates from Latin American and Caribbean countries–too many to count–have given the orders for or carried out human rights abuses, torture, massacres, and assassinations. The most incriminating and the most devastating example of the SOA’s work is in El Salvador. SOA graduates there were responsible for:
- the murder of six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the University of Central America in 1989;
- the massacre of 767 people from the village of El Mozote in 1981;
- the murder of four churchwomen in 1980;
- the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980.
All over Latin America—in Guatemala, Colombia, Mexico—SOA graduates have targeted their own people: labor leaders, striking workers, human rights advocates, priests, nuns, and thousands of innocent civilians.
The school still operates (as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, WHISC, since 2001) aiming to “foster friendship and strengthen democracy.” Nowadays it largely trains soldiers from Colombia, a country with its own abysmal human rights record, and in which the U.S. has petroleum interests. Two congressional bills that came close to shutting down the school were narrowly defeated in 2000.
To be at the protest is an experience of solidarity. Many different kinds of people come together to fill the avenue that leads to Fort Benning, and this year the crowd was over ten thousand. There were college students, veterans, young families, and older couples. The presence of Catholic religious sisters has always been overwhelming, but this is also an interfaith encounter, with everyone from Muslims to Pagans to Quakers there. For many, the gathering constitutes a renewal of faith and commitment to justice.
Saturday is a juxtaposition of painful testimony and joyful celebration. This year, people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Colombia stood before a microphone on stage and recounted the disappearance of their villages, the loss of their siblings, the loss of their children, and explicitly detailed a husband’s torture and death by SOA graduates. At the same time, there was music coming from the stage all day: earnest folksingers, and kids from Chicago rapping about revolution. A puppetista parade came breaking through the crowd in the afternoon—three enormous paper mache puppets each accompanied by a court of stilt-walkers and bucket-bangers driving “This Little Light of Mine” into the air.
Sunday is the day of action and vigil. Every year, there is a funeral procession, in which the names and ages (from babies to grandfathers) of hundreds of lives lost are sung out to a solemn drum beat. Those lives were lost at the hands of those who passed through the same gate we approached.
The sum of what took place at the protest can be measured in civil disobedience. In years past, hundreds walked onto the base before being arrested or escorted off. A chain link and barbed-wire fence, erected in 2001, has put a stop to this. This year, ninety-six people went into the woods and onto the property. They await trial in January and face $5000 fines or six months in jail.
Tied inextricably to the civil disobedience is witness and remembrance. A measure of this is the transformation of the chain-link fence after its encounter with thousands. There were child-sized coffins placed in front of it, and it was made white by the weaving of wooden crosses, Stars of David, signs, bandanas, pictures, poems—thousands of silent material statements that say that we do not forget, and we will work until the school is closed.
I cut off a bracelet that I have been wearing since July and tied it to the fence. It was made by kids from my church’s sister parish in El Salvador. I meant to connect people’s lives in one country to lives in another. It was my way of saying that the decisions of a nation, economic and military, decisions that we continue to make, can have terrifying consequences. This is something that we cannot afford to forget.