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ISSUE 119 VOL 10 PUBLISHED 12/2/2005

Protestors journey for justice: Activists challenge School of Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia

By Pete Williams
Contributing Writer

Friday, December 2, 2005

The School of the Americas (SOA) is a training center for Latin American soldiers. It is located at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga. Although it is now formally called WHINSEC (Western Hemispheric Institute for National Security), many know the school by its notorious nickname: School of Assassins.

Run by the U.S. Army, the SOA has trained more than 61,000 Latin American soldiers in counter-insurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. These soldiers then return to their countries, where they often use their newfound skills to murder, torture and rape civilians.

Every year, a protest against the School of the Americas is held on Nov. 18-20, the anniversary of the murder of a 14-year-old, her mother and six Jesuit priests in El Salvador by SOA graduates in 1989.

This year, five students from St. Olaf, myself included, traveled to Georgia to attend the protest.

After an approximately 20-hour drive that consisted mainly of munching Cheerios, chugging caffeine and trying not to get lost, we arrived in Columbus, Ga. We stopped briefly at the Columbus Convention Center, where a protest information session was held.

On our way out, we had the luck of running into Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of the SOA protest. Our chance meeting with Bourgeios – a crusader against human rights abuses – lifted our spirits and sustained our energy.

Following the meeting, we feasted on fried green tomatoes and cornbread at a local restaurant before returning to our campsite to curl up in our STORP-provided tents and fell asleep under the warm, southern sky.

Unfortunately, the ostensibly warm, southern sky did not cooperate: it dropped below freezing that night, but we survived and made it to the first morning of the protest.

A huge crowd assembled outside the fences of the fort. The crowd consisted of a variety of colorful characters, including camouflaged war veterans, robed monks, tie-dyed hippies and sweatshirt-clad college students. Spiky-haired anarchists mingled with elderly nuns. It was refreshing to see people with different backgrounds come together to work for justice.

An estimated 20,000 people attended the protest. Dozens of informational booths and vendors lined the streets, peddling everything from bumper stickers to vegetarian hot dogs.

Throughout the day, a variety of speakers talked about or sang songs in defiance of the injustice of the SOA. Speakers included Catholic nuns, human rights advocates, professional musicians such as the Indigo Girls and people from Latin America who had been directly affected by graduates of the SOA.

Songs, prayer, laughter and rallying chants filled the air. The army helicopters that circled menacingly overhead were greeted by smiling protesters who peacefully waved to them.

Several hundred volunteers organized under the leadership of the “Puppetistas” to put on skits about human rights abuses committed by SOA graduates.

The skits featured costumes, actors on stilts, musical instruments, flags and all sorts of other colorful props. Our group carried a sign that told the story of a torture survivor who later took legal action against the SOA graduates who had kidnapped him.

Saturday, Nov. 19, was filled with rambunctious spirit and vigorous feelings of hope and defiance of the status quo.

Sunday, Nov. 20, on the other hand, was a somber and emotionally powerful day of mourning and remembrance of the thousands of people who had suffered at the hands of students trained by the SOA. Protesters silently carried crosses with the names of murdered victims written on them.

Silently, the protesters marched past the gates of Fort Benning. Crosses were raised into the air as protestors spoke the names of victims, each name followed by the word “presenté.”

Some protesters doused themselves in fake blood and laid in front of the chain-linked fence of the fort.

About 40 people crossed over into the base itself, knowing that they would be arrested and would possibly serve time in prison. These prisoners of conscience care so much about the cause that they are willing to go to jail for it.

The protest is over, but the struggle is not. A bill to close the SOA will come before Congress this summer. Then we will see if peaceful protest prevails.

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