1999: 10,000 Confront School of the Assassins
Revolutionary Worker #1033, December 5, 1999 The RW received the following correspondence from a comrade who was at the School of the Americas protest:
It was a beautiful, fall-like weekend, November 20, 21, in Columbus, Georgia. The deceptively pleasant entrance to Fort Benning, home of the School of the Americas, might have seemed like a nice place to take a stroll. Instead it was transformed into a vibrant scene of protest and civil disobedience against the SOA, where the military of Latin America are trained by the U.S. in murder, torture, disappearance and other counter-insurgency methods.
5,000 resisters gathered for a vigil on Saturday. On Sunday, over 10,000 gathered, and 4,300 of them formed a procession in memory of those slain in Latin America at the hands of the military, and "crossed the line." They trespassed onto the base demanding an end to the School of the Americas. 65 were arrested--23 who have been arrested at SOA protests in the past who will now face prosecution for trespassing on federal property.
Nine years ago Father Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest and Vietnam vet, learned that the military in San Salvador--which murdered six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter on November 16, 1989--were trained in such tactics at the SOA. He went to the School to investigate and reported: "I saw all those soldiers from Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Mexico--they were from 17 countries in Latin America. When I saw them on the firing range with those M-16s, that noise, that noise! This is where they practice! This is where they are armed and trained to kill! And it became very clear. We have to come here... We had discovered the School of the Assassins."
This was the beginning of yearly protest actions at the base. The first year Father Bourgeois, Charles Litechy, also a priest and Vietnam vet, and Charles' brother, Patrick Litechy, entered the base and emptied containers of their own blood on pictures of graduates in the School's "Hall of Fame." For this act, which symbolized U.S. bloodshed all over Latin America, the three men were given a year and two months in prison.
Year by year, the numbers of protesters--and the numbers of jail sentences--increased. In 1997, 600 "crossed the line." Then in 1998, there was a leap. 7,000 came to protest, and 2,300 people committed civil disobedience. The most notable force this year was the youth--word had spread to campuses and high schools, and suddenly hundreds turned to many thousands.
This year, the youth again provided the backbone of the demonstration--perhaps two-thirds of the crowd were youth. But there was also a good mix of all ages, some 80-year-olds, some children, and a great many middle-aged folks.
The 4,300 who "crossed the line" carried small white crosses, each with a name of a victim and their country. They assembled on the road leading into the base, and those thousands who were there in support of the action filled the meridian between the road in and out of the base, and the long slope next to it. At the front of the procession, resisters wearing white death masks and black robes held over their heads 20 black coffins, some the size of children.
A call-response chant began, accompanied by the sound of a Native American drum. The name of a victim and their age was chanted to the crowd. Then 10,000 people chanted back in unison, "Presente," and raised white crosses or their arms. This continued for two hours until all those "crossing the line" had entered the base.
When the front of the procession reached a mile into the camp, the coffins were set on the ground and resisters splattered red paint on themselves to symbolize what SOA graduates do to their victims. Then some resisters lay down, while others, including Martin Sheen and Daniel Berrigan, provided spiritual support.
On this day, many links were made between different struggles against U.S. imperialism. Native American speakers talked about how the infamous "Trail of Tears" passed over this ground in the 1830s when the U.S. drove the Cherokee and Creek peoples from their homes on a forced march to Oklahoma. When the names of SOA victims were being chanted, the names of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were also heard. The closing ceremony was led by members of the Tahoma Indian Center.
Adriana Portillo-Bartow, a Guatemalan SOA survivor, told how graduates from the SOA were responsible for her child's disappearance. She said her dreams are now paved with the bones and skulls of children who have been murdered by death squads throughout Latin America and added, "As human beings we are all connected. Our children, the children of our children, they desire to inherit a country whose economy does not rest on the business of death."
A Nigerian group sang in Yoruba and musicians from the Andes sang in the indigenous Quechua language.
Different speakers made links between SOA crimes in Latin America and atrocities carried out by U.S. imperialism in other parts of the world--like Iraq, East Timor, and the Vieques Island in Puerto Rico. One speaker, in reference to the SOA said, "This one thread of injustice is part of a whole cloth." Another used a different image: "One tentacle on an octopus."
The organizers of the protest, most of the speakers, and the majority of protesters seem to be followers of religious-based resistance and pacifism. At the same time, there was a lot of diversity in the crowd. The majority of high school and college student groups came from religious affiliated schools. Other students came with non-religious groups--like the 80 students from Oberlin who came with two campus organizations, Alianza Latina and Peace-Action League. A student from a Catholic college in Minnesota explained, "We have a large contingent here but not all are religious. I'm not. My friend who came is an atheist. There are many atheists at school."
A woman from Kansas City, a year out of college, said, "In college I began to learn that I'm part of a human race and can separate myself from American ideas. I went to El Salvador and I got a different point of view. I see how I live my life today affects people everywhere. The clothes I wear, the coffee I drink. I have to confront how all these things are at the price of millions of lives. Working in a sweatshop you lose your humanity and dignity. I didn't realize that capitalism just tries to get people to buy things and makes money the end, not the means. I'm not sure how to change this. Love has to begin in the family and work outward. But I'm not decided yet on pacifism. There's always been war and it hasn't worked. But I don't know if you can overcome this with non-violence."
There were banners from organizations of religious women demanding an end to the SOA. There were signs from the University of Florida, American University in D.C., "Queers Against S.O.A.," and "Veterans For Peace." There was a contingent from Yale, where Father Bourgeois had done a program. Over 100 came from the Louisville area, some with Inter-Faith For Peace and others with Latin America Action Committee. A group of high school and college students--who have also been active around the fight to stop the execution of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal--came from Davis, California.
A freshman from the University of San Francisco captured the sentiment of many others in the crowd when she said, "Young people care about their country and want to stand for what they think is right. I'm here because it is terrible that the U.S. spends money to kill innocent people. The future of everyone is at stake..."
The U.S. government has given repeated jail terms to SOA protesters, especially leaders of the actions. Father Bourgeois has spent four of the nine years since the first demonstration in prison. Meanwhile, the military has either denied the SOA trained death squads or says there have been "some abuses" that are now being corrected. But jail time and disinformation has not stopped these demonstrations from growing.
Right before this year's protest, the Secretary of the Army announced plans to change the curriculum of the School, and perhaps dismantle it. But on Sunday, Roy Bourgeois told people, "We are not here to transform the School, we are here--and we need to make this clear--to close this School." The crowd erupted into thunderous applause.
Speakers on this day called for "a shift in allegiances from service to the wealthy to solidarity with the poor," "a commitment to the poor and oppressed," and "a struggle for justice and the liberation of humanity." How to understand the fundamental problem holding humanity back, how to see its solution, and what it's going to take to bring about real change--all this remains a real question for those who protested this year at the SOA. And it is a most welcome sight to the proletariat to see these allies taking a stand against the government and on the side of the oppressed.