Reporter's Notebook

Marching Against the U.S. "School of Assassins"

Revolutionary Worker #1130, December 9, 2001, posted at

On November 17-18, over 10,000 people protested at the School of the Americas (SOA), located on the U.S. military base at Fort Benning, Georgia. The following is from a correspondent who took part in the protest.

As we drove into Columbus, Georgia, we saw that the town is pretty poor and barren--nothing much except fast food places, advertisements for high-interest loans, stores like Ranger Joe's selling military and law enforcement equipment, and lots of strip bars. We knew where we were--a U.S. military town.

We drove directly to the baseball stadium several miles from Fort Benning to check out the rally on Saturday. Entering the stadium, I was immediately struck by all the youth there. People had come from all over the country and from different countries, many from Latin America. There were all kinds of activists: nuns and priests from various Catholic orders, people from the faith community, students and youth from high schools and colleges, activists against capitalist globalization, people involved in the struggle of farm workers in Florida and North Carolina, Mumia activists, and many anti-war activists.

I sat down in the middle of a field of thousands of youth listening to speakers and music. A solidarity statement was read from Eva from Argentina, who is part of HIJOS Children for Identity and Justice against Oblivion and Silence. The group is made up of children of the disappeared, political prisoners, exiled people, and people murdered by the military dictatorships in Latin America. Eva said in her statement, "I still remember my mother lying on the street; her legs were covered in blood; I remember her asking us not to cry; telling us that everything was going to be okay. I remember them dragging her into a car while she was screaming. I remember them taking her away... We never saw our mom again. Our dad was kidnapped two years later..." The woman reading the statement broke down for a moment and then went on, "Thank you, all of you, for the risk that you are taking today. You are brave just like my mom was... You are my compañeros in this long walk home. I'm not alone. You are not alone, Eva."

Another speaker was Adriana Portillo-Bartow. Behind her on the stage were pictures of her two disappeared daughters: Glenda and Rosaura. Tears running down her face, she said, "I am a survivor of the war in Guatemala. I am also a mother who has, for the last 20 years, had to live without knowing the truth about the whereabouts of her two oldest daughters, 10 and 9 at the moment of their disappearance. My daughters, my little sister, my father, stepmother and one of my sisters-in-law were detained and disappeared by armed men, the military, who happened to be trained at the School of the Americas... The nine highest ranking military officers in Guatemala at the moment of the disappearance of my family had been trained at the School of the Americas. On September 11, 2001, I wept for my disappeared children and my father as I watched in horror. I wept for the relatives. I have known for most of my life the United States is right here responsible for what happened. I am very, very sorry and grieve for the people of the United States because now you know what it is like..." She quoted President Bush claiming that the U.S. is a "peaceful" country that will never tire of fighting for "democracy." Adriana then recited a long list of countries where the U.S. has carried out wars and military intervention. And she declared: "I demand this School of the Americas be shut down. Enough is enough."

Walking around, I ran into a student from India, an anti-war activist whom I had recently met. He told me, "I am just disgusted at the U.S. government for funding a terrorist organization. That's all you can call the School of the Americas is a terrorist organization, and it needs to be closed... This protest is important, this is part of building the movement. We need to put this in the media's face and let the government know we are not going to stop until you close this school, the school of assassins."

I saw Patrick O'Neil, an organizer from the Catholic Worker in Raleigh, NC, whom I had recently met at an antiwar rally. He said, "They were trying to discourage the action here this year. The base and the mayor tried to tell us: if you have any respect for the dead don't come. But it's because we have respect for the dead that we do come. Because the killing machine is not taking any break from their business--so why should the people who believe in alternatives to the violence not come? It would be irresponsible for us not be here in the midst of the terrorism we are trying to prevent."

I asked a Black student from Beloit College in Wisconsin, who is part of Spanish house there, why she found it important to come. She said, "I came to give my voice to a choir to make people aware that the School of the Americas does exist and we can't ignore it and that this is wrong and it needs to stop. What happened on September 11 and this, it's all connected. We all [from the Spanish house] came here because we really believe that [the SOA] is wrong. I spent two months in Bolivia and I lived on a farm with a family, and I have a 19-year-old soul brother there."

A youth from Massachusetts, who learned about the protest off the Internet and came on down, told me, "I think the current climate is glaringly hypocritical; the U.S. is supporting terrorism on one hand and saying they are fighting it with the other... [The authorities] are trying to take the steam out of what is going on in our movement by discouraging protest. I think some steam was lost because people are uncertain about the world right now, based on the fact that someone did something to America as opposed to America doing shit to others. I think the government is saying we shouldn't be involved now. It's ridiculous to say, 'Okay, you're right Mr. Bush, I'll get in line over here.' That's bullshit. Do I consider myself an American? By birth I have no choice, if you are going to go geographically. But I'll tell you, I don't have a flag hanging off my car."

I checked out the literature tables, including the School of the Americas Watch table which had information on the massacres committed by U.S.-backed militaries in Latin America and names of death-squad leaders trained at the School. Many other groups had tables, including Revolution Books from Atlanta. A Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade member at the Revolution Books table told me that many youth wanted to know about communism, and there were debates and discussions on many different issues.

A South Asian student told me about her views: "Now if you are a Muslim or born in the Middle East, you are going to be profiled. It makes me angry. Being a South Asian, along with other Asians, we were concerned the 'model minority'... I think we have to realize another fight has to be fought and another civil rights revolution has to come about. Something needs to happen again. Also, the environment now, where the police are given so much freedom now."

An RCYB woman at the Revolution Books table said, "I think it is important to have this kind of diversity--all kinds of people stepping out and being against this in a variety of ways. I think revolution is going to be the solution to get rid of all this. The day that America falls, people are going to be dancing in the streets, because America has blood on its hands from being behind these murderers all over the world and creating them, just like here in the School of the Americas."

Another Brigade member jumped in with his thoughts: "Right now lots of people are out there really debating, really discussing things. People are reacting and also seeking out answers. I've been a revolutionary for a couple of years and never seen anything like this. I have always heard about the '60s , the '70s. People ask me, 'Don't you wish you lived in the '60s or '70s?' I say, 'Hell, no. The '60s and '70s didn't have a revolution. But maybe our generation will.'"


After the rally ended, we went over to a motel where affinity groups and others were holding meetings. We were looking for people to hang out with, talk with, maybe hook up a place to stay for the night. The place was buzzing with all kinds of people and discussion. We came upon a young protester talking to a couple of young soldiers from the base who were staying at the motel. It seems the discussion started with one of the soldiers asking for a cigarette and then asking about the protest.

The discussion with the soldiers went into why--even though there was an attack on the U.S. by some group--a war by the U.S. is never in the interests of the people, including those who are in the army. People said what the U.S. is waging is a rich man's war, not a war to liberate the people. I talked about how during the Vietnam War, hundreds and hundreds of GIs deserted and mutinied--and how some even fought on the side of the Vietnamese. We also told them about Jeff Paterson and why he refused to go to war against people in Iraq. One of the soldier didn't talk much, but he smiled and said, "I understand what you are saying." The other said he was still for the war in Afghanistan. My YB friend told me that he was part of similar discussions with about 10 soldiers all told. He was excited that other protesters got involved in the discussions and that different points were made to expose the U.S. and the war in Afghanistan.

I talked to Betty, who was involved in the '60s and has been active off and on since then. She is someone who has never abandoned the vision of a just society. She was excited to meet me, someone involved in the struggle to bring about a revolutionary society. I told her about visiting China during the time it was a revolutionary socialist country under Mao's leadership--and also about my recent travels through the South discussing the Revolutionary Communist Party's new Draft Programme with various people.

I asked Betty about her reason for coming to the SOA protest. She pointed out that the U.S. government has been "training terrorists and supporting dictators who torture and murder people." She noted that the U.S. had backed bin Laden when he was fighting the Soviets. "So we allow the terror to go on if it is in our own interest. That is U.S. policy. Let's look at Noriega, El Salvador... I get a little sick of the headlines. Yes, [September 11] was a tragedy, but there are some U.S. policies that have to be addressed. Why are people mad in other countries? Why are Palestinian women picking up debris from bombs that are made in the United States? I have to look at the interconnections."

Another discussion was with three 18-year-old youth who came from a small city in Michigan. One said, "I don't like what SOA stands for, I don't like killing of innocent people, above all, I hate the idea that money rules the world." Another youth said, "I found out about four weeks ago that there is this school down south in Georgia that teaches people to go in other countries and kill. I said, 'What the hell is that? That's not right. Why would there be a school that trains killers?' "


The next morning, we all gathered along the road leading to the Fort Benning gate. By 9:30 a.m., there were already over 1,000 people there, mostly youth but also many older people. People began to line up and pick up crosses with the names of those killed by the death squads in Latin America trained at SOA. Some people there have come to the SOA protest for years--others were brand new to this action.

Speeches and statements were read. Actor Susan Sarandon sent a message: "I wish I could be there with you today. For I know you shall indeed end the cycle of oppression and genocide which is fueled by the School of the Americas. I add my voice to the voiceless on this day with you, for all to see."

Father Roy Bourgeois, who initiated the fight to close the SOA in 1990, said, "The poor of Latin America have suffered a long time. The new conquistadors are the World Trade Organization that exploit the people and enrich themselves. This school trains the enforcers of our foreign policy. Today we say, 'Not in our name will this continue.' We are here today to keep alive the memory of thousands of victims of our foreign policy and victims down the road. Today, we stand with them."

Several thousand people began to move in a funeral procession, carrying crosses, flowers and pictures of victims. As the names of the victims and their ages, if known, were solemnly sung from the stage, people said "Presente." Someone from the stage spoke about the thousands killed on September 11 at the World Trade Center, and someone else spoke about the unknown numbers of people killed by U.S. bombing in Afghanistan. Each time we chanted, "No Mas, No more!" As the march reached the barbed wire fence around Fort Benning, people stuck crosses and pictures of SOA victims in the fence.

At one point in the afternoon, I heard loud shouts of joy ring out when several protesters got inside the fence. The police ran after them and threw them to the ground. Before they were dragged away, the protesters read an indictment of the U.S. government. A few minutes later, we saw two older men inside the fence holding crosses. As military police came upon them, they dropped to the ground as if they had been killed. They were handcuffed and taken away. There was loud clapping, beating drums, and chants of "Shut it down! Shut it down!" as thousands crowded against the fence to show support for those going over the fence. About 80 protesters made it onto the grounds of the base that afternoon.

In the middle of all this, I ran into a young man active with La Resistancia who told me, "I'm from El Salvador, and at a young age I found out about SOA and what they did, not just in El Salvador but throughout Latin America. I didn't know about this event until this year. I made sure to come... The people have come together... There is a common cause, and the common cause is speaking for those without voices. And those voiceless people are not just those massacred in other countries. There are those who live in the U.S., and these people need to know there are people in this country that care about their situation, regardless of the flag they fly or the country they come from."

Earlier, as the procession was going on and the solemn chants of the names of the victims was heard through the crowd of thousands, I went up to two high school students sitting on a wall. I began talking to them, and one told me, "I was naive just how much this School of Americas had done... The number of people they've killed, I can't believe it." She was excited about the protest: "I can't believe how many people are here. It's unbelievable. It's really promising and gives me a lot of hope. All these people are here, and even if they came for different reasons, they are still going through it and hearing the names... Once you experience something like this, you can't say 'wow, that was cool' and go with your life and forget about it... As far as the government, I don't approve of anything they are doing right now. Like the food they are sending to Afghanistan, it's like, 'We'll bomb you and then send you food.'"

Just before we left, I walked to the gate and saw hundreds of youth setting up a "global village"--a place where they would stay with banners, drums, singing, and chanting. I looked one last time at the fence with the crosses of those tortured and killed by reactionary military forces trained by the U.S.--in order to protect the ability of U.S. imperialists to exploit the people and the resources in Latin America. I thought of the people of El Mozote, an entire village of 900 people in El Salvador massacred by death squads. I thought of Eva from Argentina and the horror she felt when she saw her mother bloodied on the street and then dragged into a car, never to be seen again.

Then I looked at the sign "Fort Benning" and thought to myself: "In a new society, people might keep the sign and the fence to show the youth that there was such a place that trained soldiers how to torture and kill people who were trying to escape the grip of exploitation and oppression. In that revolutionary society, people will have a hard time imagining such a social order as this one ever existed. But they will surely know that only capitalism could have shit like this go on and on, and they will know it took a revolutionary people rising up in their millions to do away with these horrors and build a new, liberated society."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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